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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Friday, January 14, 2005

entry arrow1:07 AM | Going Back to 'Vagina'

It's V-Day Season again. Bing V. contacted me a few weeks back about this year's version of The Vagina Monologues -- this time no longer a college campaign confined to the lofty Silliman University campus, but now a community campaign designed to involve most of the city's vagina warriors. Since Laurie's now based in Guam, the sole responsibility of directing the whole thing falls on ... me.

What can I say? Being an 'honorary vagina' does extract such responsibilities.

Last night, we had our first read-through. The cast is large, and still unwieldy, but strangely, I am not afraid. Then again, I never am afraid whenever directing jobs fall on my lap. Sometimes I get infuriated by my own sense of calm. I should be a nervous wreck! I keep telling myself. But no. Things always seem to work out fine, no matter the bumps that keep any project in suspense.

In honor of this first big venture of the year, I am posting an article I first published in Sun-Star Dumaguete in 2000. I revised it last year for the Philippine Daily Inquirer to commemorate the celebration of V-Day in Silliman University, with the local production of Eve Ensler’s play. Reading the article again, I am struck by how much many of my sentiments still remain true, although there are some cracks indeed in the wall.

I hounded my sister-in-law Daisy, for example, to be part of the Vulva Choir. I wanted a typical Born Again Christian to be part of the whole thing, since my family's church seems so bent on thinking the whole enterprise immoral and lurid. "What shallow-minded thinking!" I told myself, and of course -- which is so typical of me -- I proceeded to crack the wall. (I once told the pastor that the reason I chose not to go to Church every Sunday, was his atrocious grammar. "Listening to you makes me sin, because I cringe every time you open your mouth," I told him. "I'd rather stay home and think pure thoughts.")

Alas, no luck. My sister-in-law gives one reason, and another. So much for pushing. So much for "caring," near-sighted Christianity.

So anyway, my old article:

When people first hear about Eve Ensler’s play, The Vagina Monologues, they immediately think of several things. First, that it must necessarily be obscene and virtually pornographic -- after all, it has the word "vagina: in the title. Second, that it is controversial. And third, that it cannot be appropriate -- and the usual complaint that comes with that reason is this: "It may be worthwhile, but I don't think our community is ready for it."

Which is sad, because ultimately, The Vagina Monologues is none of the above, two out of three. Yes, it is controversial -- but that is a given, considering the taboo over the subject matter: the vagina -- "a body part that thirty years after the sexual revolution people are still embarrassed about naming aloud."

Nobody talks about the vagina, and renowned critic and uber-feminist Gloria Steinem, in her introduction to Ensler’s book, rightly put it when she referred to that culture of stultifying silence by calling herself as a relic of the "Down There Generation." In soft parlance, the best way we refer to it is through strange euphemisms like "flower." Since language is primarily expression of oneself, this culture of silence is by virtue an imprisonment of identity, a socially-approved denigration of a gender, and a culturally constructed shaming of the natural.

It is neither obscene nor pornographic. What it is about really is women's -- and humanity's -- liberation from machinations of discreet evil that can produce, for one, such accepted practices as vaginal mutilation in the form of clitoral circumcision that is tolerated and practiced widely in many societies in the world. What Eve Ensler does in The Vagina Monologues is to present voices of women's oppression, and does it through the one thing that symbolizes and unites them -- the vagina, and talks about the symbolic persecution of their gender -- the silencing of discourse about the vagina.

"The Vagina Monologues is precisely what its name suggests," the play's program notes say, "a series of stories, based on interviews, in which women talk about the most secret part of their bodies. But it's great deal more. Ensler shows so triumphantly that by opening up such a subject, you can also reveal a whole range of human experience. Using intelligence, integrity and compassion, she has created not just one of the best shows in the world today (it has premiered in over 15 countries and translated in over 10 languages) but the most morally serious."

It is frank, it is enlightening, it is explicit, and it is occasionally erotic, but it is never pornographic. Unless, of course, one finds the sketch of a Somalian woman being raped in a camp ("... they took turns for seven days... smelling like feces and smoked meat, they left their dirty sperm inside me..."), or a traumatic tale of vaginal circumcision vaguely sexually arousing.

It is not inappropriate, but it is necessarily discomforting. Yet that happens when a community -- especially one that is, by choice, closed off from enlightening discourse in the name of misplaced conservatism -- encounters something that has been culturally submerged and swept aside for "decency." But there is nothing indecent about a play that only seeks to instruct and to educate, and to placate long-held notions of female oppression. Eve Ensler, an award-winning playwright, poet, activist, and screenwriter whose many works for all stages includes The Depot, Floating Rhoda, and The Glue Man, Extraordinary Measures, Lemonade, Ladies, and most recently Necessary Targets, which was performed on Broadway to benefit Bosnian refugees, forces a dialogue of sorts, a sudden reckoning. The community, after the initial squeamishness, will eventually benefit from it because the play will at length teach it about love, about self-acceptance, about sisterhood (or brotherhood).

