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The Nether Land

Eve Ensler's Monologues Explores the Great Unmentionable

˘There's so much darkness and secrecy surrounding them¨like the Bermuda Triangle,÷ Eve Ensler wrote in the introduction to her play. ˘Nobody ever reports back from there.÷

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 2/7/2001

The Vagina Monologues

Eve Ensler

Most people don't spend Valentine's Day talking about vaginas. In fact, most people don't spend half an hour on a random Thursday talking about vaginas. But now, in many cities across the country, they do. And for that they can thank Eve Ensler.

On Valentine's Day 1998, hundreds of people got together at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York to discuss female private parts at a benefit performance of Ensler's 1996 play The Vagina Monologues. What was originally a one-woman show performed by the author became, for the first time, an ensemble piece, as Glenn Close, Susan Sarandon, Whoopi Goldberg, Winona Ryder, and a host of other high-profile performers took the stage to perform Ensler's often funny, occasionally tragic, and always thought-provoking play.

That event started an annual celebration--of women, of vaginas, and of the fight to end violence against women. The play is now the centerpiece of events, often accompanied by discussions, speeches, and music, that are held all over the country around Valentine's Day to promote awareness of physical and sexual abuse against women. The proceeds benefit a variety of organizations, from rape-crisis centers to shelters for victims of domestic violence. During many of these "V-Day" events, the play is performed by an ensemble of women, some of whom have never acted before.

On Feb. 10, 16, and 17, as part of the nationwide V-Day College Initiative, Howard Community College (HCC) will host a production of The Vagina Monologues performed by a cast of students, alumni, and faculty and directed by Denise Cumor at Theatre Outback. On Valentine's Day, the production will have a night off; instead, HCC will host an event featuring poetry readings; music by local bands We're About 9, Dirty Mothers Productions, and Jeznick; and a discussion on feminist pioneer Susan B. Anthony led by HCC philosophy and women's-studies professor Helen Mitchell. Proceeds from the performances and the Valentine's Day event will benefit the Columbia-based Sexual Trauma, Treatment, Advocacy, and Recovery Center, a nonprofit agency that provides a wide range of services to victims of sexual crimes, sexual exploitation, and child abuse.

While this is the first year HCC will participate in V-Day, director Cumor hopes it won't be the last. She decided to take part after seeing a production of the play at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County last year. "I was literally blown away by the script," she says. "I really believe that the message delivered in The Vagina Monologues has been long overdue. . . . And if I can make 300 people think and talk about vaginas for just a couple hours, I believe I have done some good for women."

Ensler put together her show after interviewing more than 200 females between the ages of 6 and 76 about their vaginas. She started the project because she realized that women weren't comfortable talking about their genitalia. As she says in the play's introductory monologue, "I was worried about what we think about vaginas, and even more worried that we don't think about them. . . .There's so much darkness and secrecy surrounding them--like the Bermuda Triangle. Nobody ever reports back from there." Ensler also explains in Monologues' introduction that the women she spoke to were initially reticent to discuss their vaginas, but once they got started there was no stopping them. And that feeling--of demystifying your own body and finally discussing it openly--is contagious. Few woman have left this powerful show without feeling relieved, exhilarated, and ready to gab about their privates for hours.

The monologues range from funny pieces, such as a diatribe against the uncomfortable conditions at gynecologists' offices and an older woman's explanation of why she doesn't go "down there," to heartbreakingly sad vignettes such as "My Vagina Was My Village," a piece dedicated to the Bosnian women who were raped as a tactic of war. On some level, all of Ensler's monologues are shocking, largely because we are not used to hearing vaginas discussed so frankly. But "Reclaiming Cunt" might be the hardest piece for some people to handle. According to a The New York Times account, actress Glenn Close, who performed it in the inaugural V-Day event, at first wasn't sure she could even say the word. While "cunt" has become perhaps the ultimate term of insult, Ensler decided to write a defense of it after meeting a woman who loved the word. The piece has a Beat-poetry feel that, while less straightforward than the other monologues, has managed to make "cunt" converts out of many people.

The Monologues can be as powerful an experience for the performers as for the audience. Close told the Times, "You don't just hook up with Eve, you become part of her crusade. There's a core of us who are Eve's army." Donna Hanover, the estranged wife of New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, made waves last year when she appeared in a Monologues production in Manhattan. ("[The play's] about self-acceptance," Hanover told the Times. "It's glorious to me.")

Cumor has seen the positive effect the play has had on her HCC cast. "I realize now that there are 20 women [who] are now Vagina Monologue advocates," she says.

But the only way to truly appreciate The Vagina Monologues' power is to see the play performed. Descriptions only make Ensler's conversation pieces seem more trite, more harsh, and less exceptional then they really are. Sitting in a theater hearing women wax rhapsodic about their lady bits will make you laugh, relate, get angry, and open up to a world of things you've never considered. And with all the proceeds benefiting such a worthy cause, there is no reason not to indulge.

For information and tickets to HCC's V-Day events, call (410) 772-4900. The Sexual Trauma, Treatment, Advocacy, and Recovery Center has a 24-hour crisis hotline that can be reached at (410) 997-3292.

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