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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Gonzaga University to host ‘The Vagina Monologues,’ a play once banned on campus

In 2002, Grace Danborn, left, and Krista Benson, then students at Gonzaga University, took part in an off-campus performance of “The Vagina Monologues” because the school’s administration said the play conflicted with Jesuit values. For the first time, Gonzaga will host an open-to-the-public performance of the “Monologues” on Feb. 14, 2019. (Christopher Anderson / The Spokesman-Review)

Gonzaga University is preparing to host its first open-to-the-public performance of “The Vagina Monologues,” a play once banned by the Jesuit school.

The Feb. 14 performance, hosted by Gonzaga’s theater and dance department and YWCA Spokane, will be part of an annual “V-Day” campaign that aims to end violence against women and girls. Proceeds will support the YWCA’s safe-shelter program for survivors of domestic violence.

“The Vagina Monologues are powerful for the voices they give to so many people who are usually silenced by society,” Leslie Stamoolis, an assistant professor of theater and dance who will direct the performance, said in a news release. “And telling those stories, in those voices, gives power to the narratives – it reminds us all that these stories matter, and in fact every woman’s story matters.”

The play, written by activist and playwright Eve Ensler, debuted in 1996 in a tiny theater in New York, becoming a surprise off-Broadway hit and fueling controversy for years afterward.

Profane and in-your-face, the monologues explore taboos and tough topics like rape, abuse, misogyny, body image, genital mutilation, sexual fantasies and lesbian attraction. The play has earned high praise and intense criticism from various feminist thinkers.

While he was Gonzaga’s president, the Rev. Robert Spitzer forbade students from performing the “Monologues” on campus, saying the play’s messages conflicted with the school’s mission and Jesuit values.

Critics, including students and faculty members, saw the decision as a blow to academic freedom – and they were further incensed in 2005, when Spitzer allowed the College Republicans to host a presentation titled “The Medical Effects of Homo-Sex.”

Unable to persuade the administration, and facing backlash and harassment from some segments of the community, students staged the “Monologues” off campus a few years in a row.

In 2009, Spitzer retired and Thayne McCulloh stepped in as interim president. The following year, the administration denied another request to host the play on campus.

The administration relented in 2011 by allowing students to perform the play on campus, but they were barred from advertising the event off campus and student IDs were required for entry.

In an interview, Stamoolis, the professor, said her students reacted with enthusiasm when she suggested another performance of the “Monologues.”

“They said, ‘I’ve always wanted to do that!’ ” Stamoolis said. “And it’s just so amazing to me how much this play still resonates with women of all ages.”

Stamoolis said she and fellow faculty members had “a great deal of conversation” about the play with Gonzaga’s provost, marketing team and security chief. “To Gonzaga’s credit,” she said, everyone involved in those discussions kept an open mind.

“I have yet to hear a single negative comment about doing this play at Gonzaga in 2019,” Stamoolis said. “Not a single negative comment.”

Stamoolis said “The Vagina Monologues” requires at least three cast members, but the upcoming performance will feature 30 students, faculty, staff and community members.

Doors will open at 7 p.m., and the play will run from 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. on Feb. 14. Tickets cost $15 and can be purchased through Gonzaga’s box office website.

Stamoolis said the play remains an important reminder that women don’t need to define themselves through their sex organs or through other people.

“In some ways, it’s more important now than it ever has been in the past,” she said.

In a similar-about face on Monday, Gonzaga announced it would allow Ben Shapiro – a conservative political commentator loathed by progressives as well as members of the so-called “alt-right” – to speak on campus this spring.

The decision followed months of appeals by the College Republicans, the club that invited Shapiro. Administrators had denied the club’s request in November, saying Shapiro’s message ran counter to the university’s mission and would create “a hostile environment for employees and students.”

In a statement this week about Shapiro’s planned visit, McCulloh said: “As a comprehensive, faith-based and mission-centered university, we are committed to facilitating exposure to a broad range of intellectual ideas and debate, even as we simultaneously strive to uphold the values reflected in our mission statement.”