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

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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.

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Footnotes
  1. Henry Giroux, “Foreword,” Zones of Contention by Carol Becker (New York: SUNY P, 1996) xi. [Return to text]
  2. 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 http://www.vday.org/our-work/college-community-campaigns.html#.VP21q-i7nS0. [Return to text]
  3. Hilton Als, “Enuf Said: Ntozake Shange,” New Yorker 5 Mar. 2007. Available at http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/03/05/enuf-said. [Return to text]
  4. From the official V-Day website, originally published in The Michigan Daily (Ann Arbor Michigan) Dec. 12, 2005. [Return to text]