The shot heard round the state – Michigan, that is – was recently triggered by State Rep. Lisa Brown, D-West Bloomfield, who spoke last Wednesday to oppose abortion regulations (which ultimately passed) in the House: “I’m flattered that you are all so interested in my vagina, but no means no.” Brown was subsequently banned from speaking during Thursday’s session.
Another female Democratic state legislator, Rep. Barb Byrum, D-Onondaga, proposed an amendment which would have required proof of a medical emergency or that a man’s life was in danger before a doctor could perform a vasectomy. She shouted out the word “vasectomy” during the debate, and was also prevented from speaking Thursday.
In response, Carla Milarch, associate artistic director of Performance Network, quickly organized a performance of Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues,” which is scheduled to happen on the Capitol steps in Lansing tonight (Monday, June 18) at 5 p.m. Not only is Ensler herself coming to be part of the performance, but local actresses and several female legislators are taking part, too.
Milarch answered a few questions about putting the show together.
Q: Could you tell me how the idea initially came about?
MILARCH: Actually, a couple of us were kidding around on Facebook. A friend had written Vagina as her status update 27 times on Friday morning after the Lisa Brown incident, and it just struck me how silly it was to get offended by that word. Then I remembered a production of “The Vagina Monologues” I had participated in as a fundraiser for Safehouse a few years back, and I thought that so many of the themes in the play were so right on for this situation. Themes about how owning our language about our bodies is hard enough, without some patriarchal system telling us we need to sit down and be quiet, and how embracing the language that describes us is actually a very important step to being fully present in our femininity. And I started to get really outraged by the thought that a grown woman in a respected position should be penalized for saying vagina, and how absurd it is that someone simply not liking your language could be grounds for you to be barred from speaking.
Q. Is it fair to say the idea was born in Ann Arbor?
MILARCH: I don’t know if I would say it was born in Ann Arbor, but rather that it was born in Michigan. When I emailed Eve (we are in touch from doing a play of hers several years ago) her response was along the lines that basically, her email was blowing up with people from Michigan who were calling for a response to this on a major level. You could see on Facebook and by the sheer volume of people talking about it that there was a collective fury both about the heinous bill that this all stemmed from, and from the silencing of Reps. Brown and Byrum. Honestly, I think Michigan women are fed up with having their choices about their bodies dictated by a bunch of political extremists. We’re all kind of having the same idea at the same time. No means no. Get your laws out of my vagina.
Q. How were legislators and Ensler contacted about participating?
MILARCH: After I spoke with Eve’s assistant, we basically decided we wanted advice on the best timing for something like this so we contacted Senator Rebekah Warren’s office to see how we could get connected. Within the hour Senator Warren and Eve were on the phone strategizing about the best way to present something, and who should be involved, where to do it, etc. That’s when the official details of the event came together. Senator Warren had an amazing lineup of fellow women legislators within hours and I was put in charge of rounding up local talent to fill out the event. I have to say I am blown away by these women’s willingness to stand up for what’s right here and jump into their actor shoes on such short notice.
Q. Ensler must get requests and invitations all the time. Any thoughts or insights about why she was compelled to accept this invitation?
MILARCH: Eve is an incredibly generous person, and she goes all over the world advocating to stop violence against women. If you ask me, taking someone’s rights away: their right to speak for themselves and for their constituents, and doing it in a condescending and patriarchal way, is a form of violence. I think she can see, like we all can, that the war on women has been taken to a new, appalling, level through this action against Reps Brown and Byrum. Eve’s a fighter and right now Lansing, Michigan is the front line.
Q. Could you tell me what actors familiar to Ann Arbor theatergoers will be part of the performance?
MILARCH: Here’s the complete list of actresses participating:
COURTNEY JO DEMPSEY-BURKETT,
MARY JO CUPPONE,
Q. This has probably kept you pretty busy in the last few days – but it’s probably also been inspiring. Could you tell me about the overall experience of organizing this so quickly?
MILARCH: The most overwhelming thing for me has been how eager and excited people are to help. Not a single person that I’ve asked for help has been unwilling. People can accomplish so much when they come together in action for something they believe in, and the theatre community here is amazing. These women of all experience levels are jumping into a performance in front of thousands of people, outside, with no rehearsal, and having just been given the scripts the day before – to speak out about their vaginas!! These legislators and actresses are some of the boldest, most courageous people on the face of the earth right now.
Q. What are your hopes regarding this performance, both short term and long term?
MILARCH: I truly hope that this sends two messages. To the lawmakers in Lansing: when you silence one who speaks for us, you silence us collectively, and we will not be silenced. We have vaginas. We also have voices and we vote (three great v words!) And you will continue to hear our angry voices, until you leave our vaginas alone! No means no. And until you can hear that from one of us, you will continue to hear it from all of us. To the women of Michigan: Don’t let the taboos about speaking about your body, or someone else’s disapproval about your choice of words keep you from finding your voice in the dialogue about women’s reproductive health. Now is not the time for silence, and we must speak loudly, forcefully, powerfully to anyone who would take away our right, or the right of any one of our sisters, to choose, or to speak.