Issue 12.3-13.1 | Summer 2014/Fall 2014 / Guest Edited by Kim F. Hall, Monica L. Miller, and Yvette Christiansë

Feminism, Activism, Race and the Future of Looking Back: College Performances of for colored girls and Columbia University’s 2014 Women-of-Color Vagina Monologues

This is a healing storytelling experience, and I believe that all of the characters will heal the wounds that all women have endured.
—Rasheedah H. Muhammad, actor portaying lady in green in for colored girls, Daemon College

Has the Black vagina received the respect she deserves?
—Kimberlè Crenshaw, “the Black Vagina”, a V-Day poem, Apollo Theatre, 2007

Reviewing Boston College’s 2014 production of for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow was enuf, student reporter Thais Menendez writes: “As an advocate of playwrights of color at Boston College, I was elated to witness a moment in history: the first all-black cast in a production at Boston College.”[1] “A well-rounded education,” she continues, “involves access to cultural diversity as more than a one-time required course in the curriculum.”[2] In her comment, Menendez explicitly connects the performance on stage to the racial climate on campus, and not merely as a means to compare what happens on stage to what happens in the classroom. Rather, her claim assumes that the pedagogical work of the college extends beyond the spaces institutionally marked as places of teaching and learning; theater, in her framework, has the capacity to challenge norms beyond what is possible within artificially cordoned-off “one-time required courses in the curriculum.” The production team’s choices created visibility around race and gender within the academically imbued—yet academically liminal—space of college theater. The activism inherent in those choices reached beyond an individual production or academic institution.

Menendez’s insights provide a useful springboard for thinking about the far-reaching activist capacity of theater on college campuses for production teams, actors, and audience members. Menendez’s review of this one production can be expanded into the larger concerns of college theater and student activism, two threads of college life that often intersect. She frames the significance of for colored girls through the politicized lens of aesthetics, and she recognizes the politics embedded in the production’s aesthetic relative to Boston College’s overall (political) climate. Performance represents the integration of often-separated spheres: academic and nonacademic, intellectual and emotional, entertainment and social justice.

Performance is, then, an ideal lens through which to explore questions about these fraught intersections. “Embodiment” in theatre has activist implications; that is, the choice of which bodies to perform within the context of a script’s message can serve as a potent form of activism that complicates notions of “inclusion” and highlights issues of cultural discourse, dominance, race, and feminism.

College performance can function as a uniquely potent site of feminist activism on college campuses. Along with for colored girls, Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues is perhaps the most visible and consistent feminist college theater offering in the United States. Although the plays share few qualities in terms of characters, narrative, style, or authorial oversight of current productions, these plays constitute two of the most popular feminist college productions in the United States. Juxtaposing for colored girls with Vagina Monologues, in particular, the 2014 Columbia University production with its women-of-color cast, provides a rich terrain for investigating how these plays provide ideologically specific scaffolding for student production teams, which they can choose to work with or against in their productions, and for considering how we read the implications of those choices within the rhetorics of inclusion, universalism, and feminism.

In 2012-2013, Barnard College brought Ntzoke Shange to campus. Faculty interested in Shange’s work spent a year thinking about her writing through a funded seminar, and her visit culminated in a daylong conference and a student production. I have my own particular relationship to for colored girls. I teach for colored girls in my spring course, “Black Theatre,” and I am always struck by how many students choose that play as the subject for a final creative project. In one particularly memorable iteration, four women adapted the script to express their experiences as young, successful African-American women living in America today; they changed the rainbow colors of the characters and created new text, while keeping intact the play’s choreopoem structure—which the students deemed feminist—so that they might “use” the play’s core as a medium specific to their expression of identity. Students in general find relevance and flexibility in the script. Unlike many other plays we read, for colored girls does not ask for character development within a vacuum; it demands that the actress relay her experience of being a woman (according to Shange, her original intention was for the play to express the experiences of women of color) through the characters Shange creates.[3] Thus, the form and structure of the script indexes its radical expression and functions in an activist capacity, inviting cathexis (prolonged engagement) from its audience and actors, rather than catharsis (emotional release).

