On Valentine’s Day, the sanctuary of one San Luis Obispo church will resonate with the sounds of a sermon, scripture readings and women simulating orgasms.
For the first time in its 150-year history, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church is hosting a production of “The Vagina Monologues,” Eve Ensler’s controversial, critically acclaimed play about sex, rape, reproduction and other taboo topics.
Featuring a diverse, all-ages cast that includes San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon and Bishop Mary Gray-Reeves, head of the Episcopal Diocese of El Camino Real, the production aims to highlight the issues facing women today while promoting the church as a place of safety and sanctuary. Two performances — on Feb. 14 and Feb. 18 — are planned at St. Stephen’s, with proceeds benefiting Rise SLO.
“Somebody asked me, ‘Are you worried about the graphic material ... being portrayed (in this play)?’ ” said Rev. Ian M. Delinger, rector of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church. “God came (to Earth) as Jesus to experience what we experience. We experience orgasms. We experience abuse. We experience foul language. Why shy away from what happens in people’s lives?”
“The Vagina Monologues” has been shocking, entertaining and enlightening audiences since its premiere off-Broadway in 1996. The play’s popularity helped spawn V-Day, a global activist movement to end violence against women and girls, in 1998.
Based on a series of interviews, the episodic play features monologues with such colorful titles as “The Little Coochi Snorcher That Could” and “The Woman Who Loved to Make Vaginas Happy.” Subjects include body hair (“Hair”), birth (“I Was There in the Room”) and menstruation (“I Was Twelve. My Mother Slapped Me”).
The monologues often dip into challenging, politically-charged territory — such as “My Vagina Was My Village,” inspired by testimonies of Bosnian women subjected to rape camps, and “They Beat the Girl Out of My Boy ... Or So They Tried,” which examines transgender identity.
And the language used by performers can be far from polite.
“It was really hard to walk over to Father Ian and say, ‘Hey I want a bunch of women to yell c--- in your chapel,’ ” acknowledged “The Vagina Monologues” director Kelli M. Poward, using a slang word for female genitalia.
She approached Delinger about staging the play at St. Stephen’s in response to a call by V-Day organizers to perform in “radical places.”
Fortunately, she said, the church’s congregation and leadership have fully embraced the production.
“It’s incredible how absolutely supportive the Episcopalian church is — not just Father Ian and Bishop Mary (but) everybody there who is a participant,” said Poward, who’s helmed local productions of “The Vagina Monologues” almost every year since 2010. She directed a production of the Ensler-edited anthology play “A Memory, A Monologue, A Rant and a Prayer” at St. Stephen’s on Feb. 3.
“The Episcopal Church is a pretty progressive bunch,” Gray-Reeves said, noting that the organization has worked in recent decades to promote equality — ordaining women as priests and embracing openly gay clergy starting in the 1970s.
In 2006, Katherine Jefferts Schori became the first female primate in the worldwide Anglican Communion when she was elected presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church of the United States of America.
“We’ve been at this since the ’80s,” Gray-Reeves said, “but there’s still plenty more to do.”
That’s where “The Vagina Monologues” comes in.
This year, Valentine’s Day coincides with Ash Wednesday, a day of fasting, prayer and repentance that marks the beginning of the Christian season of Lent. Gray-Reeves will lead a special Ash Wednesday service at St. Stephen’s prior to the performance of the play.
“Ash Wednesday is not just a day of personal confession and atonement. It’s (also) a perfectly good time to acknowledge a corporate sin,” Gray-Reeves said. “The church has a long history of sexual abuse and harassment and patriarchy and violence against women. That’s part of the history of Christianity.”
In the wake of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements against sexual assault and harassment, “We have a moment where women are feeling very empowered to speak,” the bishop said. “To set aside time and sacred space to actually hear these words is critical at this time.”
To illustrate that point, the San Luis Obispo shows will feature select performers talking about their personal experiences and why they’re choosing to participate in “The Vagina Monologues.”
On Feb. 14, three members of the 16-woman cast — Gray-Reeves, Harmon and Dr. Denise Taylor, a San Luis Obispo physician — will share their stories.
At the Feb. 18 performance, which features four transgender women and a nonbinary person (someone who doesn’t identify as male or female), all five cast members will speak out.
By presenting “The Vagina Monologues” in a worship space, Delinger hopes to “illustrate that the church is there... to support women and empower women, to listen to their stories and to believe them and to help them.”
“It’s just one more place where (women) can tell their story,” Poward said.
‘The Vagina Monologues’
7 p.m. Feb. 14 and Feb. 18
St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, 1344 Nipomo St., San Luis Obispo
$10, $5 students
805-703-0911 or www.brownpapertickets.com