LA GRANDE — Eve Ensler premiered her play "The Vagina Monologues" in 1996, and since then the cultural phenomenon has been translated into nearly 50 languages, giving voice to women's stories across the world.
Eastern Oregon University groups are bringing the show back for the first time since 2004 with showings at 7 p.m. Feb. 28 in Hoke Union Building room 339, and again at 7 p.m. Feb. 29 at hq, 112 Depot St., both in La Grande. Proceeds from the show will go to Shelter From the Storm, the local safe haven for survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking.
"It is a really about raising awareness and stopping violence about women and girls," said Beckie Juarez, the production's director. "The show talks about what it is like to be a woman, and our bodies, which unfortunately is not very talked about still in society. It is still fairly taboo in 2020, which is ridiculous."
Three student groups are coming together to present the play: the Student Association for Gender Equality, Mountainqueers and Sexual Health Advocacy Group. But the roles were open to all community members, students, faculty and alumni. The cast is composed of 15 women and non-binary actors performing 17 monologues.
"It is people's experiences that you don't know about and you don't hear about a lot because they are not amplified," EOU student and performer Julia Huyg said of the play. "Anything that we can do to amplify the voices of people who have stories to tell is what we want to do."
The show consists of individual and group monologues that cover topics of consensual and nonconsensual sexual experiences, body image, sex work and more. Ensler interviewed more than 200 women to create the monologues, and the number of monologues and topics change from year to year, all written by Ensler.
"Some of them are really funny. Some deal with the word 'vagina' itself, talking about your body, being comfortable with your body, coming to terms with appreciating your body and the beauty of it. Some of them talk about sex," Juarez said.
EOU alumnus Candi Nielsen is doing a monologue called "The Flood," which she said reminds her of her grandmother.
"The monologue is about an older woman rediscovering her body and what that is. I think back to my grandmother and everything was quiet and hush-hush, and (sex) was just for baby making. You didn't talk about anything that was sexual or about exploring yourself," Nielsen said. "Talking to my grandmother when she got older about those kinds of things, it was still kind of a 'he he' behind the hand. It was embarrassing for her. I grew up in an open family where we talked about things that were too much information, but it was important to us. So I can relate and kind of visualize my grandmother finally realizing it's okay to talk about this. I shouldn't be ashamed."
The play is often performed as part of the V-Day/One Billion Rising effort founded by Ensler to end domestic and sexual violence against women. Proceeds from the upcoming La Grande performances go to Shelter From the Storm, the local nonprofit dedicated to fighting against domestic violence.
Emily Hastings with Shelter From the Storm has been working as the liaison between the performers and the shelter.
"I think there is a lot of stigma around women's bodies and appreciating your body, and especially in rural areas, sexual violence (and) domestic violence is not something people have experience talking about," Hastings said. "This show gives us a space to talk about it and start a conversation that we can and should have."
Sexual and domestic violence is not something that happens only elsewhere. Even in small towns like those in Union County, it is a reality.
The La Grande Police Department from 2017-19 made 88 arrests for domestic violence, according to department records, and in 2019 received and investigated 308 reports of domestic violence. The department reported four incidents of forcible rape and made one arrest for rape in 2018, according to the 2018 Oregon Annual Uniform Crime Report. La Grande police received 187 reports for sexual assault from 2017-19 and made 37 arrests for sexual assault.
The Union County Sheriff's Office reported from 2017 to Jan. 31 made 23 arrests for domestic assault, six for domestic strangulation and 36 for restraining order violations. The sheriff's office did not receive any reports of forcible rape or other sex crimes during that time.
Union County District Attorney Kelsie McDaniel did not respond to requests for the number of domestic violence and related cases her office is prosecuting.