From the title alone, one recognizes that for colored girls constructs an activist platform that brings attention to the identity of “colored girls.” Thus, any examination of the play as an activist medium must look at the intersectionality of race (“colored”) and gender (“girls”) and how that is expressed through the production-specific translation of the script into live performance. Shange’s script, while performed on college campuses all across the country, does not rely on a centralized hub for promotion, distribution, and content control (such as the Vagina Monologues V-Day website). Instead, for colored girls must rely on college and local newspapers to serve as the only (decentralized) archival record of college performances’ production values and audience responses. For the purposes of this study, I rely on those sources for a sense of how production teams staged the script to performance and how the production was received.

As a case in point, we can consider the advertisement on the Santa Clara University Theatre’s website announcing their 2013 production of for colored girls, in which they declare: “The play is a must-see social commentary on what it’s like to be a black woman in the modern world.”[4] In this single sentence, the play’s director attempts to construct this production’s own contextual universe; while the ad’s text may appear general, the writer still makes choices as to what to emphasize and what to ignore. Those choices have critical implications both explicitly (how someone actively interprets the words) and more subtly (in terms of the environment created around the production that might not be actively ascribed to a single source). Even the choice of how to word a simple advertisement for the show, then, has critical value when considering the play within an activist context. While “must-see” is a common trope in popular entertainment, in this case it is in direct relationship to “what it’s like to be a black woman in the modern world.” This production thus makes three claims in its call for an audience: 1) there is an imperative for audience members to understand the perspective of black women (and by extension, that a black woman’s experiences carry cultural value); 2) the experience of black women is a commentary on the larger social world; and 3) the production reflects the lives of “modern” black women, thus extricating the performance text from its original 1970s context.

The opening of the article advertising the play at SCU further contextualizes the play as activist in what it asks from its audience, by politicizing the play’s narrative structure: “The SCU theatre department has a history of pushing the limits with the shows they choose. We vary from the better-known choices such as Shakespeare and The Crucible. Our theatre department knows that they can push boundaries, challenge people’s thinking, and give audiences new perspective [sic].” “Push[ing] boundaries”—translated to challenging people’s thinking—means explicitly avoiding “the better-known choices,” thus framing traditional narrative productions (white-male-authored with an assumed white cast) as supporting the status quo by not challenging thinking. This article, beyond advertising the production, constructs a critical framework, foregrounds the importance of the producers’ choice to stage this script and offers a lens for understanding the significance of the script itself.

Similarly, Boston College’s previously mentioned production emphasized the broader sociocultural significance of the play and, at the same time, assumed that the play would have personal relevance to the African-American actors playing Shange’s characters. The theatre department described the play as expressing “the many struggles and obstacles that African-American women face throughout their lives.” In the audition materials, the director called for “seven African-American women” and asked that those women be willing to engage personally in the struggles of the characters: “The company will explore their own personal response to Shange’s characters. From this work they will create a performance that is full of personal feeling while expressing the communal goals of these Black women.”[5] Whether “these Black women” reflects the cast or the characters is left unclear; what is clear is that through their work the cast is asked to create a communal presence that reflects the community Shange creates on the page and invests it with political significance. The supplemental flexibility of both the script and the author are elastic enough to heighten the ways that transferences are made by the performer to the text, in order to express the performer’s own political experiences. Consequently, the audience members—as assumed proxies for the performers—are also expected to make that transference. For example, an actor from Daemon College’s production expressed her connection to “the experiences the characters endured” (Lady in Red: Yolanda Stewart-Jones), and another actor connected the performance to the impact on the audience: “I pray that everyone who sees this play will understand the struggles African-American women have gone through.”[6] Note, the actor does not ask for the audience to understand the struggles of the African-American characters, or to understand the struggles of a biographical corollary to specific African-American women; rather, she calls for the characters to stand in for a more generalized experience of race and gender in America.

Boston College’s production of for colored girls with the College’s first all-black cast (according to Menendez) occurred at the same moment that Columbia University students staged their yearly production of The Vagina Monologues with an all women-of-color cast for the first time.[7] Unlike the muted response to Boston College’s production, The Vagina Monologue’s casting choices thrust the production into the political limelight at both the local and national level. And while The Vagina Monologues website describes the play and V-day project as antiracist, the response to the 2014 Columbia production team’s choice to fully cast the show with women of color—both the furor from the conservative media and the resistance from Ensler’s organization—destabilizes that claim and provides an opportunity to more closely examine how the bodies on stage are always already politicized texts with implications separate from but tracing back to the play script. In this way, Columbia University’s women-of-color Vagina Monologues is particularly significant when explored next to college productions of for colored girls. Reading these productions through the lens of activism, more specifically, feminist activism, even more specifically antiracist, feminist activism calls into question how elements of performance qua activism are gendered and raced and how notions of inclusion become complicated in light of these elements.

