SEVEN in Chautauqua County: Stories Told, Voices Heard, and Ways to Continue the Conversation

“Pain is not transformed, it is transferred…we cannot nor should we ask those who have been through trauma to bury it. Healing comes through conversation, through openness. We need to provide safe places for people to communicate and share their stories and for others to hear them. This not only provides a healing space but allows a space for empathy to grow…”

Dr. Sam Mason, SUNY Fredonia

(SEVEN, post performance talkback)

SEVEN

Last week, I was lucky enough to see an amazing performance at the Scharmann Theatre called “Seven.”

“SEVEN in Chautauqua County” was performed on October 8 at SUNY Fredonia and October 14 at the Scharmann Theatre at Jamestown Community College. Since it’s inception in 2008, Seven has been performed in more than 23 countries and 20 languages. In all, this performance included the stories of 14 women, seven global stories read by the community leaders in the first act, and seven local stories in the second act.

Though both the global backgrounds and stories differ, each woman is similar in that she faced severe oppression in such forms as sexual assault, domestic violence, and sex trafficking.  Each woman is similar in that she faced abuse, and each woman is similar in that she overcame her oppression and went on to incite change in her community.

The global script tells the stories of:

Mukhtar Mai, read by Vince Horrigan, County Executive. After fighting to bring her rapists to justice after being gang-raped in a tribal “honor crime,” Mai sought to improve the education and overall lives of other women in her village in Pakistan.

Farida Azizi, read by Lillian Ney, leader in many Chautauqua County organizations, including the Jamestown City Council and the Jamestown Community College Board of Trustees. Azizi fought to bring healthcare to Taliban-controlled villages in Afghanistan and, after emigrating to the U.S., she continues to help empower women in the country.

Hafsat Abiola, read by Marion Beckerink, Director of Development for the Robert H. Jackson Center. Abiola is a human rights activist. She specifically directs her attention toward improving the rights of women in her home country of Nigeria through organizations such as the Kudirat Initiative for Democracy.

Anabella De Leon, read by Marilyn Zagora, Vice President of Academic Affairs at Jamestown Community College. De Leon defied death threats and other oppression in her fight to improve the lives of the women and the poor in her native country of Guatemala.

Inez McCormack, read by Reasha Davis, Student Senator at Jamestown Community College and Vice President of the Black Student Union. After overcoming religious and geographical factors, McCormack became a voice for women who found themselves trapped by unfair labor practices and other rights violations in Northern Ireland.

Mu Sochua, read by Kalimah Jefferson, Student Senator at Jamestown Community College and President of the Black Student Union. Though she placed herself in danger to do so, Sochua travelled through her native Cambodia to raid the brothels and rescue girls from sex trafficking. She later won a seat in Parliament and was co-nominated for the Nobel Prize.

Marina Pisklakova, read by Maureen Rovegno, Associate Director of the Department of Religion at the Chautauqua Institution. Pisklakova founded Russia’s first domestic violence hotline to combat her society’s acceptability of violence against women. She has since founded hundreds of other organizations that provide counseling and help to women in need.

Kalimah Jefferson

Kalimah Jefferson, Student Senator at Jamestown Community College and President of the Black Student Union read the story of Mu Sochua.

The global script demonstrates the commonalities that women and, even more broadly, people everywhere share. The stories of the seven women show the remarkable, humanistic capability of overcoming extreme hardship and inciting change in communities. Individual lives can indeed make a difference, and it was equally powerful to see local leaders provide their voices to tell the stories of such inspiring women.

For Margaret Johnson, director of LakeArts Foundation, the nonprofit organization that produced SEVEN here in Chautauqua County, the global script of SEVEN is moving because it tells of women who have “reached the depths of despair, but never gave up — not for themselves, but for other women.” It creates a “chain reaction of activism to make the world a better place one brave voice at a time.”

After obtaining information about the global production, the LakeArts Foundation sought to find stories from women in the Chautauqua County area. Over the past 1.5 years, dozens were contacted, and seven stories were selected that portrayed the remarkable ability to overcome tremendous odds, emerge victorious, and to seek change that will affect not only the people of Chautauqua County, but society as a whole. One-on-one interviews were conducted and later transcribed. A scriptwriter then wove pieces of the interviews together into the 40 minute production performed at SUNY Fredonia and Jamestown Community College.

Reasha Davis

Reasha Davis, Student Senator at Jamestown Community College and Vice President of the Black Student Union, read the story of Inez McCormack.

This local script tells the stories of:

Sherri (Sam) Mason, read her own monologue. After experiencing multiple generations of abuse, as well as immediate abuse from her own brother, Mason spiraled down a dangerous path. She finally broke free of the cycle and embarked on a journey based on self-worth, love, and education. Mason is now a Professor of Chemistry and chair of the Department of Geology & Environmental Sciences at SUNY Fredonia, as well an EPA Environmental Champion.

Jami Thompson, read her own monologue. Thompson pursued a career in the military from an early age, but was gang raped by other members of the military community. Thompson later overcame struggles regarding acceptance and self-worth to pursue her passions and devotions in life. She currently has a wonderful family, owns her own business, and volunteers with the Salvation Army and Women 2 Women. In addition, she is a Pastor, able to share her stories, love, and insight with people daily.

Jenny Rowe, read her own monologue. Early struggles with homelessness, mental illness, as well as drug and physical abuse, burdened Rowe at a young age.  After gaining strength and support from organizations and members of the local community, Rowe began to overcome her challenges and give back to the local community, too. She is currently a recovery coach at the Mental Health Association in Jamestown, raising awareness about addiction, illness, and abuse.

