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Hearing the word ‘vagina’ aloud before 1996, outside of a medical setting, was a bit startling. Encountering it in an article was likely to cause many readers more than a bit of surprise. Seeing it in newspaper ads, on posters or even on the sides of buses was seen as downright shocking. I remember it well.

VAGINA MONOLOGUES Reilly Arts CenterThanks to Eve Ensler’s groundbreaking The Vagina Monologues in 1996, the perfectly accurate, non-slang term for women’s genitalia became part of widely accepted conversation. The play had a long Off-Broadway run, has had countless professional and amateur productions around the world, and through Ensler’s V-Day initiative, The Vagina Monologues has generated more than $100 million for women’s charities internationally. Oh, and the word vagina has been demystified to the extent that you can hear it mentioned fairly regularly on network television comedies, where it clearly comports with network and FCC standards and practices.

But if you happen to be at the city council meeting this coming Tuesday afternoon in Ocala, Florida, you might think the word vagina, and monologues about vaginas, are something to be ashamed of and indeed silenced, attitudes from the pre-1996 era, if not even earlier. That’s because a local businessman named Brad Dinkins has asked and been scheduled to appear before the council to discuss, in the words of his request, “The respective leases between the city (landlord) and The Reilly Arts Center and the Marion Theatre (tenants) … and possible ‘use’ violations per the lease with the tenants. The issues at hand are in regards to questionable performances at each location, scheduled during March, 2016.”

Mr. Dinkins goes on to cite the performances that he believes breach the lease by being “questionable,” specifically a single performance of The Vagina Monologues at the city-owned Reilly Arts Center, which is leased to and operated by the Ocala Symphony, and The Marion at Midnight, a burlesque performance at another city owned and subleased venue, The Marion Theatre. In his request to speak at the council, Mr. Dinkins has lined up a whole team, which he describes as follows in his correspondence with the Ocala city manager:

“Besides myself there will be other local citizen participants, some of which will include Father Don Curran, Rector of Christ The King Church; Mike Sullivan, former PGA tournament golf champion, and Dennis Camp, attorney, who may or may not speak.”

Clearly Mr. Dinkins’s attempt is at least to have the city remedy what he sees as a breach by canceling the performances. In his request to be heard at the city council, he quoted from the lease agreements for the venues, which he asserts are virtually identical.

6.7.   The following guidelines shall govern the performance and other entertainment that may be shown at, or viewed by the public on, the Premises:

6.7.1 Tenant shall not use the Building (by, without limitation, presenting performances or other entertainment), or permit others to use the Building, in a manner that City, in its reasonable discretion, deems inappropriate or objectionable.

6.7.2  Prior to claiming a default under paragraph 6.7.1, City shall notify tenant that it claims a performance, or other entertainment, or use is inappropriate or objectionable, and, if Tenant no longer presents such performance or other entertainment, or permits such use, no default shall have occurred.

If they don’t immediately agree to fold their tents over this action and cancel these events which Mr. Dinkins finds “questionable,” his next step may well be to assert that the Symphony is acting as a poor steward of the Reilly, and that Carmen and Cesar Soto, who have a five-year lease of the Marion through November 2017, are also remiss, and seek to have both operators’ contracts revoked. It’s hard to say. After all, what does a former golf champion have to do with any of this? Who knows what Mr. Dinkins will want next beyond silencing these particular shows?

Based solely on the above, you might be tempted to brand Ocala a hick backwater town that is simply out of step with the times. But in point of fact, this year’s presentation of The Vagina Monologues would be the show’s fourth run in the city, albeit the first at the city-owned O’Reilly. But clearly its prior presentations by the Insomniac Theatre Company at their own venue in 2012 and 2013 and at the The Brick City Center for the Arts in 2014 apparently didn’t violate any community standards of decency. In fact they sold out, raising money for the Ocala Domestic Violence/Sexual Assault Center and the V-Day charity. This year’s presentation is raising funds for the PACE Center for Girls.

Midnight at MarionAs for the burlesque performances, they’ve been taking place at the Marion about three times a year for the past couple of years. Burlesque, of course, has become once again popular and even hip; it’s meant to evoke the tawdry era of burlesque’s heyday, but with a healthy dose of empowerment in performances that are welcoming to all body types and races, and beyond the binary definition of gender. The performances in Ocala are sponsored by, among others, a hair salon, an architecture firm, and a fitness club.

Let’s face it: what on earth does “questionable” mean? How about “inappropriate” or “objectionable”? If no one can agree on exactly what constitutes obscenity, these words are so vague as to very likely be unenforceable. After all, I find a number of the current presidential candidates questionable, but that doesn’t actually say anything about my perception of them. I also find Brussels sprouts objectionable, and the notion that they are appealing to be questionable, but so what? Does that mean if I were an Ocala resident I could attempt to prevent them from ever being served in these venues?

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How did this incipient censorship effort reach up to New York? That’s because Chad Taylor, who produced Ocala’s prior productions of The Vagina Monologues and is directing it this year at the Reilly, posted his concerns on Facebook and it spread quickly. In his plea for support (and signatures on a petition), he wrote:

On March 1st at 4 PM at City Hall, this “offended” individual will be speaking before the City Council to get us shut down. He is bringing some “friends” who share his point of view. I don’t ask a lot of out you guys, but I cannot stand by and watch two female-centric shows that empower women be stopped because someone out there has an issue with the word Vagina. We must be heard. For every person who speaks against these shows we must have three voices for them. Let’s pack the place with people who aren’t afraid of giving women a voice OR adults a choice in how they want to be entertained.

