'The Vagina Monologues': Women find their voice at The Whit

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The word comes from sheath, from the Latin — the golden husk on an ear of grain, the base of a leaf curling around the stem. It shares a root with vanilla, the sweet bean pod of a tropical orchid. The word names an organ in half of the human bodies on the planet. It exists for birth, for sensual pleasure, for life and desire and delight. And almost no one says its name.

Women and men are taught to think of it as shameful. Dirty. Wrong. Today, it is often ignored, censored and violated. Brittany Nicholson and Jess Lillie had never in their lives heard anyone talk openly about this part of themselves, let alone celebrate it, until they joined the cast of Eve Ensler's "The Vagina Monologues," with Colleen Jordan, Alex Martinez and Nancy Vale, to perform at the Whitney Center for the Arts, Thursday, Sept. 13, to Sunday, Sept. 16.

Talked about neutrally, the vagina is a body part, as plainly as an eye or a hand. The vagina is a channel. It allows a body to conceive and a new life to begin, and it brings a baby into the world.

Talked about honestly, it is private and intimate and strong. But it is rarely talked about honestly, the cast say, even now, a generation after Ensler's play first opened Off-Broadway and won the Obie award and became one of the most-performed plays in the world.

Women still often feel separate from their own bodies and desires, Jordan said; as Ensler writes in her 1998 introduction: "I had essentially lived most of my life without my motor, my center, my second heart."

"I never heard anyone talking in praise of the female body this way. Ever," Nicholson said by phone, as she and Lillie rehearsed lines and hung posters in Pittsfield.

They have relished becoming part of a versatile cast, diverse in background, experiences and desires. Women in their 20s and in their 80s, two women of color, a woman adopting children have come together, said director Monica Bliss. She has watched them grow in the last month of rehearsal, as they have talked about living with force and joy.

The monologues they bring to life can be hilarious and warm, she said, and difficult to hear. As these women enter their own bodies and minds, they recognize the forces that have kept them out. The kind of thinking that calls a woman's body dirty can lead to shame and violence.

In one of her monologues, Nicholson gives a voice to a 10-year-old girl raped in her own home. She has not even gotten her period, Nicholson said. "She is not even aware of what a vagina does. She has no chance to explore that before it's taken away from her. These are raw issues."

In writing this play, Ensler talked with more than 200 women. She talked with women in their 70s who had never gotten in touch with what was "down there." She talked with young girls learning about their bodies.

She talked with women who had become homeless, often to escape abuse. She spent two months in Croatia and Pakistan, talking with women who had survived rape as a deliberate tactic of war.

She talked with massage therapists and trans women, lesbian lovers and women learning to give themselves pleasure for the first time. And at the Whit the cast has found themselves, too, thinking about their own vaginas in new ways.

"I'd never thought about it or talked about it in my life," Lillie said, "and that says something, because it's part of me."

In the past year, she has had an unexpected personal experience with her own female body parts, she said. She has faced cancer and a full hysterectomy. Her husband encouraged her to audition, feeling that it might be healing for her, and he is right.

"We don't discuss vaginas as a community, as women," she said.

Many people do not even know what a vagina is. The vagina connects the womb with the vulva and the clitoris, the only human body part that exists to give pleasure — a current running through 8,000 nerve endings, Jordan said.

And yet when Lillie told people about her cancer, they would ask where it was, and when she told them, they wouldn't talk about it. If it had been any other body part, she believes they would have listened.

This play has given her a place to talk, to joke and share laughter in a way she never has before.

As the women in these monologues see that strength, the vagina becomes more than a channel for them — it becomes a center of womanhood and new life, open pleasure, creativity and gladness.

Ensler invites women to explore it. She asks playful questions: If your vagina dressed up, what would it wear? She lets women give shape and color to their desires.

In their imaginations, as they let themselves reach out, their vaginas become a Mets cap worn backward with red high-tops, a doorbell, a tulip, a chambered shell the atmosphere of a whole world.


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