Cross posted at Ms.

When I heard the news from Michigan, the first person I thought of was Eve Ensler. I’ve directed The Vagina Monologues twice and, despite unsettling doubts that the play does not actually work as V-Day events intend it to (to end violence), I loved doing it both times. In theater speak, The Vagina Monologues works in an Aristotelian way to create catharsis out of pity and fear. In regular speak, that means that the play creates for the audience an identification with the characters that leads to an empathetic emotional experience. This in itself is pretty cool, but emotional experiences are by definition internal to individuals, whereas ending violence requires structural social change.

Nevertheless, I am here to tell you that a performance of The Vagina Monologues scheduled for Monday evening on the steps of the Michigan capitol is activist theater that can work. In fact it’s just about the best idea I’ve heard in a long time.

The local artists putting together the event have recruited six state senators (Sen. Rebekah Warren (D-Ann Arbor), Sen. Gretchen Whitmer (D-East Lansing), Rep. Barb Byrum (D- Onondaga), Rep. Stacy Erwin Oakes (D-Saginaw), Rep. Dian Slavens (D- Canton Township), Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D- Detroit)) to read monologues and is filling out the rest with volunteer actors. As if notified by a vagina signal in the sky, Ensler herself will attend.

In case you’re one of the few people who haven’t seen it yet, every monologue in this groundbreaking show deals either directly or indirectly with a woman struggling to describe her experience of her own body, to a create meaningful narrative out of things that have happened to her. In so doing, the women in the play say vagina, and many other words that supposedly mean the same thing (in some cases they don’t and it’s unfortunate that Ensler blurs these lines) over and over and over until the audience is comfortable not only hearing them but often saying them, too: In many cases, a highlight of the show is the audience chanting CUNT aloud together.

Unfortunately, theater audiences–typically made up of aging middle- to upper-class liberals–feeling empathy for victims of violence will not end violence. If it were going to, it would have already, and Sarah McLachlan would have saved all the abandoned animals in the world. In fact V-Day events have been held in 140 countries over 11 years, and yet violence against women continues. But feeling the liberation that comes from hearing people you identify with speak openly about the feelings, colors, smells and sensations associated with the most intimate parts of their bodies will make individual audience members more interested in and aware of the ways they talk and think about vaginas.

Taking Ensler’s play outside the relatively safe walls of the theater and putting it in the mouths of politicians will directly confront people–and by people I mean people who did not pay $45 for the privilege–with the language and imagery of female anatomy until they admit it: These are not bad words. We need these words. These words are about women, and we will not allow you to erase women by erasing the words that describe them.

This is the political action aided by the individual identification at the center of The Vagina Monologue‘s structure, and I am all for it. Of the anti-vagina events in Michigan that spurred this performance, organizer Carla Milarch of Ann Arbor’s Performance Network Theatre says,

It’s just a perfect example of the ways we use language to oppress people. The more we understand that and say, I’m going to say the word vagina in any context–it’s a way is taking back the power of the word.

Milarch is still seeking volunteers to perform; for more information, contact her here. And if you’re in Michigan, show up at the capitol at 6pm Monday and say, “Vagina! Vagina! Vagina! Vagina! Vagina!”

I have to admit, I was skeptical of Rivka Solomon and Bobbi Ausubel’s play That Takes Ovaries before I saw it. As a theater director/professor and a feminist, I am not a fan of cultural feminism (that which valorizes women because of their biology). As theater, it tends to titillate audiences without changing the status quo. I directed The Vagina Monologues, a perfect example of this genre by Eve Ensler, twice and was happy with both productions. But particularly the second time around, I began to wonder about the effectiveness of it as a tool for empowerment beyond the performance itself.

Clearly the process was transformative for many of the performers who embodied the text, but I had a hard time imagining what anyone who saw the show would do differently once they left. The money raised went to support victims of violence – a noble cause but not a prevention strategy. I learned that some others in the feminist community were also critical, including one prominent sex therapist who claims her masturbation workshops were misrepresented in a way that made them sound more awkward and less feminist than they really are. I noticed that the voices in the play, though presumably differentiated by age, race, and class, had actually been blended into one voice, the voice of the playwright, and therefore they shared all the same values and characteristics. Artists who make plays based on real life often bend the material to them, but Ensler does so while still claiming to speak for other people, and I’m uncomfortable with that.

That Takes Ovaries, in both its play form and in the original book edited by Solomon, is also a collection of first-person narratives by women. But unlike the unnamed women in the Monologues who had related their stories in an interview conducted by the playwright, these women wrote their stories themselves. The playwrights (editors is more accurate) even kept their names. Also unlike The Vagina Monologues, which is definitely about actual vaginas, the ovaries in That Takes Ovaries are metaphorical. As Solomon proclaims in the introduction to the book:

Having ovaries isn’t about possessing certain sex organs or chromosomes. It’s about being female identified and possessing a certain Attitude (with a capital A). All types of women and girls are welcome here, including females born without ovaries, those who’ve had ovaries removed, those who acquired new plumbing via medical intervention, and intersexed and transgendered folk who identify, or who have ever identified, as women.

“Ovaries,” in this context, is a character trait that allows women to be bold, brazen, gutsy, and outrageous.

And while the uniting theme of Ensler’s monologues is sexuality, the Ovaries narratives are all about times when women fought back, when they resisted oppression, stopped violence, or otherwise acted out. These women are not defined entirely by their biology and they are not passive. Alison tells of a “pee protest” she staged to secure wheelchair accessible toilets on her campus. Ruchira risks her life to help girls trapped as sex slaves in Asia. D.H. Wu talks about keeping her mother from killing herself. Though many of the stories involve abuse, discrimination, and other acts of hate, the point of them is the way the women overcame, if only momentarily, those negative forces. The women of Ovaries stood up and said, “I’m not going to take it anymore,” and they did so not in retrospect, as in many of The Vagina Monologues, but in the moment of their experience.

Activist art aims to empower audience members to change their own lives and the conditions of their society, but transforming the passive experience of watching into the active experience of doing is not easy. We know from Bertolt Brecht and Augusto Boal among others that a breakdown of the performer-audience barrier is essential to getting audience members at a political play to go forth and overthrow existing conditions. A regular feature of performances of That Takes Ovaries is an open mike time afterward, during which audience members are allowed to tell their own stories of ovarian acts of bravery. At a reading of Ovaries on Sunday, I heard from audience members who overcame cancer, beat alcoholism, and reunited with estranged children. Judging from the chatter at the reception afterward, the stories just kept coming.

I mentioned I’m not a fan of cultural feminism. I’m also not a fan of monologue theater. Monologues do not contain dialectic – they by definition speak from only one point of view at a time – and are therefore less capable of representing the complex intersection of class, sex, race, ethnicity, and religion that is identity. And I’m not a fan of the personal testimonials that are so much a part of anti-violence movements. I completely understand why the stories need to be told and I respect the tellers. I just personally don’t need to hear any more about the helplessness, the fear, and the pain. If I have to hear a testimonial I want to hear one about victory, and on Sunday I did.

I would like activist artist’s imaginations to be suddenly taken by Mother Courage or pretty much anything by Caryl Churchill. But if they insist on doing testimonial theater, and they do seem to, I would much rather they do That Takes Ovaries than The Vagina Monologues.