For more than 20 years, just the title of Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues” has stoked both controversy and thoughtful discussion. But just like attitudes towards the show’s title have changed, the same goes for the topics explored on stage each year at the Tri-Valley Haven theater production.
This year’s show at the Bankhead Theater in Livermore will raise proceeds for Tri-Valley Haven's domestic violence and sexual assault services.
It’s been half a decade since Eleisa Cambra last directed one of Tri-Valley’s “Vagina Monologues” productions but “this is just such a good time to do it,” with the MeToo movement in full swing, she told the Weekly. Cambra, who has a degree in theater stage management, first became involved about a decade ago when she was approached by her friend Christine Dillman, Tri-Valley Haven director of sexual assault services.
“She said they were thinking about doing the ‘Vagina Monologues’ but didn’t have anybody to do it and I said, ‘Jackpot, I’ll do it for you,’” Cambra recalled. Since then, Cambra has directed “several” productions for Tri-Valley Haven.
The gains that women have made since the show’s debut several decades ago are highlighted, but so are some updated statistics that “make sure that people understand things aren’t changing or getting worse,” particularly for women of color. Native American women facing abuse on reservations and the Japanese “comfort women” who were forced into sexual slavery during World War II are some of the pieces in the show touching on relevant but overlooked issues. “It’s really important for men and women to come and see the show because there’s some funny stuff, but then there’s some really poignant things about what’s going on,” Cambra said.
From puberty to childbirth and gender discrimination, Vicki Thompson, one of the show’s 16 actresses, said that her role in “The Vagina Monologues” sometimes parallels her work as the director of domestic violence services at Tri-Valley Haven because “speaking out about things that very seldom get spoken about in public” plays a central role for both.
“It’s shining a light on things that are issues for so many people,” Thompson said. “‘The Monologues’ are quite a range...but all of them touch on common experiences that many women have had and never speak about. It kind of opens it up for people to start talking about them more, the real world, and maybe making change.”
With the MeToo movement now at full momentum, Thompson and other staff members said this is an important time in history for women and “The Vagina Monologues” is another powerful vehicle for sparking more discourse. “This year my vagina is very angry (in) all kinds of ways about tampons, about GYN visits and feminine hygiene sprays,” she said. “I get to really act out, I get to swear about all of that.”
Ann King, Tri-Valley Haven executive director, said in an interview that she and other staffers are optimistic about the show’s ability to provoke and encourage change at both the cultural and personal level. “We’re hoping this brings more people to come listen to the show because they’re wanting to relate and they’re learning more,” King said. “So the MeToo movement has really gotten people having conversations and speaking out and we’ve always been about that.”
The MeToo movement has given many survivors of sexual assault or domestic violence the confidence to share their trauma with others. Dillman said many have recently been “driven to talk because it brought back trauma” but also because they sensed solidarity among its members.
“Sexual violence is so prevalent but survivors feel so alone,” Dillman said. “Hearing that, that, ‘Wow, I’m not alone, people stand with me, people support me,’ that’s just great because that’s what we do as an agency, so we really appreciate the movement for that reason.”
Several of the women in the show are abuse survivors, according to Cambra, “so just to watch them transform...it helps these women heal and change and grow. It’s amazing to watch.”
“It helps me heal and it helps me help other women heal,” Cambra said about her own past abuse and how it influences her experience directing the play. “It helps me to empower other women and this year it’s about warrior women and the men that back us up, our allies.”
There are detractors of MeToo but for those who come and fill up the Bankhead’s 1,500-seat theater, Cambra said “it’s going to change them if they come with an open mind.”
“The Vagina Monologues” are at the Bankhead Theater at 8 p.m. April 5 and at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. April 6. All proceeds benefit Tri-Valley Haven’s domestic violence and sexual assault programs. Tickets are available now at the Bankhead box office, online at www.lvpac.org, or by calling (925) 373-6800.