By Stacey Coles
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer
Mani Yangilmau had a surprising revelation one evening when she sat on her couch talking to a male friend about sexual assault. He was a victim.
Throughout his teenage years, Yangilmau discovered, her friend had been repeatedly sexually assaulted by a woman. Not knowing what else to say, Yangilmau began to sing a song she’d written called “Tainted Skin.”
No stranger to these situations, Yangilmau wrote the song for her play “Vajungle,” a show meant to resonate with the tragedy of sexual assault and the challenges that victims like her friend face afterwards.
“A lot of women that I know, and men as well, have had to deal with sexual assault in their lives,” said Yangilmau, a 21-year-old acting major and senior at Towson University. “So I thought it was really important that someone talk about the issue and create a dialogue that tells them they are not alone.”
That dialogue came to life on the stage at the Ruther Marder Studio Theater earlier this month as Yangilmau’s play “Vajungle” was shown each night from Sept. 30 to Oct. 3.
“It’s a big deal to have your play fully produced at such a young age,” said Tiana Bias, student director of “Vajungle.”
Yangilmau wanted to send out a message by sharing her friends’ experiences as well as her own in the play.
During a scene in “Vajungle,” a woman sat in the center of the floor crying because her boyfriend had dumped her by text and had not returned her toothbrush. A family-size bag of York Peppermint Patties was by her side.
“It’s (the scene) ridiculous, but it’s also one of those things that people do,” Yangilmau said.
Touching on problems from communication to more serious issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder, the social activist wanted her production to speak for her.
“It’s (Vajungle) something that helped me realize exactly what I feel like my function is in activism,” Yangilmau said. “I’ve always been a big social activist, and this theatre for social change is my format.”
Using an all-female cast, short songs and choreography to display scenes of drama, Yangilmau focused the play on a fact the playwright feels is seldom discussed: One in four women are sexually assaulted in their lifetime.
But not everyone who has seen the play reacted positively to it, Yangilmau said, with some thinking it was anti-man. She said she sat in a Starbucks and cried after the opening show because some people had described the play as “man hating.”
“Hearing that term thrown around was really frustrating and disheartening,” Yangilmau said, adding that her intention to display the challenges women face had been misinterpreted.
As production week went along, though, the playwright was greeted by many people who said they felt connected to the women on stage. Yangilmau found these comments “rewarding.”
Production week was an “emotional rollercoaster” for Yangilmau, but at the end she felt she’d made her point to many.
“I think it’s great when an artist comes to the forefront and is willing to say what needs to be said without worrying about what people think,” Bias said.
Melanie Slusar, a junior at Towson and dramaturg for the production, said the student playwright is an open person.
“It (Vajungle) says that Mani is someone who isn’t afraid to get people talking,” said Slusar, who met Yangilmau during her freshman year at Towson. “(She) isn’t afraid to get people riled up… She does it in a really artistic and creative way.”
Raised by a poor religious family in Prince Georgia’s County, Yangilmau is no stranger to diversity or adversity.
With a religious Caucasian mother and Pacific Islandic father, her beliefs and decisions did not always compliment her parents’ moral standards. Her father in particular did not want her to participate in plays that had profanity or mature content, but Yangilmau continued to participate in plays such as “A Piece of My Heart” despite his disapproval.
“When my dad found Jesus he found him hard,” Yangilmau said. “My dad is so similar to me in the fact that when we find a passion we have to pursue it, so that’s something he’s always instilled in me and my sisters.”
Times when her family only had crackers to eat, and no running water or heat, molded the woman she is today.
“I’m definitely not ashamed of my parents now and being poor and having to work your ass off to be where you are,” Yangilmau said. “That’s definitely something I identify with and that’s part of the reason why I won’t stop doing what I do.”
Identifying as a Pacific Islander, the voice of her people is rarely represented in the United States, Yangilmau said.
“My main goal in life is to create a multicultural theatre here in the U.S. and then go to an island and create one at a school for the kids there,” Yangilmau said.
These experiences have made Yangilmau sympathetic to people who have experienced pain, such as her friend who had been sexually assaulted.
When Yangilmau’s friend first revealed his experience to her, she tried to show him support and to let him know he didn’t have to deal with it alone.
“Little child with tainted skin…terrified to let someone in,” she sang. “You’ve succumbed the nightmares begin.”