Eve Ensler's "Monologues" raises awareness and eyebrows as it chronicles the myths, mysteries, pain and power of the vagina. 

All About Eve

Some words are so taboo, so discomfiting that people will go to great lengths to avoid speaking them. If absolutely pressed, others might whisper the word or resort to a form of shorthand-speak — saying only the letters the impolite word starts and ends with. Or they might resort to some childish euphemism. "Vagina" is one of those words. Shattering that silence — as well as the fear, shame and embarrassment that accompanies it — is the goal of Eve Ensler's Obie Award-winning play, "The Vagina Monologues." The play will be performed at the Firehouse Theatre on Tuesday, Feb. 20, at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. to benefit the YWCA: Richmond Women's Advocacy Program. With "Monologues" Ensler wants to lift women out of the darkness and secrecy surrounding their bodies and sexuality by saying "vagina" loud and saying it proud. Through a series of interviews/monologues, Ensler reveals a world that's often wrenching, frequently hilarious and sometimes obvious about the staggering, generational rates of physical, sexual and ritual violence perpetrated against women. For every lighthearted moment or euphemism, Ensler adds a true theatrical gem that bravely dives deep beneath the surface laughter. The play initiated "V-Day," a worldwide annual event that raises money and promotes awareness to stop violence against women. If reading about this play makes you uncomfortable or triggers a giggle or a snicker, you are not alone. Some of the actors in Richmond's upcoming benefit performance of "The Vagina Monologues" say they, too, had issues to explore. For Artesia Green, who delivers the set piece "The Angry Vagina," just saying the play's name was a stumbling point. "When I would tell people I was in a play," says Green, "I wouldn't tell them the name of the show. But I've gotten past that. The rehearsal process has helped me come to grips with my own views. It has definitely been a growth experience, standing in front of hundreds of people, talking about tampons and those paper gowns they make you wear for your gynecological visit." Green, who's pregnant in real life, says she didn't realize how much she was suppressing her own anger over the discomfort of her monthly checkups. "I'm more open now," Green admits, "being a part of this piece has forced me to come out of my shell. Maybe more than I would like." For Carrie Tongaren, who emcees the show as well as delivers one of the monologues, working with such a mixed group of women has been a career-defining experience. "It's been incredible," she says, "these women are fabulous. They're so passionate about the piece, and so committed to it." Even the rehearsals are moving, often painfully so, whether watching a piece or being a part of it. Tongaren speaks of a recent rehearsal when director Robin Armstrong was blocking the night's most poignant piece — about the systematic rape and torture of Bosnian women. "Robin had added in a dance," explains Tongaren, "and when we were through with the piece, we were all crying. Everyone in the room was sobbing. And Robin looked around the room and says, 'OK, that'll work.' Oh yeah, being involved in this work is an extraordinary experience for me." Sylvia Mann also has high praise for Armstrong and her inclusive approach to directing. Mann, who's one of the founding members of the improvisational group "ComedySportz," is enjoying her first experience with a structured piece, partly because Armstrong is open to collaboration. "Not only does she listen," says Mann, "she hears what you've said. She values your judgment as an actor and is willing to try out any suggestion." Part of the reason for that, says Mann, is that Armstrong wants each of the actors to deliver her monologue as herself, not as some character. Mann's monologue, titled "The Little Coochie Snorcher That Could," is a prime example of that approach. Although it deals with a preteen girl's hatred for her vagina because of the pain and abuse she associates with it, it is told in flashback by an adult. But "The Vagina Monologues" are more than a night of women exchanging sexual war stories. "Oh, no," says Mann. "If anyone has a preconceived notion that this play is off-putting or an excuse to say 'Let's blame the men,' they're wrong. From the outset Robin has said this is not a night about male-bashing. It's a celebration of women." Perhaps no one in the cast feels the words and heartfelt purpose of Ensler's work more personally than Pamela Wilson. A survivor of domestic violence and the mother of five sons, Wilson, a VCU graduate student, showed up merely to be a part of the benefit. She had no intention of auditioning. But at the end of the evening, Armstrong asked her to read. She did, and now she's a vital part of the Bosnian women's ensemble work and delivers the piece on "Reclaiming the C-word." "Just reading the piece out loud was an eye-opener for me," says Wilson, who lived in an abusive relationship for 17 years. "Being raised a Southern girl, some of the things I was having to say aloud were quite liberating. I told Robin 'I can't remember ever even thinking this word much less saying it out loud.'" Explaining to her sons — aged 11 to 20 — has been interesting. "It's been a hoot. When I told them the play's title, they went 'Oh my god, mother!' But they're used to me being a radical feminist." Wilson's graduate thesis happens to be on domestic violence. And for her, the most frightening statistic shows that 90 percent of boys raised in a domestic-violence situation become abusers themselves. "As a mother of five sons, I want to break that cycle with me," she says. For Ensler, Armstrong and her cast of incredible women, breaking that cycle of violence, raising awareness and empowering women begins with calling a vagina a vagina.

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