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Sex, gender issues examined on, off campus

Kate Antonacci | Thursday, March 1, 2007

Against the backdrop of a stark shamrock green wall hung a simple white banner reading “V-Day, Reclaiming Peace 2007.”

Though the room was modest, the message was strong as the 27 “Vagina Monologues” cast members took to the stage Wednesday night in their first production of the year at South Bend’s First Unitarian Church – their new off-campus venue.

Despite the relatively low turnout of 50 to 60 people, organizer Michelle Lewis said she was “really, really happy with the way it went.” Director Sarah Muscarella said she thought Wednesday would be the least popular night, but saw the effect of the move off campus.

“I think we would definitely have a higher number if it were on campus,” she said.

Though not at the 120-person maximum occupancy, the room was filled with a number of Notre Dame students. But also seated in some of the six pews and seven rows of chairs were members of the greater South Bend community, who were in attendance thanks largely to the off-campus venue, Muscarella said.

She also said that group of local adults came to watch the show from Dismas House, a local nonprofit organization that provides transitional housing and support services to men and women who have been recently released from prison or jail.

This year’s performance had no affiliation with the University and was held off campus because organizers were unable to obtain sponsorship from different academic departments on campus.

Though last year’s “Monologues” took place in an academic setting – performed in a classroom in DeBartolo Hall – a whirlwind of debate followed the play when the consistency of the message with the University’s Catholic character was questioned. Following weeks of debate about academic freedom, University Father John Jenkins decided that the “The Vagina Monologues” would be allowed on campus but needed to obtain sponsorship and approval just like any other campus event.

“Father Jenkins liked it last year,” Muscarella said. “I talked to him about it.”

Last year, however, Jenkins did question the “graphic” ways the play attempted to achieve its goals.

Still, after being performed on campus for six consecutive years as part of the anti-violence against women V-Day campaign, the off-campus setting was a change – but one that organizers said actually turned out well.

The group raised $235 Wednesday, and nearly all of the funds from the three performance nights will go to the YWCA of St. Joseph County, which has the only overnight shelter in the county, Lewis said.

“I feel like it has a bigger purpose because we’re allowed to raise money,” Muscarella said.

Written by American playwright and feminist activist Eve Ensler, part of the play’s intent is to donate money to local women’s charities.

“The Vagina Monologues,” which began in 1996 as an off-Broadway production, is an episodic, theatrical performance featuring a cast of women sharing experiences and views on the female reproductive organ. The monologues were written after Ensler conducted more than 200 interviews with all different kinds of women.

Of those monologues, Muscarella said that “My Little Coochie Snorcher that Could” – which features a 16-year old girl’s lesbian encounter – is among the more controversial skits.

“But I think often [people] overlook some of the more meaningful ones,” she said.

Though the play remains relatively the same each year, author Ensler usually writes an additional skit to be performed, like this year’s “I Was There in the Room.” A monologue about Native American women – called “Crooked Braid” – was an optional selection this year, Muscarella said.

Also included were “harmless references” to Notre Dame, she said.

“It felt great seeing different reactions to different parts that I wasn’t expecting,” said senior Ashley Mitchell, who performed the monologue “The Woman Who Loved to Make Vaginas Happy,” which she called “exhilarating.”

Mitchell said the play’s message is about “awareness and letting people know that they’re not alone.”

She also said the goal serves to provoke discussion – something that happens more when the play is held on campus.

Still, Lewis said she is pleased with the off-campus venue.

“I think it’s kind of amazing that the first three rows are pews,” she said.

Senior Hamsa Subramaniam, who has seen the show before, said she was “really impressed.

“All the women in the show are just so strong,” she said. “It’s a shame that it couldn’t be on campus.”