A Performer Leaves the Field for the Stage
Issue   |   Fri, 05/22/2015 - 11:19
Photo courtesy of Bryce Monroe '15

I’ve stared at a blank word document for the past five days, stumped by how to frame Bryce Monroe’s life with a limited number of words while still doing justice to such an exceptional person. Whether he’s roaming the football stadium, singing with the Zumbyes or writing and acting in his own thesis play, Monroe always performs at a high standard. To me, his life sounds somewhat like that of Troy Bolton from “High School Musical,” — although Monroe would probably laugh at me for flattering him and dismiss the compliment with a simple, “I’ve been blessed.” Regardless of what he thinks, here is a fan trying to paint a picture of a true star.

Athlete by Day, Zumbye by Night

Before coming to college, Monroe was sports-driven, playing football, basketball and baseball year-round. Naturally, he factored his athletic career into his college decision and chose Amherst to continue playing football.

“Bryce experienced a lot of success early,” his father, Mark Monroe said. “He was selected to numerous all-city football and baseball teams, earned many AAU basketball championships and won the Super Series World Series in baseball in the seventh grade. He continued to compete athletically in high school, where he was a member of the state championship baseball team, captained the basketball and football teams and was named to the all-county and all-conference football teams as a senior.”

Monroe’s passion didn’t stop at sports, however. Upon his arrival at Amherst, he immediately began to search for opportunities to showcase his other talents. His father said Monroe was also a natural performer, always enraptured by music videos or television shows as a child, and that “he would repeat scenes for us, dress up in character and perform a favorite scene or song, every line perfectly delivered in tone, tempo and feeling.”

During the summer before he came to Amherst, he met Jake Samuels ’13, who encouraged him to audition for the Zumbyes. Monroe had never been a serious performer but had always been singing, having taken piano and vocal lessons as a kid. On a whim, he auditioned just for the Zumbyes, not knowing what other a cappella groups even existed on campus, and he was accepted.

After spending four years in the group, Monroe said of the other members, “Those guys are my brothers. [The Zumbyes have] been the most consistent part of my four years at Amherst. We’ve grown together, learned together, got on each other’s nerves together, fought together, got over those fights together and loved together.”

Monroe recognized that balancing football and a cappella wouldn’t be a piece of cake. Football required multiple practices and lifts every day, while the Zumbyes required the demanding commitment of regular rehearsals and gigs.

“We had issues with scheduling all the time, and I had to miss some gigs for games,” Monroe said. “Because of my football practices, we would even have rehearsals at midnight. Managing those two things was really difficult, but that was my way of getting assimilated into freshman year.”

Soon enough, Monroe found himself balancing the life of a varsity athlete on one hand and the life of a performer on the other. Eventually, after two and a half years of playing football at Amherst, Monroe made the difficult decision to leave the team.

“I miss the guys and I miss playing, of course, but I never defined myself as an athlete — it was what I loved doing,” he said. “But I saw that I was also many other things. [Leaving the team] opened up everything I’ve done since then.”

Changing Direction

By all means, Monroe didn’t arrive at Amherst expecting to just play football and sing all the time. He was also a student, and he was very aware of that. In fact, he came to Amherst already convinced that he was going to be a French and law, jurisprudence and social thought double major. He jam-packed his first-year schedule with taxing LJST courses.

By his sophomore year, Monroe realized he no longer wanted to pursue those majors and instead turned to psychology, since he had always been “interested in how people think and behave.” The changes in his life did not stop there.

During the spring semester of his sophomore year, Monroe became intrigued by acting and auditioned for a senior’s thesis play. He said he enjoyed playing the role of a messenger for a non-government organization that is involved in the business of assassination.

“After acting in the play, I got bit by the bug and auditioned for a musical Will Savino ’14 wrote, called ‘Dead Serious,’” Monroe said. Inspired by this newfound passion, declared a theater and dance major during his junior year.

“With the Zumbyes, we all know that Bryce is an amazing performer, and it’s so impressive how versatile he can be,” his best friend and fellow Zumbye Stuart McKenzie ’16 said. “I feel like Bryce spends just as much time singing as he does speaking. There’s a running joke with the Zumbyes that you can never let him near a mic stand [because] otherwise he just goes off in his own world for a while.”

The Lower Frequencies

Part of the reason Monroe decided to become a theater and dance major was to write a play for his senior thesis. By then, he had realized his true belonging to the stage as a performer and was determined to write and act in his own senior thesis as his final milestone at Amherst.