It’s worth noting that a new member of the city council, elected in 2015, is Matthew Wardell, the music director and conductor of the Ocala Symphony, which as operator of The Reilly Arts center is the producer of The Vagina Monologues. While one might make the assumption that he has a conflict of interest in this case, Wardell says he consulted with the city attorney and given that all proceeds are going to charity, he’s in the clear. “I can’t recuse myself,” said Wardell, “because there’s no financial interest.”

Wardell says that he believes the people speaking against The Vagina Monologues haven’t actually read or seen the play. “I don’t think they understand the impact of the piece on women – and men,” said Wardell. “Great art stretches us and and brings us back to a place where we can talk about it together.”

“I just don’t agree that the play is in any way immoral,” he said. “There’s nothing here that’s against the law,” he added, while saying that he didn’t believe anything was going to change the opponents’ minds.

“I err on the side of the First Amendment,” Wardell explained. “When I took the oath to serve on city council, I swore to uphold the Constitution of the United States and you just don’t skip over the First Amendment.”

Wardell cited an event in the past year where the city council agreed to close down an entire city block for a movie promotion: a 50 Shades of Grey “Naught Or Nice” Party. He noted a similar sanctioned event for Magic Mike XXL.

Explaining that he’s not allowed to discuss business with fellow council members outside of actual council meetings, Wardell said that in light of other approved events, “I’d find it objectionable if my fellow council members had any objections.”

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In his request to speak, Mr. Dinkins outlines the “meeting intent hoped for”

Following the interaction among the Council members and local citizens, it is hoped the City Council, acting as Landlord of both locations, will take action to investigate and determine if the upcoming events violate the “use” guidelines per their respective leases.

I can only hope that the city council of Ocala will have the good sense to let Mr. Dinkins and his team be heard in accordance with their standard practices regarding time allotted, scheduling and so on, even though Mr. Dinkins has asked to be scheduled early in the meeting for no apparent reason whatsoever other than his own preference. I hope the council insures that the conversation is civil, respectful and entirely fact-based, including recognition of the separation of church and state in all matters. I also hope that equal time will be given to any Ocala citizens who appear and wish to make the case on behalf of these performances, their producers and the venues in which they take place. I hope lots of people appear to speak on behalf of The Vagina Monologues and The Marion at Midnight.

Then I hope the city council will thank all parties and simply go on with the essential business of running Ocala without voicing any opinion one way or another or calling for any vote. They will have already spent far too much time on a retrograde, reactionary effort to deny members of the community access to legal and creative pursuits that they’ve previously enjoyed. I hope the council won’t use some wholly subjective, undefinable words in two lease agreements to dignify a call for censorship. Because that’s what I call, at the very least, questionable indeed.

Update, February 25, 2016, 9 am: Mekaella Lord, also known as Lady Mekaella DeMure, the producer of The Marion at Midnight and other Ocala burlesque events, has posted a Facebook notice of a peaceful protest against the censorious effort that will be brought before the Ocala city council on Tuesday. It reads in part:

This man & his co-speakers will present their case before council that day on our “unwholesome,” “unchristian” and “inappropriate” productions. Myself & others will also be allowed to comment and speak in our defense after his public comment. If you would like to attend, please do. Please keep it civil and polite as we represent an elegant & professional art, let’s keep it that way!
This man seeks to take away something from Ocala. The right to do any art uncensored and to have a voice as women, as artists. This single person is trying to redefine what art is and isn’t and what should or shouldn’t be allowed due to his personal preferences.
Will you allow that?
We are defending a LOT here. Not only our own production & right to work as performers in our own venues that we rented and hometown for our audience, but so much more.
All provocative art is objectionable to someone.
The fact that a person who has not even seen the show has decided to object does not make the show objectionable.
A free society is based on the principle that each and every individual has the right to decide what art or entertainment he or she wants — or does not want — to create & share. We are defending the right for females & artists to have a voice, to exercise their voice/art.

Update, February 25, 6:30 pm: Playwright Eve Ensler sent the following message to the organizers of the Ocala production of The Vagina Monologues, through her V-Day organization, via the Arts Integrity Initiative:

I stand with all of you who are standing for freedom, for theater, for women, for liberation.
The vagina is out of the bottle and she won’t be put back in!
In deepest solidarity,

Update, March 2, 10:30 am: At the City Council meeting, both sides of the content debate shared their thoughts, with opponents of content restrictions outnumbering Brad Dinkins and his supporters. After hearing all concerned, the City Council took no action, other than asking the city’s attorney to review the legality of the pertinent clauses in the city’s venue leases.  “We don’t feel (we want) to ban this,” said Council Chairman Jim Hilty, according to a report on “We’re definitely not looking to ban anyone’s free speech. I believe at this point we have to allow the shows to go on.”


This post will be updated as events warrant.

Howard Sherman is the director of the Arts Integrity Initiative.