The Fourth Universalist Society church performs the play to stop violence against women and girls
By Angela Barbuti
Continuing an annual tradition on the Upper West Side, forty women will unite onstage at the Fourth Universalist Society on Thursday, March 22nd and Friday, March 23rd, to perform a benefit performance of The Vagina Monologues.
This is the fifth year that the church, located on 76th and Columbus, is playing host to this famously powerful production. With over 40 performances of The Vagina Monologues in New York City each year, the one at Fourth Universalist is unique in that it is the only one housed in a church. The ladies use the altar as their stage, which adds an element of spirituality.
"This play is so much more than a play," said Erin Bigelow, a co-director. "When you can make people in the audience roll on the floor laughing and keel over crying, there's nothing more intense."
Written by Eve Ensler, the play consists of monologues based on interviews with real women who have suffered abuse. Contrary to what theatergoers may think, the cast members are not all professional actresses. Organizer Deborah Roth said that is the way Ensler envisions the play to be carried out.
"Eve said, 'It's not about acting, it's about activism,'" said Roth, who is also a parishioner at 4th U. "We don't say 'no' to anyone who auditions," said Ege Maltepe, also a co director. In the cast there are only 10 professional actresses - the rest range from students to therapists to entrepreneurs.
The cast is open to all ages and is comprised of 20-somethings to 70-somethings.
"It's such a multigenerational experience," said Roth. The diversity of the women is also what makes it such a unique experience for the audience. Certain years had mother-daughter teams performing, and in others, there have been deaf and transgender women. Some of the cast has also experienced abuse in their own lives.
"While many of the women have, it isn't the whole room," said Roth. "That's been a real learning curve for us also, to realize the impact we have on our actresses. It's life changing for them."
Bigelow continued, "This has been important to me personally because I know so many people with a history of violence and the headlines are just screaming it. Today more than ever, we need women's voices united and as in your face as possible because there's clearly no other way this is going to get done."
"Six months of the year is devoted to The Vagina Monologues," said Bigelow. The women start preparing in September, and wait for Ensler to release the script in October. Even though they do not publicize their casting calls, they have 40 women auditioning at the beginning of January. Only one third of the cast are actually members of the parish.
At the end of the each performance, Roth, taking a cue from what Ensler has done at her productions, asks the audience and cast members to stand if they had ever been beaten, violated, or raped in their lifetime. The house lights are turned on, and people stand up. Next, they are asked if they know of anyone who has been violated, and more people stand. Everyone in the church rises when asked if they want the violence to end.
Bigelow said, "Every year we think there's no way we can top it, and then the next year women come out from everywhere. Surprisingly there are women after 15 years who have not seen The Vagina Monologues."
This year's performance at 4th U benefits Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees, which provides assistance to Haitian refugees and immigrants who arrive in the U.S. after fleeing persecution. Another organization that is benefiting from this event is Restore NYC, which works to end sex trafficking in the city. The third beneficiary is Safe Horizons, which aids survivors of crime.
To learn more and purchase tickets, please visit www.4thu.org
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