for colored girls and The Vagina Monologues have become mainstays of the college theater feminist archive in ways that few feminist plays can claim—very few, if we look from the 1970s to the present. The plays have little in common in terms of plotlines, characters, causes to which they attach themselves or are attached, etc., beyond each claiming to offer a communal feminist experience. And yet they are inexorably linked through politics, accessibility, popularity, and longevity. Both for colored girls and The Vagina Monologues straddle the line between theatrical innovation and social provocation. Both productions assume communal connections between the identities of the actors and the characters they represent: the actors express the characters and the characters represent the actors. Both have been updated (either by the authors or by individual productions), seemingly reflecting the authors’ and audiences’ understanding that these plays need to “do something” for the actors and the audience in that moment. Neither play has a traditional narrative structure, yet both expose the history of a specific subjectivity: womanhood in America through the lens of race and through the lens of the femaleness of body, respectively. Both productions once again remind me of the transient yet highly charged nature of performance in its requirement of real bodies—both the actors’ and audience’s—in real space and time. Both productions blur the line between truth and fiction, which is explored on and through the living bodies of the actors, as each production claims to tell true—or at least true-ish—stories.

Performing that which has not been seen before may be categorized as activism in the broadest sense, simply through the act of highlighting populations and issues missing in our larger cultural vision. More specifically, activism can be measured against Henry Giroux’s claim that activist art “collapses the boundaries between politics and aesthetics, formalism and pedagogy, the national and transcultural in order to rewrite the mutually related discourses of commitment, desire, and representation as an act of public vigilance and strategy of social engagement.”[8] For example, the choice of actors shapes the activist content in who is being talked about and who is being addressed.

Each of these productions has been drafted into obvious and outcome-oriented (and measurable) activism—the type of activism that we can call “social engagement,” intended to have measurable and visible social results. The Vagina Monologues is staged in yearly “V-Day” campaigns across college campuses to combat domestic violence. All college productions are required to donate proceeds to “local groups such as domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centers,” as overseen by Ensler’s V-day organization.[9] With for colored girls, activism, both in form and definition, is established through each individual production/production team; some productions see their goal as starting conversations, such as Tufts’ 2010 production, which the director hoped would get college students talking about “date rape, domestic violence and sexual assault—those types of things we tend to not want to talk about but need to talk about,” or the California State University, Dominguez Hills’ 2012 production, in which activism consisted of “donating 100 percent of the box office proceeds to the downtown women’s center in Los Angeles.”

The “social engagement” of these college productions can be meaningfully investigated through the lens of “response.” In a college production in which the actors are using a pre-established form (as opposed to creating their own form from the ground up), bringing attention to a resource—the downtown women’s center—implies that that resource is both necessary and underfunded; this in itself is its own form of engaged discourse. But beyond the more explicit forms of activist activity of raising funds or consciousness around an issue, how do we assess or even define the relationships between activism, the structure of the performance itself (what, for example, is the activist “content” of Shange’s form of the choreopoem per se?), casting choices, and the added text of the downtown women’s center? Where to draw the line between criticality and activism, I would posit, becomes a less discernable absolute in light of these questions of context. Would a donation to a downtown women’s center be the same after a performance of Our Town as it is after seeing for colored girls offer a searing look into domestic violence? The question forces a look back to the ways in which embodiment serves an activist agenda. The script creates connections and makes assumptions about its audience, and the actors, through their visibility on stage as the embodiment of the play’s message, serve as both medium (for the playwright) and message (the body as text).

for colored girls has been taken up by women on college campuses, creating a seeming parallel with The Vagina Monologues and giving the sense of a unified feminist project. for colored girls doesn’t have the organized administrative machine that The Vagina Monologues has established around “V-Day,” which in addition to the activist money-raising aspect guarantees that there will be multiple productions in sites all over the nation taking place simultaneously every year; it does, however, offer the “canonical classic” within American feminist theater, and in particular, American black feminist theater. Both plays are readymade for college theater, in that college is often a site in which students explore identity and experiment with lenses that can refract new or expanded iterations of identity. Both plays provide a space for demonstrating aspects of identity that otherwise have no public forum for expression (at least at the time that they were written) and use structures that do not adhere to traditional narratives and performances, with the understanding that those mainstream models have evidenced no desire to create space for these concerns.

