Before describing the Extra Theatre Company’s recent production of The Vagina Monologues in Jones Auditorium at Meredith College, permit me a relevant digression.
It is a truism, more sadly accurate with each passing year, that theatre — the most vital, transformational art, the liveliest of arts — has become so marginalized in the United States it no longer affects the culture on a large scale. Yet even now, when Broadway (and even Off-Broadway) functions largely as an adjunct for mindless tourism, American theatre still produces work that shakes things up, in the best sense, enlarging the national vocabulary the way movies and music routinely do. The phrase “six degrees of separation” and its pop-culture spin-offs (“Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”) find their genesis in a John Guare play; a work like Tony Kushner’s Angels in America holds the power to engender both political hysteria and a countervailing decency in local communities; and an actor/playwright named Eve Ensler can give everyone in the country permission to utter the dread word “vagina” without embarrassment.
If all The Vagina Monologues had accomplished were a loosening of the collective vernacular, Ensler would be a dramatist worthy of esteem. And in a culture where self-regard seems to be the quality most worth emulating, she might well have spent her notoriety in the pursuit of greater material riches — the ne plus ultra of American accomplishment. But since 1998 Ensler has made her most celebrated work the engine for human betterment: Through the foundation of V-Day, women (and their male allies) throughout the world pursue an end, not merely to the self-suppression of language — which is, after all, the most useful mechanism of human enslavement — but to the seemingly universal perpetuation of violence against women. If, as a recent United Nations study discloses, “1 in 3 women on the planet” — that’s 1 billion — “will be beaten or raped in their lifetimes” [emphasis mine], no modern dramatist I can name has undertaken a worthier, or more fundamental, cause. Eve Ensler is a mensh of the first water.
Those who are nervous — about language, female sexual and reproductive organs, or the possibility that The Vagina Monologues is an exercise in man-bashing, or who on a more basic level fear women — will probably never see, or read, Ensler’s work. Others may dread an emphasis on the grisly. And while there are moments in the work (one in particular, involving the systemic use of rape in Bosnia) that can cause the heartiest soul to blanch, there is so much sheer good feeling in the piece that the overarching effect is not despairing but annealing. The interviews Ensler conducted, her editing and arrangement of them, and her own good humor can carry you over the occasional horror — and the bumps of an uneven reading, the necessary result of Ensler’s egalitarian guidelines for the show, which allow anyone, actor or not, who wishes to perform in it, the opportunity to do so.
At Meredith, Julie-Kate Cooper directed a large ensemble of young women with remarkable grace, with Natasha Bress’ lighting designs providing simple yet elegant assistance. And if some of the text was difficult to hear, or read too quickly for maximum impact, or even at times inaudible, the work itself has the power and wit to elide these imperfections. And there were performances to treasure: In the section called “Because He Liked to Look at It,” Sarah Mosely had an especially good balance of talking and reading (The Vagina Monologues is performed with hand-held cue-cards); Rose Turchi’s “My Angry Vagina” was both bracing and hilarious; Alisah Broadnax’s series of moans in “The Woman Who Loved to Make Vaginas Happy” were wildly funny; and A. Carter’s “Spotlight,” a piece on violence against the Transgendered, held the kind of quiet power that moves and astonishes with equal aplomb. Special mention should be made, as well, of Katy Koop’s elegant and expressive program note, “Safe Space.”
At a time when politicians across the nation seem to be waging war against womanhood itself and potential Presidential candidates fall over themselves to define marriage and decry and de-fund basic preventative services to women, where Congress debates contraceptive rights in panels at which no women are allowed to speak, and in which legislators in a state such as Virginia can attempt to pass a law mandating mechanical rape as a means of circumventing Roe v. Wade, The Vagina Monologues is essential. Essential as an outcry.
Essential as theatre.
Note: Eve Ensler and V-Day have launched One Billion Rising, a global movement to end violence against women and girls, to culminate on the 15th anniversary of V-Day. See the following for more information: http://www.onebillionrising.org, http://www.vday.org/onebillionrisingpage.html, & https://www.facebook.com/vday.