Jess Lillie's Valentine's Day tradition is about love and support, just not the kind you find on a greeting card.
Lillie is one of 13 local men and women who will perform two readings of the book "A Memory, A Monologue, A Rant and A Prayer" at 7 p.m. Thursday and 2 p.m. Saturday at The Whitney Center for the Arts. The book, first published in 2007, is a collection of monologues, essays, poems and short stories edited by Eve Ensler, author of "The Vagina Monologues," and Mollie Doyle. Subtitled "Writings to Stop Violence Against Women and Girls," contributions are written by authors, playwrights, actors, journalists and political activists such as Maya Angelou, Jane Fonda, Alice Walker, Howard Zinn, Nicholas D. Kristof and others.
The performances at The Whit are being held as part of downtown Pittsfield's annual 10x10 Upstreet Arts Festival, which begins Thursday and runs through Sunday Feb. 23.
The readings are also part of VDAY 2020, an international social activism movement celebrated in more than 200 countries first sparked by Ensler's publication of "The Vagina Monologues" in 1994. The theme of VDAY 2020 is "Raise the Vibration." The "V" in VDAY stands for victory, valentine and vagina. Participants worldwide perform readings of "The Vagina Monologues" or "A Memory, A Monologue, A Rant and A Prayer" on or around Valentine's Day each year, spreading awareness of sexual, physical, racial, economic, political, socio-cultural, ideological and climate crisis violence against women and fundraising to act against it and assist victims of it.
Tickets for the Pittsfield performances are $20 general admission, $15 for seniors and $5 for students. The entirety of the proceeds will benefit the Elizabeth Freeman Center, a nonprofit organization in Pittsfield that provides services to the victims of domestic and sexual violence throughout the Berkshires.
For some of the actors of this year's performance, this will be the first time participating. For others, like Lillie, it has become somewhat of a Valentine's Day tradition. This will be her third year participating in VDAY performances.
"This is my true passion," said Lillie, a dental assistant from Pittsfield. "It really allows me to give back to something that is near and dear to my heart, and really raise awareness about domestic violence. And sometimes it is hidden — people don't think of it as an everyday thing, but its real and it's here in the Berkshires," Lillie said. "I just want to be a part of something that not only supports a voice that might not always be heard, but to also embrace and support the women and men that are often times forgotten. It's a really powerful thing to be able to be a part of. It gives me a lot back."
Since its inception in 1998, VDAY campaigns have raised more than $100 million for organizations working to end violence against women, resulting in shelters, safe houses, anti-violence programs, self-defense training, "as well as justice and equality for women around the world," according to vday.org. VDAY also helped catalyze a movement called "One Billion Rising," an international campaign to call for the end of violence toward women launched on Valentine's Day 2012 as a call to action based on the statistic that one in three women worldwide will be beaten or raped during their lifetime.
Monica Bliss, the Whitney Center's artistic director, said this is the third year she has directed a performance for VDAY, having hosted several sold-out readings of "The Vagina Monologues" in 2018 and 2019. She said now is an important time to raise awareness about domestic violence locally and worldwide.
"Not only is violence against women incredibly prevalent all over the entire globe," Bliss said, "Just here in Pittsfield, domestic violence is at an all-time high."
Bliss said people who attend the performance can expect to feel "like they are a part of something that is actually and tangibly making a difference in the world."
"People can expect to cry, and to laugh, and to have an extremely fulfilling and special evening," she said.