Each play traveled different routes from professional theater sensation to college campus standard. Of the two shows, for colored girls earned far more commercial recognition, with an off-Broadway and Broadway run. That for colored girls made it to Broadway was remarkable given Broadway’s racial and gender politics in the 1970s. Hilton Als in the New Yorker’s “Critic’s Notebook” remembers that “all sorts of people who might never have set foot in a Broadway house—black nationalists, feminist separatists—came to experience Shange’s firebomb of a poem.”[10] The play’s success on Broadway and its imprint on the politics of the time assured some level of commercial repetition and its circulation and accessibility to college campuses. The Vagina Monologues never made it to Broadway but, like for colored girls, it was well-known and had a long, visible run off Broadway for five years before it began touring the country.

Here, however, is where the arcs of these two productions decisively split in a way that reveals deeper differences—differences whose significance speak to the issues of cultural discourse, race, and feminism that frame my inquiry. There is no clear record of when for colored girls became a college campus favorite. Although a search of all rights applications for productions would provide this information, the larger question is why for colored girls wasn’t more obviously historically marked as a college theater phenomenon. The Vagina Monologues, conversely, has a website, an administrative umbrella, and a 501(c)(3) (certainly, we can credit Eve Ensler’s business acumen). The administrative arm of The Vagina Monologues gives it a life beyond its script and its various performances. It also tries to ensure “fidelity” of performances to the script. Ensler’s vigilant oversight allows primary stakeholders to claim, and in fact write, its history. For example, the Kimberlè Crenshaw poem quoted in the epigraph, written for a special V-Day production at the Apollo theatre in Harlem, clearly expands the scope of The Vagina Monologues’ representational thrust; it is not, however, included in the licensing rights for college performances, leaving it as anomalous rather than indicative of the production’s evolution.

According to the V-Day website, which incorporates four other plays in addition to The Vagina Monologues, The Vagina Monologues was first performed in 1994, which led to the 1998 formation of V-Day, the nonprofit entity organized to stop violence against women. While V-Day is not exclusively directed to college productions, the website has a section dedicated to college participation, which speaks to their recruitment efforts and/or their acknowledgement that college campuses comprise a large percentage of their yearly production tally.

I had the opportunity to see Barnard/Columbia’s 2014 production of The Vagina Monologues on Thursday, February 20, 2014. The house was packed with hundreds of audience members, primarily students. The producers’ earlier decision to cast the show with self-identified women of color evoked a tremendous—and tremendously negative—media response. The titles alone of articles and blog/comment posts reflect much of the negative response: “No White Vaginas Allowed,” (Terri O’Brien Show, October 2013) and “White Vaginas Banned from Ivy League production of Vagina Monologues” (Daily Caller, October 3, 2013). On the local level, the Columbia Spectator and the online BWOG avoided criticizing the casting, instead choosing to simply report the casting decision and quoting the producers as to how they came to their decision. The posted web comments and editorials, however, provided far more divided and impassioned responses. One particularly negative response came from a Spectator editorial in which the female writer claimed that “[e]xcluding women who don’t identify as women of color from this conversation is ludicrous. … The decision to make the Monologues about race and exclusive identities fractures the greater resolve of the Monologues to be about women.” The repetition of the word “excluding” and its corollary “exclusive” ascribe a hierarchy of belonging—being included or rejected because of a singular identity that is worthy or unworthy of acceptance, in this case the writer’s whiteness, which kept her from feeling fully included because of her race.

This assumption equates the racist policies of exclusion that people of color have experienced throughout American history with the experience of being white in the current moment, and interprets that experience through the singular event of watching a play that does not reflect white presence (except in the absence of whiteness onstage). Simply put, it equates the experience of being subjected to structural racism with the experience of having one’s white privilege highlighted. Almost all of the commentary, both in articles and personal posts, that criticizes the casting choice superimposes this racist hierarchical system onto those choices as the framework for understanding how diversity functions. All of the negative commentary hides a mute grammatical clause that claims: “All things/people/identities being equal and treated equally.” The producers of the WOC Vagina Monologues and most of the commentary supporting the decision, on the other hand, insert the mute clause, “Understanding that all things/people/identities are NOT treated equally and this is our response.” Most of the comments criticizing the production choices ignore structural racism and instead employ a rhetoric of diversity that depends on individual ethos as separate from structural social construct.

