By Patrick Winderl/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
Next month, for the first time ever, the controversial and award-winning play "The Vagina Monologues" will be performed in Havre.
Billed as an opportunity to celebrate women and stop domestic and sexual violence, the production, organizers say, will increase community awareness while raising money for local and international rights organizations.
"The Vagina Monologues" has received critical acclaim but has also drawn protests from some groups that believe its content is too graphic. The play includes stories from women around the world who have been victims of domestic violence, rape, incest, and genital mutilation.
Despite that, the message is both inspiring and uplifting, organizers say.
"The message of the play is not to shock, but is one of hope and healing for women," said Pam Veis, who worked with two local service organizations to bring the play to Havre. "The role for women is to move past being a victim. It's a very positive message."
The play's performance in Havre will coincide with V-Day, a global campaign aimed at changing social attitudes toward violence against women. The "V" in V-Day stands for victory, valentine and vagina. During V-Day, which is set for Feb. 14, women will mobilize in communities and on college campuses around the world to educate others about the realities of violence against women and girls.
V-Day is also the name of a nonprofit organization founded by Eve Ensler, who wrote "The Vagina Monologues." The organization has raised more than $20 million since its inception six years ago and was voted one of the 100 best charities by Worth Magazine. Through V-Day, local volunteers and college students produce annual benefit performances of "The Vagina Monologues."
Proceeds from the play fund local anti-violence groups, and a percentage goes to a program of V-Day's choosing.
Service workers at District IV Human Resources Development Council and Montana State University-Northern's ReSPONSE program were the driving forces behind the effort to bring V-Day and "The Vagina Monologues" to Havre. ReSPONSE is a campus-based agency that provides education about relationship violence and refers victims to other local service organizations. It was funded last year through a U.S. Department of Justice grant.
With the help of the Montana Actors' Theatre, HRDC and ReSPONSE will host "The Vagina Monologues" on three consecutive nights on MSU-N's campus Feb. 19-21. The play is only part of the local V-Day campaign. Other events include the sharing of information and statistics about domestic and sexual violence, an art exhibit that includes work by MSU-N students, a prayer vigil and a ceremony honoring local women for their efforts to curb violence.
One of the women to be honored will be Judy Goemke, Veis said.
"From what I understand, she and a group of women started an advocacy group from their church that identified women along the Hi-Line who were in high-risk situations and abusive relationships," Veis said. "This was back before many of the agencies we have now. They basically established a secret shelter. They often went to farmhouses during very dangerous situations without police protection to help women who had been victimized."
Veis and ReSPONSE administrator Deb LaTray said they believe many people in Havre and the surrounding communities are in the dark about the prevalence and consequences of domestic and sexual violence.
"The percentages are pretty high. We have good services here, but I'm not sure that the community as a whole is aware of the consequences that abuse brings," Veis said.
LaTray said ReSPONSE is dedicated to helping women at MSU-N who've been victimized by relationship violence and stalking. The organization has helped four women in the last year, she said, adding that some women may be reluctant to come forward out of shame or fear of getting in trouble. Sexual assaults are often accompanied by alcohol or drug use, she said, meaning some victims fear legal repercussions for reporting incidents.
"It doesn't matter to our department whether you're under the influence of anything or embarrassed about anything," LaTray said. "We're here to help and not be judgmental."
A total of 15 local women are involved in production of "The Vagina Monologues." Some are MAT veterans and others have no acting experience. They range in age from 16 to 60.
The performances will take place in the Student Union Building ballroom and start at 8 p.m. each night. General admission for the Feb. 19 and Feb. 20 shows will be $8 for students and $12 for nonstudents. The Feb. 21 performance will be a special fund-raiser for V-Day. Tickets will be $12 for students, and $25 for nonstudents. Groups may reserve tables of up to 10 seats.
Of the proceeds generated by the play, 70 percent will go to the local domestic violence shelter, 20 percent will go to ReSPONSE, and 10 percent will go to fund the Juarez Project. The human rights project is a collaborative effort with Amnesty International to intervene in Juarez, Mexico, where more than 300 women and girls have been killed or have disappeared in the last decade.
According to a press release describing V-Day efforts, "there has not been significant progress in providing protection to the women of Juarez or in bringing the perpetrators to justice."
Veis and LaTray said they were unsure what reaction "The Vagina Monologues" will receive during its Havre debut. Both said they have not heard from anyone who opposes it.
"So far I have received some surprised responses," Veis said. "Most have been pretty supportive once they hear what the mission of V-Day is all about. They put it on in the Middle East last year - Turkey and Afghanistan. If that area of the world can handle it, my belief is that Havre can as well. That was very inspiring for me to know that women in the Middle East put it on and risked their lives, basically."
Much of the opposition to the play in other communities has come from religious organizations.
The Rev. Rodney Mruk, president of the Havre Ministerial Association, said Thursday he was unaware that "The Vagina Monologues" will be performed in Havre and that the association has not discussed the play's content.
Veis said she hopes the community will respond in a positive manner.
"For the first year, I would like to see an increased awareness of the high incidence of abuse and the effect that it has on its victims and the hope that there is for people to come out of those abusive relationships," she said.
Veis attended a conference in Las Vegas hosted by playwright Ensler. Ensler traveled the world listening to the stories of women and then compiled those stories into the "Monologues." During the conference in Las Vegas, Ensler offered guidance to other women who planned to organize V-Day events in their own communities.
"I wasn't sure what to expect, but she impressed me as one of the most compassionate people I have met," Veis said. "She made me very enthusiastic about the project because she as a person is very selfless, and while listening to her, you get the impression that she's truly doing this for social reasons, not for herself.
"She talked about how to handle adversity. She basically just said strive on."
Veis said it is easy to see why "The Vagina Monologues" has spawned a global effort to stop violence against women.
"The energy that these women have generated is amazing. I hope that that can continue, because they really are in it for the right reasons," she said. "It is a performance, but the meaning behind the performance is much, much bigger."