In recent weeks, I’ve witnessed — no, participated in, from the seats — two stage productions focused on the bodies of women. Here’s my attempt to thread my way through these engaging, disturbing experiences.
THE VAGINA MONOLOGUES
In the 18 years since it debuted on a small New York stage, this set of monologues and choral episodes has become a phenomenon. Drawn from Eve Ensler’s interviews with women and girls, it gets countless productions worldwide each year during V-Day (now a three-month season), and the film still runs on HBO.
I’ve always found its expression of women’s diverse experiences of their sexuality intensely moving — drawing laughter, winces of pain, and tears. I’ve also kept participating because I believe it’s a salutary work, one we need to keep living in. Before visiting the Whitefire Theatre in March, I’d worked backstage in three productions, and been in the audience for two others.
But this was my first time.
This time, it happened in Deaf World.
Of the nine women (all seasoned theatre professionals) seven were either Deaf, or hearing American Sign Language interpreters. (Two, amazingly, knew no ASL before taking part — yet in performance, it was impossible to discern.) Together, they were telling stories I’d heard often, yet they took me somewhere I’d never been.
ASL, you see, is visual — a language of gesture and movement, not speech. As such, it is beautifully at home on the stage.
Sign language is always moving, flowing through the human face and body and into space, like mime or dance. But unlike mime or dance, it also has a fixed lexicon of meanings, and a complex grammar.
So each story got told twice, in ASL and English simultaneously. Each choral episode rippled around the stage in two languages at once.
First, a Vagina Monologues accessible to Deaf theatregoers.
That, of course, was the goal — along with raising funds for DeafHope, a project to end sexual violence against deaf women and girls. Both were impressively achieved.
Second, this production gave “hearings” — English speakers who don’t know ASL — a unique opportunity. Like other audiences, they heard each segment spoken, with emotion and wit and wonder. But they also saw and felt it moving, sometimes gracefully, sometimes painfully, through the body and face and hands of a sign language performer.
Finally, several in the audience were “third culture” people, with some fluency in both languages.
I can’t speak for the others; but for me, this was a surprisingly powerful experience. At times, it was overwhelming.
The stories and choral pieces ranged, as always, from humorous to heart-wrenching. But this time, they landed on me in stereo — and cut through my unconscious defenses.
Taking in spoken words seemed to hold the attention of whatever part of my mind seeks meaning through thinking.
At the same time, I was seeing and feeling the same story told in sign — embodied, moving physically through another human being, toward me. I was caught. I wasn’t just told about this woman’s experience, I was flooded by it.
The monologue “My Vagina Was My Village” is a heart breaker. In a mixture of simple poetic language and harsh factual description, it represents the sufferings of women held in “rape camps” during the Bosnian War of the early ’90s.
I know this piece well. I have seen it done by a woman who survived such a camp. I have wept openly at hearing it, seeing it.
This time, as a Deaf actor performed it — and another Deaf actor spoke it, it flowed into me on a much deeper level than mere understanding. I was overpowered. Tears poured out of me — struggling not to bother my neighbors, I was sobbing so hard I could barely keep from throwing up.
In hearing theatre, we always expect (or at least hope) to be moved. We assume that what we hear, together with what the actors do and undergo physically before us, will reach out and touch us, in our understanding mind and also more deeply.
But the words — the text, the language — are usually so primary, so dominant, that the visceral experience can remain secondary. I think we are even able to mute it, hide from it, by focusing on the words and the thoughts.
I suspect that’s why Artaud’s “Theatre of Cruelty” and Brecht’s confrontational realism arose in the last century. To break through not only the “fourth wall,” but the defenses our “language brain” unconsciously erects against our visceral connection to the people presenting the story.
These people — whom we call not “speakers” but “actors” — act in their mock world onstage, true. But more important, they also act directly upon us, we fellow humans in the flesh who are sitting near enough to feel them.
Re-awakening our sense of ourselves as live, enfleshed beings is what The Vagina Monologues is all about. That’s why it exists. Our need to know our embodied selves — trapped as we are in the verbal fences and intellectual fantasies of “civilization” and its discontents, its cruelties — is why this play has endured and grown, as unstoppable as kudzu.
I still feel strongly that The Vagina Monologues is a necessary work, a major achievement of modern theatre. And experiencing it in Deaf World is like drinking whiskey neat. You’ll never feel it more sharply, nor ever forget it.
(1) The Vagina Monologues at the Whitefire Theatre was produced and directed by Alek Lev (a master ASL interpreter and longtime theatre professional). Of its profits, 10% went to the global V-Day effort, and 90% went to DeafHope.
The actors were: Hillary Baack, Cherie Broussard, Jules Dameron (ASL master), Emily Eiden, Catherine Kresge, Zendrea Mitchell, Jonica Patella, Alexandra Wailes, and Amber Zion.
(2) In this text, “Deaf” (capitalized) denotes people whose primary language is ASL and who identify themselves as part of Deaf culture. The word “deaf” (uncapitalized) includes anyone who has partial or no hearing, whichever language or culture they identify with.