As a theater director, the first person I thought of when I heard the news from Michigan was Eve Ensler. I’ve directed The Vagina Monologues twice and, despite unsettling doubts that the play does not actually work as the V-Day events intend (to end violence), I loved doing it both times.
In theater speak, The Vagina Monologues works in an Aristotelian way to create a catharsis out of pity and fear. In regular speak, that means that the play encourages the audience to identify with the characters, leading to an empathetic emotional experience. This in itself is pretty cool, but emotional experiences are, by definition, internal to individuals, whereas ending violence requires structural social change.
Nevertheless, I am here to tell you that a performance of The Vagina Monologues scheduled for Monday evening on the steps of the Michigan Capitol is activist theater that can work. In fact it’s just about the best idea I’ve heard in a long time.
The local artists putting together the event recruited six Democratic state legislators–Sen. Rebekah Warren, Sen. Gretchen Whitmer, Rep. Barb Byrum, Rep. Stacy Erwin Oakes, Rep. Dian Slavens and Rep. Rashida Tlaib–to read monologues. It was reported yesterday that they’ll also be joined by Rep. Lisa Brown, the woman barred from speaking on the Michigan House floor after, horrors!, she used the word vagina in a debate on an abortion bill. (Rep. Byrum was the other legislator silenced as punishment, after introducing a pointed parody amendment to the abortion bill that wouldn’t allow vasectomies except to save a man’s life.)
The rest of the cast is filled with volunteers. And, as if notified by a vagina signal in the sky, Ensler herself will attend.
In case you’re one of the few people who haven’t seen it yet, every monologue in this groundbreaking show deals either directly or indirectly with a woman struggling to describe her experience of her own body and to a create meaningful narrative out of things that have happened to her. In so doing, the women in the play say “vagina” and many other words that supposedly mean the same thing, over and over and over, until the audience is comfortable not only hearing the words but often saying them, too. In many cases, a highlight of the show is the audience chanting “cunt” together.
Taking Ensler’s play outside the relatively safe walls of the theater and putting it in before the public, in the mouths of politicians, will directly confront prudish folks with the language and imagery of female anatomy. These are not bad words. We need these words. These words are about women, and we will not allow anyone to erase women by erasing the words that describe them.
This is political action aided by the individual identification at the center of The Vagina Monologues. Organizer Carla Milarch of Ann Arbor’s Performance Network Theatre says,
It’s just a perfect example of the ways we use language to oppress people. The more we understand that and say ‘I’m going to say the word vagina in any context’ … is taking back the power of the word.
Milarch is still seeking volunteers to perform; for more information, contact her here. And if you’re in Michigan, show up at the capitol at 6 p.m. and shout, “Vagina! Vagina! Vagina! Vagina! Vagina!”
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