His thesis was originally going to be an extension of a play he had previously written for a class.

“It was a western-inspired play with this crazy middle-aged man, with an interesting background, and two escape convicts. They travel through the desert and encounter this character through a chance meeting,” Monroe said. He left his adviser meeting in the spring of his junior year, boldly declaring this idea as his senior thesis.

And then he started watching the news in the next coming months.

Monroe began to closely follow the Trayvon Martin case and the events in Ferguson, which prompted him to change his mind about his thesis. He said he simply couldn’t ignore the current state of the black experience in America.

“There is a certain story that needs to be told about the black experience in America, and I, as a theater major, artist and black male, had the opportunity to tell this story, or at least a story, about experiencing America as a black man in the black community,” he said.

Monroe abandoned his previous plan and decided to combine his own experience with Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel “Invisible Man” to write his thesis play. Titled “The Lower Frequencies,” Monroe’s play is a narrative about the inconsistency between the black experience and the American Dream, and the socioeconomic injustices that suppress the black community in the United States.

Monroe’s show was wildly successful. “I was mindful of the audience reaction to what they were witnessing,” Monroe’s mother, Pamela, recounted. “I listened to the silence in the auditorium that the intensity of Bryce’s performance commanded. I heard the laughter, the crying, the shocking gasps and I saw the tears and the look of awe on the faces of the people. And for me, it was a transformative experience. It was so clear. We no longer saw our son, standing on stage taking his final bow — we saw the actor, writer, performer he was meant to be.”

What Next?

Monroe is interested in pursuing an acting career. He had his first taste of media spotlight during his sophomore year, when he was on New England Sports Network’s College Face Off.

Following his debut on television, Monroe had another opportunity to be under the media spotlight when he auditioned for “Be a Voice VIP,” a branch of the hit national singing contest “The Voice” on NBC. The competition was for D.C. locals, and out of thousands of submissions, Monroe was selected as one of 25 semi-finalists. Of the 25 videos posted online, his submission received a sweeping number of votes and Monroe was invited to perform in front of a panel of local judges at the NBC studio in D.C.

Monroe confessed that a memorable part of this experience was when the Voice crew came to his house to film a “behind the scenes” segment. “They put make up on me and I would be like ‘Mom, I’m pretty — I look so good’ and my mom said ‘No’ and made me take it off immediately,” Monroe said, bursting into laughter.

He performed a week later and didn’t end up winning, but he still looks back at this experience fondly, as he always wanted to be on television as a kid. While he still wants to pursue this dream, Monroe believes that he needs to go to stage first.

“If you want to be good at your craft, you don’t want to be just famous,” Monroe said. “Your grassroots are in the theater. When you perform live in front of people, there’s an energy you get from being in front of people, and there’s a certain caliber of performer you need to be to do that. And you get to be humble and prepare yourself.”

Professor of Theater and Dance Wendy Woodson recalled being impressed by Monroe’s stage presence the first time she saw him perform.

“ I was struck by his passionate, palpable enthusiasm for performance — he stood out in all the best ways. Bryce belongs on the stage,” she said.

The first item on Monroe’s agenda is to move forward with his thesis performance. His goal is to make the show more portable for tour, and the theater and dance department has responded by having the college invite Monroe back in the fall to perform again in the Powerhouse and film the play.

Monroe has also developed a close friendship with an assistant professor at Central Connecticut State University, who ended up attending his show. In the weeks following the show, Monroe, as he calls it, “serendipitously” ran into the same professor again at a segment called “Black in the Valley” on Bill Newman’s radio show. Monroe was invited to discuss his play, and while he was waiting for his segment, a stranger approached him and exclaimed, “You are Bryce Monroe!” From this unexpected meeting developed another opportunity to perform his play at CCSU.

Knowing early on his senior year that he wanted to dedicate a large part of his life to his show, Monroe applied to an Amherst College fellowship called the Edward Poole Lay fellowship, which is awarded to “people of unique and unusual ability and voice in music,” as Monroe puts it. He won the fellowship, which will fund the development of his thesis into a professional production.

“Things fell into place,” Monroe said in awe. “It’s not the experience I foresaw for myself before I came here, but it’s the one that I am absolutely appreciative of. I’m frightened for what is to come because it’s the unknown, but I’m excited about the opportunities that I have.”