Southbridge High School Alumna lives and works in New York City, Los Angeles
📸 Shaun Moriarty photos.
The following is the commencement speech given by Mfonsio Udofia at the Southbridge High School graduate on June 7, 2019. Udofia is an accomplished and dynamic playwright, actress, television writer, and artist who graduated from Southbridge High School in 2002. Upon graduating from SHS, Udofia went on to Wellesley College for undergraduate studies and then received her Master’s Degree in Acting from the American Conservatory Theater. She is the author of several critically acclaimed plays and has written for both television and theater. Udofia was the recipient of the 2017 Helen Merrill Playwright Award and the 2017-2018 McKnight National Residency and Commission at The Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis. You can learn more about Udofio’s work and professional background at www.mfonsioudofia.com. Her speech to Southbridge High School graduates follows in its entirety.
Hello to the Southbridge High School Graduating Class of 2019.
I will admit that it feels a little strange to be standing up here in front of you today. It feels strange because…
I still vividly recall early morning Student Council meetings and setting agendas for discussion. I remember the year I joined cross-country even though I had absolutely no capacity for endurance running. I also remember the year I joined the JV basketball team and discovered that, not only was I incapable of running, I was a truly dodgy shot. I also remember sitting in jazz band where I was surrounded by my friends. I loved it because, in jazz band, the music got harder and the speed was faster, yet the class was somehow still more relaxed. At least that’s how it felt to me.
It feels strange to be up here because I don’t feel too much like an adult. I still remember Southbridge High School.
But then I realize, that the teachers I went to school with… you might not know all of them. Our reference points are probably incredibly different. I am not sure if you still have those small circle pizzas once a week for lunch. Or if you still have raucous, huge study halls in the cafeteria. I know things have to have changed because even the school buildings we created all our high school memories within are different. You all are in a new building, one I have not even been inside yet.
So something has happened.
Once I was asked to give this commencement speech, I looked back and counted time.
Time has passed.
17 years to be precise. I was a member of the Southbridge High School’s graduating class of 2002. You all are members of the graduating class of 2019.
That is a substantial amount of time.
Today, I’m bi-coastal. I life half the year in New York, and the other half of the year I live in Los Angeles. I am a trained actress. I obtained my Master’s Degree in Acting from the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. I pivoted away from acting as a career and went backstage and behind the camera. I now work full time as a professional writer. I have had my stage plays produced 3 times off-Broadway and 5 times regionally and I am gearing up to return off-Broadway with 2 new shows this Fall. I have also written for TV. I helped write on the 3rd season of 13 Reasons Why which will probably drop in the near future, and on two of Apple TV’s new TV shows, Little America and Pachinko. In fact, I traveled back to my hometown, here, from my home in New York to give this speech.
My current reality is very different from my vivid memories of jazz band and cross-country and circle pizzas.
So that means… even though, most days, it doesn’t feel like I grew up, somehow I did.
Time runs relentlessly forward, and each time you are placed in a position to look back and count your time, I suspect you will want to be able to count your time joyously. You might never feel like a grown-up. That’s fine. But, whether or not you do, each time you look back on yourself… I hope you are able to count your positive change.
And how do you do that?
How did I do that?
How did I grow up, how do you grow up?
How do you grow up and like what you grow up into?
How do you prepare yourself to look back on your time, and count it with joy?
I know that there are many, many, many ways to answer these questions. I can only tell you the way that worked for me.
The reason I believe I am able to look back on my time and mostly count it in joy is because:
- I exhaust my present life.
- I admit I am scared when I am scared so that I don’t stay scared and dare to fail forward.
- I surround myself with love.
And I repeat.
I left Southbridge knowing very keenly what people said about Southbridge. I got to school and it felt to me, like what people said about Southbridge followed me. I wasn’t smart enough for college, I wasn’t rich enough for college, I wasn’t cosmopolitan enough for college. I wasn’t. I wasn’t. I wasn’t.
It became so exhausting, I almost didn’t leave my Wellesley College dorm room. Then a Dean said some words which helped steer my life again. You can be tired from just knowing you’re not good enough and spinning stories in your own mind, or… you can be exhausted from doing the thing you love and feeling the depletion from a day well spent. She told me to see if I could positively exhaust my present life. Then, she wanted me to come back in and see if I was still tired.
I thought she didn’t make any sense and was talking in riddles. But I kinda liked her. She had a nice face, so I took her up on her challenge.
I joined clubs that brought me joy. I sang. I danced I acted. I took political science classes that didn’t make want to tear hair out. I avoided math. I went to meetings. I joined the Black Student Union. I joined the African Student Union. I joined student government. I took geology…which I really liked. I loved environmental studies and I loved learning about rocks. I volunteered. I exhausted my life. And the Dean was right. It was exhausting. I was still exhausted. But I wanted to wake up after I got rest from that exhaustion and do it all over again. And again and again. Somehow… I had rotated myself from unproductive exhaustion into energized productivity.