Ensler’s organization falls into this trap as well. In 2005, in response to the University of Michigan’s attempt to cast an all women-of-color production, Shael Norris, the college campaign director of V-Day, wrote: “With respect to this year’s campus production … we applaud the efforts of the organizers to proactively engage a diverse group of students who may not have been deeply involved in previous V-Day benefit production of ‘The Vagina Monologues’ on campus. However, we feel obligated to clarify that it is not in the spirit of V-Day to engage some women to the exclusion of others, and that V-Day will not endorse a production of ‘The Vagina Monologues’ that does.”[11] Nowhere in the article does Norris question why “a diverse group of students” (a reference to the production’s self-stated goal of casting an “all minority cast”) had not previously been involved with what is supposed to be an inclusive movement.

On the surface, we can ask why Columbia University’s all women-of-color cast evoked such a defensive response from the media. This was not the first women-of-color Vagina Monologues production: historically black colleges have produced the show with non-white casts. Nor is it the first production to consciously bracket a facet of female identity. In Utah, a group of Mormon women “scripted and performed the Mormon Vagina Monologues and presented their monologues at the annual Sunstone Symposium in Salt Lake City,” which did not evoke national media attention.[12] The responses to the Columbia/Barnard production, however, a production in which the audition notice was visible to all students but invited only self-identified women of color to audition, speak to the painful experience for occupants of mainstream culture [read: white people] of having their privilege highlighted and questioned through the production’s message: “Our stories are specific to us as women of color in America. The Vagina Monologues, without our specific intervention, obscures this fact.” We can posit, from the vociferous reaction to the production, that this message damages America’s self-proclaimed “postracial” age. In this vein, it is worth noting that this debate became charged in part because local responses were picked up by political media, specifically right-wing blogs and publications. This immersed the production momentarily in a larger cultural non-conversation about America’s racial politics under Obama.

In the case of The Vagina Monologues, putting female bodies of color on stage in a show steeped in a white feminist historical trajectory makes race a significant part of the performance text. The written words of Ensler’s script are in relationship to, but never fully predictive of, the performance. William Worthen argues for the value of reading a “performance” over mere attention to the “script.” “To read drama as an element of performance rather than as a complete and organic verbal expression is to challenge the sense that the ‘work’ inheres solely in the text, and is decanted more or less authoritatively to the stage.”[13] Beyond seeing the performance text and the written text as two separate connected works, the response to the performance text highlights the audience/reader’s assumptions about the playwright’s “intention” or the “nature” of the script; the anger at Columbia’s WOC Vagina Monologues performance choices is thus grounded in assumptions of what the words on the page look like when “faithfully” translated to the stage.

Marvin Carlson’s reading of Derrida’s “supplement”—“present in all manifestations of culture—art, image, representation, convention,” provides a useful lens through which to read the environmental material that necessarily infuse any performance text: “[U]ncontaminatined Nature is revealed as a myth, a construct of desire. The supplement does not appear with performance’s repetition, nor with the written text. Nature itself is always already involved with the supplement.”[14] Thus, in the Columbia performance of The Vagina Monologues, the assumptions of “nature” (what the script directly represents) that were disrupted came from audience members’ desire for an assumed authority of whiteness, as represented by its presence (white actors) and upset by its “exclusion.” Understanding the performance text as having a life separate from the written text points to the politically imbued aesthetics not imagined before the act of putting real bodies on the stage. In short, the structural racism embedded in college theater, community politics, conservative media, and Ensler’s organization became unavoidably visible only when Columbia’s WOC Vagina Monologues cast women of color and did not cast white actors.[15]

Columbia’s Vagina Monologues highlighted these connections by adding a second act to the performance, titled “Snatchchats: Women of Color in Dialogue with the Vagina Monologues.” The performance thus had Eve Ensler’s unedited words in Act I, which is not explicitly written about race, along with the response in Act II, with text by the students, additional songs by Nina Simone, poetry by Audre Lorde, a monologue from Shange’s Spell #7, and a monologue by Kimberlè Crenshaw. The textual addition served as a symbolic claim that there are voices still silenced within America’s larger cultural understanding of “woman” that are also not heard in Act I. The actors’ continual presence through Acts I and II served as the bridge between the acts, between Ensler’s characters in Act I and their own scripted characters in Act II.

