Willpower triumphs over despair in "Seven, A Documentary Play" at Bard College of Simon's Rock

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GREAT BARRINGTON — She stood up to men who swung clubs with nails in them. She came back from protests bloody. She ran a welfare office with gunshots outside the windows, and she organized lunch servers in schools and laundry women in hospitals.

Inez McCormack became a human rights and trade union activist in Northern Ireland and the first woman President of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. And in 2010 she came to New York to see Meryl Streep perform her life on stage.

McCormack tells her story in a monologue by playwright Carol K. Mack. It became part of "Seven," a play drawn from the stories of seven women who have led national change in their home countries.

Since it opened in 2008, "Seven" has traveled the world in more than 30 languages. On Saturday evening, CeCe Sloan, a long-time member of the United States National Committee of UN Women, will bring the play to Bard College at Simon's Rock with a cast of regional actors, to benefit the Elizabeth Freeman Center.

She has loved the play for years. "I knew I had to do it," she said in an interview.

In 2006, she met Farida Azizi, who had crossed the desert in Afghanistan to bring simple medical care to women in small villages.

"Under the Taliban, male doctors are forbidden to treat women," she explains in the play. So, with her small sons hidden under her burqa, she walked through border country and land mines to help women who were dying and alone.

"We make a basic midwife tool kit," Azizi said, "with nailcutters, soap to clean the hands, gloves, plastic sheet for giving birth, scissors to cut the umbilical cord, things for measuring fever."

She and Mack met through Vital Voices Global Partnership, an international network that has helped and taught more than 5,000 women in 150 countries to become leaders in their communities. And Mack wanted to tell stories like hers.

She gathered six more playwrights, women with national awards and international names, to work with her — Paula Cizmar, Catherine Filloux, Gail Kriegel, Ruth Margraff, Anna Deavere Smith, and Susan Yankowitz.

Each would talk with a woman who has become a leader and write a monologue in her voice. They spent months talking, Mack said. The playwrights and the women they interviewed came to know each other well. Mack and McCormack became close friends. Mack admired her courage and humor, even in the last stages of terminal cancer.

"She connected to people beautifully," Mack said.

And she sees that kind of connection and determination in all the women in "Seven" — they see people around them in need and will not sit still when they can help.

In Russia in 1993, Marina Pisklakova-Parker founded her country's first hotline for victims of domestic violence. No one talked about this kind of abuse then, she says in the play — she did not even have a word for it — but 14,000 women a year were killed by their husbands. She began with an office and a phone and has built a coalition of hundreds of crisis centers.

In Nigeria in 1993, Hafsat Abiola's father, Moshood Abiola, was democratically elected president and imprisoned by the military, and her mother, Kudirat Abiola, led his political movement while he was imprisoned. They were both assassinated. In their memory, Hafsat founded the Kudirat Initiative for Democracy to teach and support young women, and she became the youngest member of the Ogun State cabinet.

In Cambodia, Mu Sochua lost her parents and her family to the Khmer Rouge. She was sent away as a girl and survived, and she returned home to fight against sex trafficking. She has served as Minister of Women's Affairs and as a Member of Parliament for the opposition party.

She goes out into the rice fields, said Carla Lewis, who will play Mu in Great Barrington. She goes out to meet the people who work there and to talk with them in the heat and the mud. They live in huge and crowded high rises, working for minimal amounts, and often without medical care, and they may be desperate enough to let their children be taken by men who offer jobs — and so children are forced into the sex trade, thinking they are helping their families.

In Guatemala, Anabella De Leon came from a poor family, earned a law degree and became a congresswoman in 1995. She is known for fighting against corruption and for the rights.

And in Pakistan, Muktar Mai survived a gang rape. She was 28, and the men who raped her were high-ranking land owners. When she went to the police and denounced the men who raped her, the police asked her to sign her statement — and she could not read it or write her name. She resolved then that she would do both.

She won in court, though the case has been re-opened more than once since, Sloane said. And with settlement funds Mai opened a school — and became one of its first students. Then she built more schools, and she has become a defender of women and education in her country.

"She has this tenacity," said Tyler Gabrielle, who will play Mai in Great Barrington. "She just won't give up. She still gets death threats. She lives within eye-shot of where she was raped."

And now young women come to her for help.

"It's what keeps her alive and keeps her going," Gabrielle said.

Many people have suggested Mai move to a city. Like her home village, people in rural areas need to learn and to know what rights they have. More than 600 children have already come through school because of her.

But after the rape, she came near to killing herself. Many women do, she says in the play, when they have been assaulted. They are seen as stained, soiled, ruined. But her family stood with her, and she went on.

"I wish more women could know their own inner strength that way," Gabrielle said.

Mack and her fellow playwrights wanted to share that strength. These seven women have faced death threats, exile, guns against their skin, stalking phone calls aimed at their children. And they have kept going, even when they were alone and had nothing to guide them.

"They didn't have a place they knew they could travel," Mack said. "And they went anyway."


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