"You want me to say what in where?"
That's the reaction director Kelli Poward got when she told her actors where they'd be staging this year's production of The Vagina Monologues.
To be fair, a church is not a place where one typically says the word "vagina," in a loud and proud way, or at all. But when Eve Ensler—creator of the 1996 episodic play that focuses on different women's accounts of consensual and nonconsensual sexual experiences, body image, genital mutilation, direct and indirect encounters with reproduction, sex work, and more—put out the call to stage The Vagina Monologues in unexpected places this year, Poward immediately though of St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in San Luis Obispo. She knew the Rev. Ian Delinger, who presides over the congregation there, through their mutual work with the Access Support Network.
"He's an awesome human," Poward said. "So I thought, 'Cool, I'm going to do it at his church.'"
Since its inception, The Vagina Monologues has been turned into a television depiction by HBO and its creator Ensler launched V-Day, a global nonprofit movement that has raised more than $100 million for groups working to end violence against women and girls through productions of the play, which are always performed on Feb. 14.
Delinger wasn’t too familiar with the play but talked out the idea with Poward over a glass of wine, and together they agreed to hold the play in the church’s sanctuary/worship space since the hall is currently full with the people from the CAPSLO homeless shelter overflow.
“How do I justify doing this?” Delinger said. “The church is about reconciliation and supporting the downtrodden and oppressed. The church also has a history of oppressing and marginalizing women, which is inconsistent with our theology.”
This year, Feb. 14 isn’t just Valentine’s Day; it’s also Ash Wednesday, an important day of repentance for the church. That coincidence seemed fitting to Delinger.
“As Christians, it is appropriate for us to honor women by hearing their stories,” he said.
While talks of doing the play at the church began before the deluge of #metoo stories flooded the country with tales of women facing sexual harassment and assault, Delinger said it was important for the church to send a message of support to women.
“We’re sorry, and we believe women must be treated better,” Delinger said.
The performance will also include monologues from notable people in the public eye, like SLO Mayor Heidi Harmon and Bishop Mary Gray-Reeves, who presides over the diocese that St. Stephen’s is a part of.
“I thought it was courageous of the congregation to consider this,” Gray-Reeves said. “It’s not a typical use of a sanctuary.”
The bishop’s solo monologue will focus on a story from her own childhood. When Gray-Reeves was in middle school, a male substitute teacher found out her middle name was Ethel and said to her and the rest of the classroom, “What are we going to do, pump Ethel all day?” The double entendre for pumping gas and engaging in intercourse got big laughs from the boys in class, Gray-Reeves remembers.
“In that encounter, I learned to be complicit, to be ashamed of my name and body, and most of all to be silent,” Gray-Reeves said. “How is it that we even learn this behavior and learn to look the other way?” ∆
Arts Editor Ryah Cooley supports shining a light in dark places. Contact her at email@example.com.