Senada Alihodzic, read her own monologue. As a Bosnian refugee, Alihodzic faced violence, hardship, oppression, and discrimination head-on. After coming to the United States 23 years ago, she has helped other refugees with personal struggles, as well as bringing people together and building the community as a whole. She has worked for the U.S. Committee of Refugees and Immigrants for over 20 years.

Cassidy Fritsch, read by Brittney Horan, senior Public Relations and Theatre Arts major at SUNY Fredonia. Soon after beginning her college career, Fritsch was raped. After initial self-blame and silence, she began to speak out, later starting a SUNY-wide campaign called “End the Silence,” to spark dialogue and encourage others to share their stories, too. Fritsch is graduating with a Bachelor’s Degree in Theatre with a minor in English from SUNY Fredonia in pursuit of her dream of becoming a film/theatre director.

Grace Sam, read by Obie Ejele, international student from London studying Media Arts at Jamestown Community College. Born with severe hearing loss, Sam felt as if she were an outsider in her own community. Through personal action and local guidance, Sam was able to overcome this to inspire and help other women in Chautauqua County.

Sarom Heng, read by Simone Mullinax, Director of Media Arts, Visual Arts, and Performing Arts at Jamestown Community College. After leaving her dangerous, poverty-stricken and war-torn country of Cambodia, Heng immigrated to the United States to begin an organic farm, Gong Gardens, helping to bring education, health, and community to Chautauqua County.

Marilyn Zagora

Marilyn Zagora, Vice President of Academic Affairs at Jamestown Community College, read the story Annabella De Leon.

Through SEVEN, each of the voices and stories were able to be heard.

This portion of the performance evoked maximum emotion from the audience due to its tangibility. Four of the local women read their own stories on stage. These women were able to endure fear, hopelessness, and tragedy to overcome their hardships and share their stories with us.

The production of “SEVEN in Chautauqua County” provided these women with a platform with which to share, but the most visceral aspect of the play was realizing that these stories are waiting to be told. The scale of this play may differ, and different actions and reactions will occur around the globe. Yet, as we saw through the viewing of the production as a whole, there are always stories. There will always be stories. The local voices heard at SUNY Fredonia and Jamestown Community College bridged the gap between the equally omnipresent and hushed topics such as violence, rape, drugs, etc. and the Chautauqua County community. The conversation began October 8 at SUNY Fredonia, and it began October 15 at Jamestown Community College.

Brittney Horan, a SUNY Fredonia theatre student who read the part of Tiffany Fritch, said that she sees SEVEN and the women on stage reading their own stories as “the absolute definition of self-empowerment, but together on that stage they were an incredible level of collective empowerment .. .I believe that alone they made change within our communities.”

But the conversation does not stop here. The first step is to tell the stories instead of hiding them. This is the point of the SEVEN project. It is meant to inspire readings all over the world and to inspire local communities to create their own scripts as Chautauqua County has done.

Seven documentary at JCC

Next, the idea is to “share our local script,” Patricia Briggs says, “with other local English classes at the colleges and high schools, so students can read these parts in classroom productions. By doing this they will see that even in their own communities women overcome abuse and many huge challenges every day.” It could be performed at local schools, galleries, theaters, and everywhere in-between. Through plays such as SEVEN, safe spaces are being provided in order for people to share their stories but, equally importantly, for others to listen.

 Dr. Marilyn Zagora, Vice President of Academic Affairs at Jamestown Community College and performer in the part of Anabella De Leon. She sees the importance of performing SEVEN as a way of inspiring others to take control of their situations.

“In most cases,” Zagora says, “it takes an individual or perhaps several to envision the change. These are individuals in whom the passion for the change exists and who have the ability and the courage, where necessary, to bring the vision to the attention to others. It is almost always essential, however, to draw a larger group into that vision and to inspire in them a similar passion in order to bring the vision to reality.”

 Kalimah Jefferson, JCC Student Senator and President of the campus’ Black Student Union, read the part of Mu Sochua of Cambodia in the JCC performance.  She echoed Zagora’s point: “The empowered collective empowers the individual and vice versa.”

The first step has been taken, and even more stories are ready to be heard. The silence is beginning to end.

SEVEN in Chautauqua County was produced by LakeArts Foundation in association with SUNY Fredonia and the Weeks Gallery at Jamestown Community College.

To see more about the play, visit the website at: seventheplay.com 

For more information, contact:

Margaret Johnson of LakeArts Foundation, MJohnson123@roadrunner.com / 716-451-4004

Patricia Briggs of SUNY JCC, patriciabriggs@mail.sunyjcc.edu / 716-338-1304

About the author

Paige Sirwatka

My name is Paige Sirwatka, and I was born and raised in Jamestown, New York. I am currently a sophomore at JCC, double majoring in Communication and Global Studies. After graduating from JCC, I'm planning to transfer to the International Studies Program at City College with a concentration in Culture and Communication. I love the endless ways in which these fields interact, and it's fascinating to observe what serves as communicative devices within specific cultures: art, architecture, literature, religion, food, as well as, of course, language itself. In the future, I'd love to be able to be able to teach English abroad, especially in rural settings. This semester I'm involved with a number of different global projects, including CLAC (Cultures & Languages Across the Curriculum) and the Soliya program, an online discussion group that connects students from over 100 universities in 28 different countries. I also a member of the Honors College and Student Senate. I currently live with my two wonderful parents, three dogs, six cats, seven chickens, and five ducks. I love hiking with my dog, Waldo, working in our gardens, baking bread, and drinking lots and lots of coffee.