Rebecca Clark Mane, in her article “Transmuting Grammars of Whiteness in Third-wave Feminism” reminds us that “Often, locating whiteness requires reading absences, following traces and ghosts, and privileging syntax (how something is said) over content (what is said).”[16] Columbia’s Vagina Monologues’ supplemental performance of absence unveils the text’s elisions, or what it absents. Applying Mane’s theory to this production, a performance in which whiteness is physically absent, the body present on stage is always speaking both in syntax (how something is said) and within content (what is said); the body does not only represent speech/text, rather the body functions as the speech act itself. In this case, the how is the production team’s choice to put a women-of-color cast on stage. The female bodies of color on stage make the absence of white bodies explicit, and this choice is reiterated in the textual commentary of Act II. The production team formulated an aesthetic that denaturalized white cultural norms (that are usually invisible and naturalized) by foregrounding racial visibility. This choice points to the assumed always present white body through the white body’s absence. Performance forces the body to mark the how and the what—how the boundary that exists between the body and the script can never be protected and the text is always imprinted on the performer. More provocatively, the inverse is also true, that the performer imprints the text.

However, The Vagina Monologues, a script performed numerous times in what has become a predictable ritual of stasis in most contexts, still holds autonomous power in relationship to the stage. The script serves as a beacon that points the audience back to the initial inception of Ensler’s work in American culture, when the script and the performance were defined through the lens of 1990s feminist activism. Ensler’s script came out when the mainstream media was writing article after article about women in the workplace and on college campuses rejecting feminism as a label. Ensler’s script functioned in radical opposition to this supposed rejection. The memory and promise of that initial radical impulse keeps the performance going year after year. Ensler herself resists having the script changed, and any proposed changes to a particular production must go through Ensler, as per her website: “No edits are allowed to monologues or introductions AT ALL [original emphasis]. No additions to the scripts are allowed unless specified in the guidelines.”[17] Race, a facet of performance that resists stasis and a facet of feminism that remains continually unresolved, causes potential disruption to the Vagina Monologues project. Ensler’s strictures thus point to the inevitably failed nature of The Vagina Monologues’ radically feminist promise; even within the fluid relationship between script and performance, the script holds within itself the expectations of the cultural imagination, an imagination that lives within the tension between resisting change (for the comfort of the familiar) and seeking it (for fear of a performance becoming “irrelevant”). The Vagina Monologues’ production history highlights the drawbacks to its centralized feminism and suggests that, when it comes to “inclusion” or universality in feminist theater, there are still mutually exclusive conversations going on.

Unlike the unspoken casting expectations of The Vagina Monologues, the college reviews and articles that I found of for colored girls reveal that every production of for colored girls requires directors to make an active, conscious choice as to the identity politics of the play, and consequently of the cast. The production is treated as either specifically geared toward showing the experience of African-American women, and, as such, highlights the value of showcasing that particular perspective, or the production deemphasizes the specificity of an African-American subject and instead highlights the universalizing merits of the play, as exemplified by “colorblind” casting choices, arguing for the “universal” resonance of black writers’ texts—something granted as easily to white male texts as it is denied to “black” texts. What is missing from the latter choice is the opprobrium heaped on the women-of-color cast of Columbia’s Vagina Monologues; indeed, at times, the reference to a “colorblind” cast of for colored girls is as fleeting as the Sacramento State College News’s description of “the integrated cast.” In other productions, the choice to cast across racial lines becomes central—the decision of Ashley Jackson, the student director of Catawba College’s production of for colored girls, to employ “color blind casting” prompted her school newspaper interviewer to ask, as the second question of the interview, why she had made that choice. “I think either or whether I decided to color blind cast or have a full cast of African-American women, I believe the story will still serve the purpose and the ultimate purpose is to show these women as beautiful and also damaged … those issues are not necessarily African-American issues or exactly Caucasian issues … I believe that the story will still remain the same.”[18] In this case, the director privileges a universalizing concept of “womanhood” above racial specificity—without the critical commentary that attended Columbia’s production, and without the criticality of what it means to assume that universalizing gesture within a black-authored text in the same way that white male-authored texts continually make that claim. The interview’s utopic tone of equality assumes that the social context of racial identity—which, in the American cultural context, translates to how we understand structural racism—can be transcended through actively refusing to acknowledge difference (in this case, in the casting choices).

