Vagina magic

Nikki Fuda

Throughout the ‘Rainbow Region’ of the Far North Coast of NSW, cars are adorned with stickers that read like epigrams…Practice Random Acts of Kindness and Senseless Beauty, Free Tibet and Magic Happens. Magic recently did happen and it happened in the theatre. And it didn’t come from one of the big name theatre companies that visit us from Sydney or Melbourne, but from a local community theatre. The local Women’s Health Centre produced Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues for International Women’s Day. A week later the audience are still affected by it, and talking about it. We’ve heard and read about this show’s power as it trailblazes around the world…from Kenya to Hong Kong, Iceland to Venezuela, and Pakistan, where it’s currently on show. But what makes it so magical?

According to US feminist Gloria Steinem, who wrote the foreword for Ensler’s play (Villard, 1998) hundreds of years ago female genital symbols were worshipped in India as more powerful than their male counterpart, a belief that carried over into Tantrism. Tantric Buddhism still teaches that Buddahood resides in the vulva. However Indian yoni worship is a long way away from contemporary Western attitudes to women’s bodies? Words like ‘vagina’ feel clinical. ‘Cunt’ has been demonised and demeaned, and ‘pussy’ is, well…it’s all right.

This production achieved a rare feat in the region, selling out Lismore’s 390-seat capacity Star Court Theatre 10 days prior to performance. And still they clamoured outside to get in. Not even our local award-winning performing arts organization, NORPA, achieves that very often.

The monologues range from celebration to catharsis, and this version included two new pieces, Under the Burqa, an Afghanistani woman’s experience of drowning underneath the Taliban-enforced cloth, and My Short Skirt…”My short skirt and everything underneath it is Mine. Mine. Mine”. Got it? Women entrusted Ensler with their most intimate experiences, from the act of conception to birth, from the undeclared war against women to newfound freedoms. The narratives were gathered from more than 200 interviews and turned into poetry for the theatre.

In Australia there were 15,600 cases of reported sexual assault in 2000 (Australian Bureau of Statistics) and those working in the field say this represents only 10 percent of actual cases. In the US, figures are as high as 700,000 each year. In South Africa one in two women can expect to be raped in their lifetime. One elderly woman in the Lismore audience had been raped and severely bashed at 59 years of age in Johannesburg.

While claims continue that theatre is dying, that young people don’t ‘do’ theatre, this regional audience comprised young, old, straight, dyke women and men. Magic happened, which begs the question, what do contemporary audiences want to see at the theatre? If the power of these monologues was anything to go by, I’d suggest they want powerful, real, honest, present-tense stories that stir us to engage with ideas and issues that matter to us now.

The Vagina Monologues, writer Eve Ensler, director Cathy Henkel, performers Punita Boardman, Marika Cominos, Nikki Fuda, Many Nolan and MC Zenith Virago; March 8.

RealTime issue #48 April-May 2002 pg.

1 April 2002