Memorial Hall was briefly transformed into a studio last Tuesday evening, a camera flashing as women of all ages posed with hand-written signs. Some threw their heads back with laughter as the shutter clicked. Others kept a steely glare.
“I am resisting for those who can’t,” one sign read. “I am resisting because love is a radical act,” another proclaimed, a trio of hearts scribbled beneath the words.
The Essex Community Players are tackling “The Vagina Monologues,” later this week. The renowned Eve Ensler play contains 18 short stories exploring sex, assault, childbirth and more, as told in interviews with dozens of women.
National show organizers adopt a theme each year, the premise allowing performers to focus in on the relatively constant script with a new lens. This time, they’re asking actors to consider “resist.”
Abbie Tykocki, the actress who orchestrated the photo shoot, is set to perform one of the play’s most recognizable monologues — “The Woman Who Loved to Make Vaginas Happy.” The Essex resident was a sophomore in college when the controversial show debuted and shied away from participating.
“I wanted to be a part of it, but I was too afraid,” Tykocki said. “Now here I am, 20 years later, and I finally got my chance.”
“Monologues” show leaders also asked local performers to spotlight a group not represented in the script as it stands. The slam poetry group Muslim Girls Making Change will close out the Saturday performance in Essex.
Plus, 90 percent of the show’s proceeds are earmarked for a Planned Parenthood of Northern New England donation. The remaining money will go to V-Day, a charity inspired by the “The Vagina Monologues.”
Several women said ECP has worked hard to make cast and crew feel supported as they parsed through the sensitive material this year. Rehearsals have largely happened in small groups, and a closed Facebook group has emerged as an active place for conversation.
Cast members said they’ve had extensive discussions about the potentially problematic link between anatomy and gender identity, a connection that’s repeatedly underscored in the show.
“I think that’s one of the most exciting things happening in Essex right now that no one is really paying attention to,” Tycocki said, describing ECP’s efforts to push the envelope with show selection.
“The Vagina Monologues” turned 20 this year. Some of the phrases are still startlingly applicable, especially amid the #MeToo Movement, Essex actress Lori Valburn said, referencing a viral online hashtag used to expose the widespread prevalence of sexual assault and harassment.
Other sentiments feel a bit outdated, she said, especially dialogues about the transgender population.
“In the 20 years that ‘Vagina Monologues’ has been out there being performed all over the globe, there has been this monumental change,” Valburn said. “Essex has also evolved during that period of time in a lot of ways and has become a much more diverse, vibrant community.”
The participants were emphatically supportive of the play’s core message within the walls of Memorial Hall, but several sheepishly admitted they’ve yet to tell their parents, children or coworkers what exactly they’ve been working on in recent weeks.
“It’s allowed!” Valburn reminded her castmates with a laugh. “It’s a real word, folks!”
Kat Redniss, also of Essex, performed the show once before. She was serendipitously chosen to perform the same monologue in the ECP production that she did the first time around. The scene, “I Was There In The Room,” offers a detailed description of a woman watching her friend give birth in the hospital.
But Redniss said a lot has changed since she embodied the role as a teen. For starters, she has now “been in the room” as a friend gave birth. The experience has put her stage persona in a whole new light.
“It brings people together,” Redniss said of the show. “Having hard conversations and grappling with challenging topics [has] become more and more valuable.”
Actress Rowan DerbyBurras hopes that’s exactly what the upcoming shows in Essex will inspire.
“If a few members of the audience walk out the door and say, ‘Hey, let’s talk about this because it’s important to talk about,’ then we’ve definitely done our job,” DerbyBurras said.
The ECP production of “The Vagina Monologues” will play on Friday, Feb. 9 and Saturday, Feb. 10 at 7:30 p.m. at Memorial Hall in Essex. Tickets are available at http://essexplayers.tix.com.