In relation to the controversy over The Vagina Monologues’ women-of-color cast, I question how these types of choices, far from keeping the play’s narratives the same—which is never possible—fundamentally change the narratives themselves. In contrast to Sacramento State’s and Catawba’s “integrated” productions of for colored girls, California State University, Fresno’s 2011 production was described as focusing on “the resilience of black sisterhood”; according to an article in the student newspaper, by telling the stories of “black women in turbulent times, [the play] becomes an interesting window on a history that didn’t receive much attention.” The “history that didn’t receive much attention” points specifically to an African-American feminist history. And while this might call into question the play’s relevance to a contemporary audience, beyond providing a history lesson, the play’s relevance is validated in the final line of the article: “That tale, unfortunately, could come from today’s headlines. But there is catharsis in sharing the pain—and reflecting on a better future.”[19] In the claim of catharsis, the activism of the piece is fully directed to those who experience the catharsis, although the article leaves this ambiguous. The “communal” response invites an empathic response from all and/or creates a specialized space for recognition and nurturing of a specific communal space for an African-American female consciousness.

In contrast, Morgan State’s production in July 2013, performed by alumni, cast African-American actors but claimed, “This production is a tribute to ALL women” (original emphasis). In this production, the choice to cast African-American women specifically speaks to the version of activism the production claims for itself: “It is a timeless piece because while its title addresses ‘colored’ women, the piece itself speaks to the human condition … in a universal context that ALL people can relate to, especially in modern times when the ideas of race and prejudice still continue to divide.”[20] In this version, the casting choice reaches out to all audience members through the distinct experiences of gender and race; it is inclusive of diverse identities and grants the playwright universal appeal, but does not conflate them under the heading of the universal “we” as a means to bridge communication.

The question of how this approach compares to Catawba’s choice to use colorblind casting to produce a universal effect is pointed. Morgan State’s universal message contextualizes the assumed structural racism of American culture, “when the ideas of race and prejudice still continue to divide,” and thus its choice of universal appeal is specifically in response to that racism; Catawba’s humanistic approach does not hold itself as specifically antiracist in its feminism, but rather emphasizes a universal womanhood—in the words of its director, Ashley Jackson, “I believe very strongly in womanhood and feminism and I wanted a show that showcased the strength of women and I really saw a need for an all woman cast.”

So much of the response to for colored girls and Columbia’s production of The Vagina Monologues comes from each production’s understanding of “inclusion.” What does it mean to have an inclusive philosophy within claims of activism? For many who criticized Columbia’s version of The Vagina Monologues, inclusion referred to everyone, from auditions to performance.[21] This version of the “inclusion argument,” in line with “pure” colorblind casting, assumes that past productions did not “exclude” women of color.

Mane’s reminder of the elusiveness of whiteness, however, pointedly highlights the dangers of such an ideal. She claims that when other identities are invited to a predominantly white endeavor without an interrogation of whiteness, the feminism of the performance/project remains narrow: “the relative value or influence of each classification in relation to feminism as a whole is diminished. Rather than fundamentally altering the term feminism, each qualifier serves only as an accessory to the main ensemble of feminism.”[22] For example, according to Manes’s theory, to include nonwhite actors in a production of an historically white play without examining the politics of such a move privileges whiteness as the norm for all identities while proclaiming diversity. In other words, according to Lynn Lu, this type of “inclusion” suggests “the desire to incorporate the essence of the other without being transformed, without losing one’s dominance over it.”[23] The argument made by so many commentators that productions should, or even must, exhibit this form of inclusion overshadows white ambivalence about the racial exclusion of past and present productions, histories, narratives, and cultural contexts.

Even without ascribing intent, however, there is a deeply troubling message in the critical silence that is the lack of outrage when college productions of for colored girls allow for white actors, even though the production then veers from the casting call of its title. Inclusiveness then becomes seeing the black experience as all women’s experience; the specificity is diluted to allow many identities into the voicing of womanhood. By not diluting a particular identity through grouping it under a more universalist label (in this case, “American woman,” whose default meaning is white and heteronormative)—in other words, by not veering from the casting call of its title—productions of for colored girls create specific visibility around an identity and thus add to a more nuanced understanding of American identity through an individual’s immediate experiences as well as that individual’s identity in the larger cultural imagination.

There is another possible reading of inclusion, however. In this more hopeful reading inclusion is not about including all bodies and everybody, in all spaces, but rather about using performance to highlight which perspectives are heard and which are missing in the larger cultural discourse around womanhood.