And I made this ethic a part of me. At Wellesley when I discovered I loved theater…I produced plays freelance. I adapted a play from a book. I applied to theater school in the summer. I became chairwoman of the Black Arts Committee. I did a professional play while in school at the Stuart Street Playhouse. I got my first professional credit…while in school!
When I graduated it continued. I enrolled at American Conservatory Theater and dedicated my life to my art. I trained 13 hours a day, 6 days a week. In acting. I loved it.
I was exhausting my life. And I never felt better.
And then I graduated from grad school and immediately had to learn other skills. Like how to admit I was scared and dare to fail forward.
Because the real world is nothing like school.
It was 2009. You all might not have great memory of this time but we were in the middle of the Great Recession. I couldn’t get work. Not as an actress, not for temp-work, not at McDonald’s. No one… no one was hiring. I cobbled together unstable gig-like part-time work. I babysat. I worked sample sale retail [which are pop retail stores that sell high-end goods, but don’t stay around long]. I was a personal assistant. I did almost anything and everything to make ends meet in New York.
And it got dark. It was hard to see. I did not know if the decision I made for my life was the right one. And I was scared.
I was also still going on audition after audition while holding these gig-like jobs and never booking….
I was despondent. And I was scared. Scared for the trajectory of my life and unable to handle how much personal failure had been stacking up since I graduated.
But a friend told me, “You can be scared Mfoniso. You just have to say you’re scared. Then you won’t be scared anymore. And you can fail, Mfoniso. You probably will. You just have to make sure that the next day, when you start again, you position yourself a little ahead from the point where you failed. And it’ll probably get better.”
It’s such profound simple advice, it sounded stupid to me. Like that’s not how things work. And so I continued on the path I was on. Scared silly and thinking I was a failure. Until I almost hit rock bottom. I had maybe $200 in my bank account, rent was due, there was mouse in my Washington Heights apartment and I had no idea where food was coming from. I was on another audition, and I could tell from the temperature in the audition room I was not going to get the part. I was so low I just decided to take the first part of my friend’s advice in the moment.
I was scared. So I told the producer and the director, “I am scared, because I know actresses aren’t supposed to ask questions about the audition process but…”
The director immediately told me not to be scared. To just ask. So OK. So I asked my question. “If I don’t book this part, why did you not choose me?” Or something like that. The director told me the truth. “You’re very good Mfoniso. You don’t look right for the part.”
That was a dose of clarity. Reality and clarity. I went home and I looked at all the people who booked all the auditions I didn’t book. They didn’t look like me. I don’t know how to change my face or my body type. So….OK. If knowledge is power…what do I do? I decided to take the second part of my friend’s advice since the first part helped get my clarity. I would fail forward… my tomorrow, could not look the same.
I started writing. I started writing roles for me to act in because I couldn’t I find already-written plays for me to audition for that I would be right in. I staged readings in my own house of the plays I wrote and I invited those directors and producers who didn’t cast me in their plays, because I didn’t fit and…
My writing career took off underneath my feet. When a director told me they wanted to do my play, and wanted to know if I wanted to be in it…I looked up and… realized I could… but I loved the writing so much more. I was writing so that people like me could, if I stopped writing the parts would dry up again. I found my calling… I had to keep writing.
I was back on track.
And perhaps the most important of all… was … I surrounded myself with love. I surrounded myself with people who reflected ideals I aspired to… so that if I slipped up they could remind me. And if I succeeded they could cheer me on. For me, that’s a moment that thought I could do anything. Siblings who always come to support me in any and all endeavors. My friends from Southbridge High who cheer me on. Teachers from Southbridge High who check in on me. My Wellesley Dean who gave me the piece of life advice I have passed on to you about exhausting your life. A best friend who encourages me to admit when I’m scared and to fail forward. I keep love around me, all throughout. And I know it’s hokey but…love can and will actually pick you up.
Now I know that not all of you will take a path like mine.
Some of you might pursue the hallowed halls of learning and steep yourself in intellectualisms.
Some of you will take the artist’s path.
Some of you might doggedly pursue a trade.
Some of you are entrepreneurs.
Some of you will make families.
Some of you belong to the service.
Some of you will remain in America.
Some of you might build out of this country, maybe overseas.
There are so many paths, I cannot name them all. But I do know, it won’t always be easy. I grew up during the Great Recession… I don’t know what your Great Obstacle will be.
But I know that this day, for you, is a sort of beginning. You will leave here and start determining a path for your life. I hope you exhaust yourself. I hope you admit you are scared instead of pretending you are not. I hope none of you stay in terrified places for too long. I hope you dare to fail forward, and never let failure keep you at the same place at which you failed. I hope you surround yourself with love. So that when you look back from this moment right now, your graduation… maybe in 5 years, maybe in 10, maybe in 17… you too can have tipped your scales in the direction you want, and you can count time, and count success, and count joy… no matter the path you choose.
That is my wish for you, you dynamic, bold class of 2019. From one Southbridge High Graduate to another… May you become the wildest measure of your dreams. See you in 5, 10…17 years.