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Crowd hails staging of play

Originally published in:
South Bend Tribune

Margaret Fosmoe
SOUTH BEND -- The ongoing discussion about sexually themed artistic events and free speech at the University of Notre Dame played out in a classroom Monday night, as an enthusiastic audience turned out for a student performance of "The Vagina Monologues."

About 470 people attended the controversial show, which touches on topics that are rarely addressed publicly on the Catholic campus, including sexual experiences, menstruation, masturbation, lesbianism, rape and childbirth.

The crowd responded to the production with applause, frequent laughter and a standing ovation. Repeat performances are scheduled for tonight and Wednesday.

Notre Dame seniors John Chim and Andrew Gaudreau both attended the performance because a friend was in the cast. Neither had seen or read the play before.

"I really liked it," Chim said afterward. "Notre Dame needs more events like this." The play addresses issues that generally are avoided on campus, he said.

"It's provocative. It discusses real issues that women have to deal with," Gaudreau said. "It was enlightening."

This is the fifth year the play has been performed at Notre Dame. In previous years, tickets were sold as a fundraiser for S-O-S of Madison Center and the YWCA of Michiana, agencies that serve victims of rape and domestic violence.

The Rev. John I. Jenkins, Notre Dame's president, is considering limiting or banning "The Vagina Monologues" and a gay film festival on campus in the future. He said in January he is considering such a policy because sponsorship of such events may be at odds with Notre Dame's Catholic character.

For this year, Jenkins allowed the student performance of the play to proceed. However, he required that it occur in a lecture hall instead of a theater, and student planners were not allowed to sell tickets and use the event as a fundraiser for the two community agencies.

Unlike in past years, no opponents appeared to protest the performance.

Ian Morgenheim, a South Bend resident, created a sign on poster board before the show. It read: "I support free speech. V-Day 2006."

"If there are protesters, I want to have a response. I'll be here every night," Morgenheim said.

Graduate student Sandy Dedo thinks it's absurd that a debate about the importance of academic freedom is needed on a university campus. "It's shameful the stance they are taking toward women's rights, and the gay and lesbian population," she said.

Dedo is hopeful Jenkins will recognize the importance of free speech. She's concerned about Notre Dame's academic reputation if some events are banned. "We're all concerned that the university we attend and love will be shamed in the national spotlight," she said.

Members of United for Free Speech, a new student group on campus, collected signatures on a petition. The petition encourages Jenkins to respect freedom of speech by continuing to allow presentations such as "The Vagina Monologues" and the gay film series.

About 3,000 signatures have been collected so far, said Kaitlyn Redfield, one of the organizers. The group plans to present the petition to Jenkins next week.

More than 30 female students performed in the show, presenting the characters and thoughts of the women playwright Eve Ensler interviewed while writing the play.

Some cast members later donned black T-shirts that read: "Vaginas are part of the student body."

"I'm Catholic, so I had some hesitancy about seeing it," graduate student Joan Arbery said afterward. "Some things are controversial, but I felt it had a balanced tone."

A panel discussion after the show featured women theology, sociology and law professors.

Bishop John M. D'Arcy, of the Catholic Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, publicly criticized Notre Dame last year for allowing "The Vagina Monologues" on campus.

In a recent opinion column in the diocese newspaper, D'Arcy reiterated his opposition, saying the play "distorts the beautiful gift of human sexuality, clouding its richness so it becomes merely the seeking of pleasure."

"I regret the sponsorship of this play by Notre Dame again this year," the bishop wrote, "and pray it will be the last time."