By Annette Hinkle
Let’s face it, these are troubled — and troubling — times for many people in many parts of the world. It’s even worse if you happen to be female, and political policies are being enacted across the globe that threaten your rights and could potentially drag you straight back to the dark ages.
Which means this is turning out to be an excellent time for women to make political statements through artistic expression. Witness the success of Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Showtime’s “Homeland” and, a bit closer to home, the Neo-Political Cowgirls.
East Hampton’s Kate Mueth founded the Cowgirls a decade ago with a simple mission — to provide women with an opportunity to share their voices through performances and offer workshops in dance, movement and theater for community members across the board.
“Originally, our goal was to make more work for women in the theater, and give voices to women who aren’t identified in mainstream theater,” says Mueth. “We’re trying to do our part in turning the ship around and instead of moaning and complaining, just do the work.”
With that in mind, this Sunday, the Neo-Political Cowgirls host “Andromeda’s Sisters,” a fundraiser at Guild Hall in East Hampton featuring a range of events highlighting women’s causes, voices and talents.
It beings at 4 p.m. with a panel of women’s advocacy organizations moderated by Cristina Cuomo, followed at 6 p.m. by a garden party with wine, food, networking and music by Sarah Azzara, and at 8 p.m., performances of one act plays by several female playwrights and performed by actors from stage, film and television including Blythe Danner, Cathy Curtin, and Heather Lind, among others.
While this is a benefit for NeoPolitical Cowgirls, Mueth points out the evening is also about much more than that.
“Yes, we’re trying to raise funds to keep supporting our actors,” she says. “But we’re really passionate about the fundamental experience of the night — women’s causes — and putting out really good plays by hardworking playwrights so their work is getting out there more and more.”
Among the organizations that will be highlighted at the panel are The Retreat and The Coalition for Women’s Cancers, Planned Parenthood and some that may be new to East End residents, such as The Story Exchange, and the Women’s Prison Association (WPA), an organization which is very near and dear to the heart of actress Cathy Curtin.
“I’ve always been interested in the prison system and I wonder how we can incarcerate human beings at the rate we do. Does this work?” asks Curtin. “I have a problem with the efficacy of the system. We incarcerate more people than any other nation, and more women than any other nation.”
Curtin is in a unique position to appreciate the issue of female incarceration. She plays Wanda Bell, a correctional officer in an all-female prison, in the popular Netflix series “Orange is the New Black.” The role has gotten her to think seriously about the nature of women behind bars, why many of them end up there, and what happens once they leave prison.
“The sets of ‘Orange’ are very realistic,” she says. “It occurred to me, this is really a warehouse of souls. People’s whole lives are not going anywhere because they made a mistake.”
Curtin stresses she’s not talking about criminals who are mass murderers or sociopaths, but women in correctional facilities like the one represented on the show who messed up, admit they messed up, and recognize on a lot of levels that if things were different in their lives, they might not have made the fateful decision that landed them in trouble.
Fortunately, rebuilding women’s lives is what the WPA is all about. Piper Kerman, the real life woman who went to prison and whose story is the basis for “Orange is the New Black,” became involved in the WPA after her release. Curtin explains that the organization provides assistance and emotional support for women just out of prison as they look to reinvent themselves by helping them get jobs, find places to live, and regain custody of their children and their lives.
“WPA really seeks to get women back into society,” says Curtin.
It turns out that the organization has been doing just that for a very long time. The WPA was founded way back in 1845 and initially set out to address the issue of women (often immigrant women) who had been abandoned and left destitute by abusive and alcoholic spouses.
Though the need may have shifted in the years since, it certainly has not vanished and Curtin explains that just like the women who were victimized by abusive spouses in the 19th century, women today are often ending up in prison because of love for a man.
“I think its interesting that OJ was released last week. Yeah, there were burglary charges — but there was also a domestic violence issue there,” says Curtin. “I feel as many ways as we go forward, we also go backward, and with the WPA, what I was struck by, was when women told their stories of how they got in trouble it’s the same old thing. ‘I followed some guy, he wanted me to sell some stuff, he started beating me up.’”
“It’s so common and I really wonder as women, are we we’re at a crisis point in terms of how we move forward?” she asks. “I think there’s something to teaching women at a much younger age not to let themselves get taken advantage of. We need to make our girls more questioning, resilient and self sufficient.”
Curtin also notes that the concept making retribution by doing time for crimes is not quite reality, given that once released, the person will always have a criminal record that makes it difficult to have a normal life.
“That one mistake is made at age 19 or 20, then their whole lives are completely changed,” says Curtin. “This is not just a prisoner, but a human being with a life story that you can believe in, With the WPA a whole organization is standing up for the person.’
“At this time in our lives, given the difficult situation in the White House, we need to come together.”
The Neo-Political Cowgirls “Andromeda’s Sisters” fundraiser is Sunday, July 30 at Guild Hall, 158 Main Street, East Hampton. It begins at 4 p.m. with the panel of women’s advocacy organizations, followed by networking, drinks, food and music in the Guild Hall Garden at 6 p.m. At 8 p.m., performances of one act plays by Lucy Boyle, Halley Feiffer, Monica Bauer, Sarah Hammond and Catherine Filloux will be presented.
Tickets are $20 to $60. For more information visit npcowgirls.org.