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Local Women Share Their Stories At Story Days In Tampa Bay

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WUSF/Naomi Prioleau
Participants Rosalyn Connelly and Marika Robinson take part in a question and answer session with actresses Andrida Hosey and Elizabeth Bonni while Your Real Stories founder Jaye Sheldon moderates.

On a rainy Monday night in St. Petersburg, from the comfort of their seats in the front row, Rosalyn Connelly and Marika Robinson saw their life stories unfold before an audience of strangers.

The show at the American Stage Theatre, was a part of the third annual "Story Days in Tampa Bay" festival earlier this month.

Actress Andrida Hosey told Connelly’s story of leaving her all-black high school in the early 1970s.

“In my 12th grade year, it was the mandatory desegregation of schools in Pinellas County and I was sent to Lakewood High,” Hosey said as Connelly. “I was in the honors society at Gibbs but when I came to Lakewood, 

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American Sign Language interpreter, Elizabeth Sherwood signs for audience members who are deaf, during Andrida Hosey's monologue of St. Petersburg resident Rosalyn Connelly.

they were telling me I didn't qualify for the honors society.”

Hosey described Connelly’s interaction with discrimination upon arriving at Lakewood.

“A lot of us were already inducted and had to prove our way through,” she said. "...Well guess what? I got in.”

Connelly said she had participated in storytelling events before and every time, found it interesting to see how the actor transformed her story.

“The highlights the ups and downs and everything I've experienced, having been a native of St. Petersburg and staying in the Tampa Bay area, it's just wonderful to see,” she said.

Your Real Stories, a nonprofit group that collects the stories of local residents, helped share Connelly's story. Founders Lillian Dunlap and Jaye Sheldon spend up to four hours interviewing volunteer participants before creating scripts to bring the stories to life. Dunlap said their goal is to connect people.

“What's important to us is that people hear other people's stories,” she said. “However they can hear it, that's how we want to present it.”

The other monologue of the night, began in the former Czechoslovakia. Marika Robinson, who is deaf, shared with the audience her experience of coming to America to pursue higher education.

Like Robinson, actress Elizabeth Bonni used sign language to communicate to the American Stage audience, with Carrie Moore assisting as an interpreter. Bonni  explained how an accident led to Robinson's deafness when she was 2-years-old, and how a doctor believed her future would be limited becuase of the disability.

“And my mother asked him, what does that (deafness) mean?” Bonni asked in her portrayal of Robinson. “And the doctor said deaf means that when she grows up that she will never be successful.”

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Actress Elizabeth Bonni, standing, performs the story of local resident Marika Robinson, while Carrie Moore interprets.

But Robinson was smart and excelled at school in Czechoslovakia, yet she still faced barriers to getting into college.

It wasn't until Robinson came to the United States when she was 37 that she said she was able to pursue her dream of higher education after encouragement from friends.

“I felt like a grandma compared to all these kids,” Bonni, the actress, told the audience.  “Me? College? And they told me, this is America. Go to college.”

After the performance, Robinson said that sharing
her story is a part of advocating for people who are deaf. Elizabeth Shedlock served as an interpreter for audience members who do not understand American Sign Language. (Editors note: a previous version of this story misidentified Shedlock.)

“Now, I can do something to impact the deaf community here,” Robinson said. “I can teach interpreters to go out and be an influence in others’ lives here in this country and Canada.”

Sheldon, one of the Your Real Stories founders, said including everyday people in storytelling events is critical.

“I’m very, very conscious of what a precious gift it is for someone in a position not of power to allow themselves to be vulnerable and to let you into their story,” she said. 

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