The response to Columbia’s production of The Vagina Monologues points to how far we are from grappling with these complex issues. Columbia’s choice to stage a women-of-color Vagina Monologues, then, can be read for its bravery in the face of responses reflecting less nuanced, less informed, and less tolerant understandings of race, class, and gender in the United States. The choice to cast The Vagina Monologues to highlight issues of race and gender in the face of white-dominated feminist performance history and the ways that this history is ignored in the present contains the spirit of radical feminist defiance that embodies the activist potential of college performance.

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  1. According to Boston College’s website, accessed in 2014, 32% of students identify as African-American, Hispanic, Asian, or Native American. See [Return to text]
  2. Thais Menendez, “Requiem for a Rainbow: A Resplendent Production of ‘for colored girls,’” Rock@BC 24 Mar. 2014. Available at [Return to text]
  3. Ntozake Shange, “Ntozake Shange Conversation with ENGL3993,” The Worlds of Ntozake Shange Class Visit, II. United States, New York. 18 Apr. 2014. [Return to text]
  4. See [Return to text]
  5. See–for-colored-girls-who-have-cons.html. [Return to text]
  6. See Accessed April 10, 2015. [Return to text]
  7. University of Michigan also called for a women-of-color cast for their 2005 auditions in preparation for a 2006 performance. Ensler’s organization, according to the Michigan Daily, “threatened to pull the script—in turn ending the funds that would be distributed at area women’s shelters—unless white women were also allowed to be a part of the production.” (Michigan Daily, Jan. 17, 2006. In response, the producers opened the auditions and casting to white women. [Return to text]
  8. Henry Giroux, “Foreword,” Zones of Contention by Carol Becker (New York: SUNY P, 1996) xi. [Return to text]
  9. As per the V-Day website: “College and community activists raise an annual average of over $4 million that stays in their communities, donated to local groups such as domestic violence shelters and rape crises centers. Ten percent of each event’s proceeds are channeled back to V-Day’s Spotlight Campaign and 100% of that funding is given to the Spotlight grantees.” See [Return to text]
  10. Hilton Als, “Enuf Said: Ntozake Shange,” New Yorker 5 Mar. 2007. Available at [Return to text]
  11. From the official V-Day website, originally published in The Michigan Daily (Ann Arbor Michigan) Dec. 12, 2005. [Return to text]
  12. Jill Peterfeso, “From Testimony to Seximony, from Script to Scripture: Revealing Mormon Women’s Sexuality through the Mormon Vagina Monologues,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 27.2 (2011): 31. [Return to text]
  13. William Worthen, “Antigone’s Bones,” TDR: The Drama Review 52.3 (2008): 31. [Return to text]
  14. Marvin Carlson, “Theatrical Performance: Illustration, Translation, Fulfillment, or Supplement?,” Theatre Journal 37.1 (1985): 9. [Return to text]
  15. These kinds of critiques of The Vagina Monologues have been taken up in numerous publications, both academic and popular. See, for example,;; Kim Q. Hall, “Queerness, Disability and The Vagina Monologues,” Hypatia 20. 1 (2005): 99-119; Christine Cooper, “Worrying about Vaginas: Feminism and Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues,” Signs 32.3 (2007); and (PDF). [Return to text]
  16. Rebecca L. Clark Mane, “Transmuting Grammars of Whiteness in Third-Wave Feminism: Interrogating Postrace Histories, Postmodern Abstraction, and the Proliferation of Difference in Third-Wave Texts,” Signs 38.1 (2012): 74. [Return to text]
  17. See [Return to text]
  18. Leanna Hicks, “Sit Down with the Director: Ashley Jackson,” Spotlight 20.2 (2013): 3. Available at (PDF). [Return to text]
  19. Donald Munro, “Theater Review: ‘For Colored Girls,’” Fresno Beehive 2 Nov. 2011. Available at [Return to text]
  20. See [Return to text]
  21. It should be noted that the women-of-color Vagina Monologues production team invited and included white women to participate in all aspects of the production, other than acting. [Return to text]
  22. Mane 2012: 82. [Return to text]
  23. Lynn Lu, “Critical Visions: The Representation and Resistance of Asian Women,” Dragon Ladies: Asian American Feminists Breathe Fire, ed. Sonia Shah (Boston: South End, 1997) 23; cited in Mane 2012: 81. [Return to text]