Vagina Monologues Get a Standing O

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Gabrielle Owens ’17 performs ‘I Was There in the Room’ during the second annual presentation of The Vagina Monologues. Courtesy Michael O'Hara.

By Elizabeth Zhou

Amidst the flashy festivities of Winter Carnival, this past weekend marked the second annual performance of The Vagina Monologues in the Hepburn Zoo. An episodic play written in 1996 by Middlebury alum Eve Ensler ’75, the production delves unabashedly into various elements of the female experience, including sex, love, menstruation, masturbation and birth. Proceeds from each sold-out performance Feb. 12 to 14 went toward WomenSafe, a 24-hour hotline dedicated to ending domestic and sexual violence.

Sponsored by the on-campus women’s resources center, Chellis House, and directed by Jiya Pandya ’17 and Sandra Markowitz ’15.5, The Vagina Monologues consisted of “happy facts” and “not-so-happy facts” about vaginas, as well as deeply personal, real-life stories of empowerment, inner turmoil and self-reflection. The heavy monologues came interspersed with moments of humor and warmth, bringing the audience on an emotional journey of sympathy, discomfort, bemusement, joy and everything in between.

While the original, off-Broadway performance featured actresses delivering monologues alone onstage, the College production branched off to include group scenes, interpretive movements and interactive dialogues. The result was a fascinating and elegant narrative on sexuality, female identity and the challenges of womanhood, as performed by a cast of 14 female students.

“These monologues have been done a countless number of times,” explained actress Akhila Khanna ’17. “For more feeling of unity and community, this production incorporated many actors.”

Indeed, in the intimate performing space of the Hepburn Zoo, where the actresses often stood within an arm’s reach of the front row and some audience members sat sprawled on the floor, an overwhelming sense of support and solidarity resonated throughout the performance. Before the opening scene, Pandya and Markowitz led the audience in a rousing chant of “vagina,” explaining that it was crucial that everyone become comfortable with the word before sitting through the highly uncensored 90-minute performance.

If anyone thought that “vagina” was bad, then they certainly must have felt squeamish during the opening scene as the cast named off a rapid-fire list of alternate names for the organ. From “Pussycat” in Great Neck, New York to “twat” in New Jersey to “Pooki” in Westchester, it quickly became clear that the vagina is the bearer of many colorful titles.

Yet, as narrator Jeanette Cortez ’15 noted: “There’s so much darkness and secrecy surrounding [vaginas] – like the Bermuda triangle. Nobody ever reports back from there.”

Building from that, the play proceeded to unravel much of society’s misperceptions surrounding the vagina – what it is like, what it goes through and what it needs. A sense of candid honesty pulsed through the monologues, a few of which ranted furiously against tampons, advocated for a greater love of vaginal hair (described sweetly by Becca Hicks ’15 as “the leaf around the flower, the lawn around the house”) and recounted one woman’s first pleasurable, lesbian experience. In the latter enticing monologue, “The Little Coochi Snorcher That Could,” KJ Davidson-Turner ’17.5 took on a fascinatingly complex character with a traumatic past.

“I realize later [the lady] was my surprising, unexpected and politically incorrect salvation,” Davidson-Turner stated in her vivid closing lines. “She transformed my sorry-ass Coochi Snorcher and raised it into a kind of heaven.”

As the play charged on, the crowd clapped, laughed and snapped appreciatively at each new striking commentary and witty insight. At other moments, when the scenes broached on incredibly dark themes of rape, genital mutilation and abuse, the room fell silent.

“Female genital mutilation has been inflicted on approximately 130 million girls and young women,” narrator Cortez stated at one point. “In the 28 countries where it is practiced, mostly in Africa, about three million young girls a year can expect the knife – or the razor or a glass shard – to cut their clitoris or remove it altogether.”

Like many audience members hearing this fact for the first time, actress Mary Baillie ’18 found it difficult to deal with such heavy material.

“I still can’t listen to that,” she said. “I was really happy because my monologue was right after [the genital mutilation piece], so I could just go to the dressing room and get ready for that. I would just sit there with my ears covered.”

One scene in particular managed to strike a touching balance between deep vulnerability and lightheartedness. Wrapped in a dark red shawl and hunched over on a stool, Michelle Kim ’17 enraptured the audience in a poignant tribute to one elderly woman’s closeted relationship to her “down-there.” Following a nervous sexual encounter in her teens, she now refers to her vagina as damp, clammy, and “closed due to flooding.”

“I haven’t been down there since 1953.  No, it had nothing to do with Eisenhower,” she said, prompting giggles from the crowd.

With no theatrics or fellow actresses for onstage support, Kim spoke directly into the audience, putting her earnest storytelling skills and endearing mannerisms on
full display.

While the power of her performance lay in its quiet, thoughtful honesty, another highly impactful scene featured a dynamic self-written monologue by Khanna and Sally Seitz ’17. Hailing respectively from New Delhi, India and Nashville, Tennessee, the two women channeled the strict sexual standards of each of their cultures by preaching impassionately to the audience. Khanna wore Hindu prayer beads around her neck, while Sally donned a large cross necklace.

“Thou shall not touch thyself. Thou shalt have no idea what it looks like down there,” Seitz said.

“Do not sleep around. Bilkul Nahi,” Khanna announced sternly. “We choose your single sexual partner.”

Their lines played off of each other, crafting an intriguing parallel between two seemingly far-removed places. Near the end, their monologues began to intersect even more closely, as both actresses paused and asked simultaneously, “Why do I feel guilty? Is this my fault?”

While the entire show ventured outside normal boundaries of comfort, perhaps the most unforgettably daring moment came down to a scene in which each actress mimicked a certain type of sex moan. The cast arranged themselves in various positions onstage – standing, sprawled out with their legs slightly open, and lying down – and took turns simulating such sounds as the “doggy” moan, the “college” moan (“I should be studying. I should be studying”) and the “tortured Zen” moan, an exaggerated, twisted cry that left the audience in hysterics.

Though Khanna initially felt uneasy about the moaning scene, she eventually came to terms with the bold material.

“The minute you imagine yourself as an advocate for female sexuality and for other people who are as shy and as uncomfortable about the word ‘vagina’ as you are, it’s a lot easier to go onstage,” she said. “You’re representing other people’s stories and hardships.”

With every piece of biting social commentary or provocative phrase uttered onstage, The Vagina Monologues burst open a subject that remains largely untouched in everyday conversation. Through its unapologetic forwardness, the show put on stunning display both the fearlessness of the cast and many inconvenient realities of the female experience. Uncomfortable as some of the topics may be, the messages of empowerment, exploration and acceptance behind the production deserve to be heeded. As such, perhaps it was fitting that this year’s rendition of The Vagina Monologues coincided with Valentine’s Day weekend.

“Everyone should take the time to appreciate the women in their life,” Baillie said. “The power of the female is unstoppable.”