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

(PAGE 3 of 3)

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.

Pages: 1 2 3 All Pages

Previous page

Footnotes
  1. 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]
  2. William Worthen, “Antigone’s Bones,” TDR: The Drama Review 52.3 (2008): 31. [Return to text]
  3. Marvin Carlson, “Theatrical Performance: Illustration, Translation, Fulfillment, or Supplement?,” Theatre Journal 37.1 (1985): 9. [Return to text]
  4. These kinds of critiques of The Vagina Monologues have been taken up in numerous publications, both academic and popular. See, for example, http://thefbomb.org/2011/02/more-than-a-vagina-a-critique-of-the-vagina-monologues; http://genprogress.org/voices/2007/02/14/13452/not-my-vagina-monologue/; 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 www.academinist.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/Reiser.pdf (PDF). [Return to text]
  5. 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]
  6. See http://www.vday.org/organize-event.html#.VYRYguuzugE. [Return to text]
  7. Leanna Hicks, “Sit Down with the Director: Ashley Jackson,” Spotlight 20.2 (2013): 3. Available at http://catawba.edu/files/1013/8981/6090/SpotlightOct2013.pdf (PDF). [Return to text]
  8. Donald Munro, “Theater Review: ‘For Colored Girls,’” Fresno Beehive 2 Nov. 2011. Available at http://fresnobeehive.com/?s=for+colored+girls. [Return to text]
  9. See http://news.morgan.edu/morgan-alumni-to-produce-for-colored-girls-in-baltimore/ [Return to text]
  10. 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]
  11. Mane 2012: 82. [Return to text]
  12. 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]