(PTSD – trigger alert)
Before he was a blind seer, Tiresias was a hermaphrodite; his ability to experience both worlds was his unique gift and his undoing. Legend has it that Zeus wanted to know who enjoyed sexual acts more—men or women, so naturally he asked Tiresias, who had experienced both.
Tiresias answered –honestly—women. Hera, Zeus’s wife, was so outraged by the revelation that she blinded the poor hermaphrodite, and Zeus, feeling guilty at having caused such misfortune, granted Tiresias the gift of prophecy or ‘second sight’ in compensation.
I suspect Eve Ensler –who knows a thing or two about Greek mythology –might not only sympathize with Tiresias’s fate (and surely borrowed a bit of his/her wisdom) but also probably agreed with his assessment regarding the sex act. Women enjoy it more, in fact, if her Vagina Monologues is to be believed, at least twice as many nerves are condensed into the small area of the clitoris as are to be found in a man’s penis. Twice as many, an actress shouts, producing a V for victory that had the audience applauding: “The clitoris is pure in purpose. It is the only organ in the body designed purely for pleasure. The clitoris is simply a bundle of nerves: 8,000 never fibers, to be precise. That’s a higher concentration of nerve fibers than is found anywhere else in the male or female body, including the fingertips, lips, and tongue, and it is twice, twice, twice the number in the penis. Who needs a handgun when you’ve got a semi-automatic?”
Although I had some inkling men might suffer the short end of the stick (so to speak), I had no idea we were down 2 to 1.
Here are some other statistics, less sensual in nature, but no less important to the play.
One in three women on the planet will be raped, beaten or murdered in her lifetime. That’s an amazing number when you consider it. Chances are a girlfriend, a lover, or a wife can recount an incident. That number, 1 in 3, forms the basis and the backdrop to the Vagina Monologues fifteenth year anniversary and it comes on the heels of Eve Ensler’s latest project: One Billion Rising. On February 14, 2013, the One billion Rising event was held– a call for one billion women (and men) around the world to join together to dance in a show of collective strength against violence.
The V-Day movement, out of which One Billion Rising was developed, was inspired, of course, by Eve Ensler’s play, The Vagina Monologues. It was started in 1998 by Ensler who noted that it was women’s reactions to the play that launched the project. After seeing the play she said women would line up afterwards to tell her their personal experiences, most often of sexual violence and abuse. In direct response she formed V- Day which evolved this year into One Billion Rising. By the way, that ‘V’ in V-Day stands for Victory, Valentine and Vagina—a triptych of meaning tying the heart and ceremony (valentine) to gender (vagina) and empowerment (victory), which brings us back to the 15th anniversary of the Vagina Monologues performed recently at the DogTown Dance Theater here in Richmond, Virginia.
A really brief review might go something like this: wow! Energetic, passionate, without being too preachy. And funny! If I wanted to wax eloquent, I’d say the evening was both entertaining and edifying. But it was actually more fun than that.
The way Julie Willard directed the performance, each of the monologues received a separate treatment, or were combined into a kind of group ‘chorus’ effect, and sometimes both—syncopated or in unison. The initial foray into the word of the night was delivered by the entire ensemble, here’s a short segment to give you the flavor.
“Let’s just start with the word, “vagina”. It sounds like an infection at best, maybe a medical instrument. Nurse could you pass me the ‘Vagina’?”
“Vagina, vagina. Doesn’t matter how many times you say it, it never sounds like a word you want to say. It’s a totally ridiculous, completely unsexy word. If you use it during sex, trying to be politically correct– “Darling, could you stroke my vagina?”– you kill the act right there.”
I kept wondering throughout this introductory spiel, how it would go over with our current state assembly members who have spent so much of their time in the last two General Assembly sessions regulating vaginas, insisting on vaginal probes and such without any of their courageous male members being able to actually pronounce the word in public. “Come on, Bob,” I thought, “you want to examine it, legislate it, TRAP it (so to speak), the least you can do is say it: Vagina. There you go, Bob: VA-GI-NA.”
The ladies on stage did it for them. Broke the curse of the word and then barreled into more intimate concerns. Like, say, orgasms. Tiffany Lee, hailing from the Bronx, New York, gave one of the more hilarious performances of the evening as a lawyer turned hooker who loved to hear women moan.
“I love vaginas. I love women. I do not see them as separate things. Women pay me to dominate them, to excite them, to make them come.” (and then, of course, the dildo prop she keeps in a handy tote bag is waved)
“I discovered that most women loved my moaning, but more importantly I discovered how deeply excited I got when other women moaned, when I was responsible for other women moaning.”
From there, we get into a few intimate scenes and a hilarious catalog of the various types of orgasmic moans Tiffany has encountered. Not since Harry Met Sally have mimed orgasms been so vigorously celebrated. Julie Willard had each one performed by an offstage chorus along with Tiffany Lee so that the effect was vividly choreographed, a kind of theatric jam session.
“There’s the elegant moan (a sophisticated laughing sound)
The right on it moan (a deeper, earth driven sound)
The Diva moan (high operatic voices)
The African-American moan (“Oh, Shit!”)
And the WASP moan (no sound).”
The most riveting and heartbreaking moment of the evening came from the “My Vagina Was My Village” monologue delivered by Samatha Kittle, playing the role of a Serbian woman who has been raped by six men.
“There is something between my legs. I do not know what it is. I do not know where it is. I do not touch. Not now. Not anymore. Not since.”
“Not since I dreamed a dead animal sewn in down there with thick black fishing line. And the bad dead animal smell cannot be removed. And its throat is slit and it bleeds through all my summer dresses.”
“Not since I heard the skin tear and made lemon screeching sounds, not since a piece of my vagina came off in my hand, a part of the lip, now one side of the lip is completely gone.”
“I live someplace else now. I don’t know where that is.”
While she spoke, Heather Bailey performed an aerial dance on hanging blue fabric behind her that accentuated and operated as counter point to the emotional trauma. To say it was riveting theater is to understate.
Dawn Flores rounded out the evening with beautifully balanced monologue on witnessing birth, reminding us just how important that word is:
“I was there when her vagina changed from a shy sexual hole to an archaeological tunnel, a sacred vessel, a Venetian canal, a deep well with a tiny child stuck inside, waiting to be rescued.”
‘I stood and her vagina suddenly became a wide red pulsing heart.”
“It can ache for us and stretch for us, die for us and bleed and bleed us into this difficult, wondrous world. I was there in the room. I remember.”
The Vagina Monologues ended with a poem written for the One Billion Rising movement. I’ll just recount the last bit of it here:
It’s time to tell a new story
It needs to be our story
It needs to be outrageous and unexpected
It needs to lose control in the middle
It needs to be sexy and in our hips
And our feet
It needs to be angry and a little scary the way storms can be scary
It needs not to ask permission
The performance had a transgressive, even revolutionary feel for the women on stage and maybe for the audience, as well. When they ended their performance by reciting the One Billion Rising poem each actress raised their single forefinger above their heads, facing the audience, chanting:
And I glanced across the small theater and saw members of the audience rising from their seats as well with their single fingers raised in response.
I kept thinking this was something our politicians could learn from, although I have little hope. I was reminded again of the beginning of the play, when they were doing their recitative on the word of the night: ‘Vagina’. One of the last women went off script and stretched the euphemism ‘Cooch’ into a very elongated: Cooooooch—iiiiii—neeeelllliiiii… As in our current Attorney General, Ken Cuccinelli, who has done so much to abrogate women’s rights across the state.
The crowd would not stop laughing.
You can learn more about One Billion Rising and the V-Day movement here.