When plans were being discussed to import The New Voice Company’s local production here in Dumaguete City in 2000 (the theatrical group was founded by Miss Saigon alumnae Monique Wilson, which has spearheaded local productions of acclaimed stage plays and musicals such as the Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning Angels in America, Rent, and Chess here in the Philippines), the initial reaction was a mixture of excitement, titillation, amusement, and hesitance.

Those who were hesitant were invariably people who turned out to not have heard of the play or of Eve Ensler before -- or were sadly uncomprehending in the prison of their literalness. "Vagina," they read, and immediately think of the ugly and the gross. They were hesitant, even horrified, over the word 'vagina' in the title. "Can't you just change the word in the title? Like 'The V Monologues' or something?" they would suggest.

They did not comprehend that the word "vagina" was the sum and substance of the play. To change the title -- censorship in any other way (which includes abridging the right of the author to name her work appropriately, as well as compromising the integrity of a work of art) -- was also essentially running counter to the message of the play.

Those who were excited knew about the play beforehand -- and only elucidated the popular but oft-forgotten notion that "ignorance is the root of all prejudice." These were mainly people who were in the arts and in the sciences, people like Dr. Ceres Pioquinto, the Silliman Cultural Affairs Committee's Eva Rose Repollo Lindstrom, feminists like the Psychology Department's Michelle Joan Valbuena and Prof. Marge Alvarez, Biology Department's Dr. Laurie Raymundo (who serves as the director for the V-Day production of the Monologues), the Women's Center's Phoebe Tan, and cultural aficionados like Moses Joshua Atega.

They knew about the wave of female solidarity and intelligent discourse that Ensler’s play has generated in the United States. When The Vagina Monologues was staged as an Off-Broadway performance piece -- starring acclaimed actors like Glenn Close, Whoopi Goldberg, Winona Ryder, Lily Tomlin, Marisa Tomei, Rosie Perez, Shirley Knight, Soraya Mire, Alanis Morissette, Kirstie Alley, Calista Flockhart, Amy Irving, Patti Lupone, Melissa Etheridge, Kate Winslet, Melanie Griffith, and Susan Sarandon -- it resulted to a landslide of praise, starting with The New York Times which called "heartbreaking, and groundbreaking." It also eventually won an Obie Award for Best Play.

The show has received favorable notices from the popular press. Jane Edwardes for Time Out says it is "part therapy, part entertainment, part polemic." Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph says, "There is a lot of truth and humor in the monologues, which Miss Ensler -- a likeable, glamorous New Yorker with a Louise Brooks haircut -- based on her interviews, although the squirm factor is sometimes dangerously high." Rachel Halliburton for The Evening Standard says it is "a wittily honest investigation about how women feel about their sexuality."

Critic Sara Kelly, writing about the literary adaptation, wrote: "For Ensler, not even the limits of the human constitution can keep a determined vagina down... The intent is purely missionary -- to reclaim the much-maligned 'vagina' for women... It is with great pride and purpose that Ensler invokes the 'V' word. Like a precocious child, she repeats those telltale three syllables guaranteed to get a rise out of the grown-ups. 'I say vagina,' she explains, 'because I want people to respond.' And they respond, she says, because they know they shouldn't. Since learning the word's liberating power for herself as an adult, Ensler has hardly tired of its cryptic joys. 'I say it in my sleep,' she boasts. 'I say it because I'm not supposed to say it. I say it because it's an invisible word -- a word that stirs up anxiety, awkwardness, contempt and disgust'..."

The Visayan premiere of The Vagina Monologues featured three Filipino female performers -- Lara Fabregas, Christine Carlos, and Lynn Sherman -- all distinguished in the filed of theater, television, concerts, and recording. Following the tradition of productions of the same play in New York and London, the Philippine production has had a series of runs featuring other artists.

Does Dumaguete City deserve to see The Vagina Monologues again, this time with a Sillimanian cast in commemoration of V-Day? Without doubt, it does, if it is an academic community that thrives on liberation, and on respect of women. To admire Eve Ensler's efforts may be the true reflection of all we long to be as a community: transparent, intelligent, respectful, enlightened, always surging forward to the pursuit of understanding what makes all of us human.

The 2005 season starts February 28 and ends March 5. If you're around Dumaguete that time, do drop by for a poetry reading, an art show, a talk forum, and of course, the play itself.

[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich