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‘Nostras Voces’ delivers night of affirmation and inclusion

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Bowker Auditorium, formerly occupied by Eve Ensler’s famous production “The Vagina Monologues,” welcomed a different show this year. “Nostras Voces” was performed on March 24 and 25, 2016, inviting a space of greater inclusivity at the University of Massachusetts to bloom alongside the spring flowers.

I can remember sitting in the audience in 2015 for the opening of “The Vagina Monologues.” The show was introduced with a brief history and prefaced with a disclaimer from the director, acknowledging that the show is exclusionary to several identities, including but not limited to people of color and the transgender community. This opening statement engulfed the audience in an uneasy tension that set the tone for the night.

When Haley Hewson, director and producer of “Nostras Voces,” took the stage last Thursday on opening night, she prefaced the show with trigger warnings but didn’t need to acknowledge any other potential deficits of the show. “Nostras Voces” was intentionally created as a response to campus feedback from “The Vagina Monologues,” which students felt was harmfully reductive.

“Nostras Voces” arose as a replacement to Eve Ensler’s famous production. While “The Vagina Monologues” affirmed the narratives of cis, white, straight women, and neglected those who identified outside of that narrow box, “Nostras Voces” invoked an amendment to this exclusion by offering a more accepting space for all people to share their stories.

The production was curated entirely by UMass students as an accumulation of identity exploration. The show’s breadth was intended to invite a larger range of identities and voices, to facilitate a much more inclusive environment.

VOX UMass: Students for Reproductive Justice produced “Nostras Voces” and chose the show’s name, which means “our voices” in Latin.

Hewson, an English major, has been a part of VOX for over two years. She co-pioneered Nostras Voces with fellow VOX members Carrie Nagle and Beth Gilson while they were in a dress rehearsal for the Vagina Monologues, during last year’s production.

“I didn’t feel like I had to apologize for being a part of this production,” admits Hewson.

“‘Nostras Voces’ felt more local, more accurate and more representative of the people that I have met; smart, articulate, creative, and passionate people over the past four years at UMass. You are seeing the beauty of UMass students in this show,” Hewson said.

The show began with “As Read on My Red Lips” written and performed by Amanda Chang. Chang’s monologue has forever tinted how I will look at the little red tube at the bottom of my makeup bag, the way lipstick stains anything your coated lips come in contact with.

Chang’s piece spoke to how her perception of beauty was impacted by her identity as an Asian woman. She took the audience through her mentality from childhood to the present moment onstage, with no prop at hand besides her truth and her red lips.

A section of her monologue reads, “If my race barred me from participation, I’d reclaim that disqualification on my terms, siren red lips with almond dark eyes staring straight ahead, declaring that I am visible, I am present, I am here.”

Nathalie Irmer, a junior political science and environmental design major had four pieces in “Nostras Voces,” as if they were a well deserved tri-encore. Her pieces were spoken word and were originally written. Her first piece, “Back in the Land,” reflected on her upbringing in Chicago. Her words boomed from the stage like the blaring horns of city traffic and weaved in and out of the audience rows, like crowds of people crossing street blocks.

Irmer concluded the first act with “Black is Gold” and greeted the audience post-intermission with “#F***boys.” Indulgently satisfying puns took a stab at exposing the male ego with a certain degree of taste on Irmer’s part. For Irmer, she describes her style of narrative as having many layers and double meanings. She plays with her language, taking prose and making it provoking and engaging.

“I hope people of color can walk away feeling affirmed,” she said.

Irmer acknowledges the beginning of a paradigm shift in America, despite all the work that still needs to be done to achieve a socially just country. A central theme in her pieces were her experiences as a women of color, as she referenced the Black Lives Matter movement.

“I love being on the stage and being able to spit my truth,” Irmer said.

Irmer’s voice is a turn table, gradually rising, climaxing and falling, matching the most impactful points of her words. Her final piece was “Dear White America.”

Interspersed through the show were eight collections of facts. Topics included police brutality, education statistics, assault and cultural appropriation. These bits of certainty rooted the fruitful messages of the performers on the stage – if the wood floor were soil, a garden would have sprouted by the end of the night, watered by the truth of the student’s words.

Popular artists like Nicki Minaj, Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar blasted for seconds in between acts as the lights temporarily dimmed. Hewson found the genres of music an appropriate additive to the show because of hip hop and rap’s long legacies of telling stories with deeper meaning.

In addition, Miguel Paredes, a UMass junior, wrote three musical pieces in “Nostras Voces.” Paredes wrote the music and lyrics to all pieces except for the music to his last piece entitled “Work Study,” which concluded the show.

A couple verses of the song Paredes rapped went, “…last time I checked intellectualism is a dirty word / cuz everywhere I go I see oppression man I can’t escape it / what’s the f**king point of being highly educated / my mama says one day I’ll truly learn to navigate it / but I don’t wanna if that means I gotta be complacent.”

Paredes is a theater major at UMass and has ties to both California and Amherst. He uses music and art as activism and believes in the impact of their practices both for therapeutic reasons and for delivering a message. For Paredes, his message centers around his experiences as a man of color at UMass and in America in general.

He recognizes that art is already perceived by people with the expectation that there is an underlying message and utilizes that inherency to create a space for his own narrative.

“My Short Skirt” was the only piece in the show adapted from “The Vagina Monologues.” Katie Dube performed the piece commendably.

Hewson took to the stage in “Nostras Voces” and sang the lyrics to “Paulo Freire,” written by Miguel Paredes, as he played the guitar. She also wrote a piece entitled “Stitching” that Hudson Smith performed. Hewson was pleased with Smith’s ability to internalize Hewson’s words and deliver them with conviction to the audience, as if they were Smith’s own.

“Putting life behind the words that you are reading is essential,” Hewson said.

UMass junior Regina East thought “Nostras Voces” had many layers to it and more sense of a community.

“These are issues we aren’t talking about the arts is one of the best ways to do that,” East said.

East, along with Amherst College sophomore Irisdelia Garcia, enjoyed being able to actively participate with the show. She found the script dynamic and the relevancy of the show to be more in tune with today’s society.

“The Vagina Monologues” served one particular group and “Nostras Voces” reached a wide spectrum in such a tasteful way,” Garcia said.

The show encouraged audience members to snap their fingers as a form of appreciation and concordance. Hewson admits feeling like a proud parent in a sense and is so thankful to her cast and crew. Hewson’s hope for “Nostras Voces” is that it will encourage community dialogue and collaboration at UMass.

Hewson hopes that in the future “Nostras Voces” will still involve students telling their stories. Currently, VOX is trying to reach out and establish themselves not just as a white feminist group and aims to offer more support to fellow groups on campus that align themselves in the same social conscience. “Nostras Voces” that effort.

There was no chance in the night for “Nostras Voces” to fall victim to the monotony of repetitive monologues. Each person spoke their unique story, bearing themselves to the audience, uncensored and unapologetically themselves. The pieces were relatable but personal and accompanied by a chorus of snaps, joining all people in the room across differences.

A portion of the proceeds from the two performances will go to Safe Passage in Northampton and The Amherst Survival Center.

Erica Garnett can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @GarnettErica.

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