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

Monologues for Colored Girls: Shange’s Influence on Barnard’s All Women-of-Color Vagina Monologues

these stains & scars are mine
this is my space
i am not movin

—Shange, nappy edges, (a cross country sojourn)

The first time I heard the name Ntozake Shange, I was still in high school. I was invited to attend a production of for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf that the Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) theater department was performing. I remember being struck by the way the words that were spoken were paired with movement, and perhaps most vividly, the power of seeing a cast of women of color on stage. What garnered my attention during the performance was that the play focused so intently on the scope and variance of experiences recounted by the women on stage. I found myself appreciating the specificity of these experiences and the way they articulated the characters’ identities as women of color without being reductive.

After the play, I remember going home and looking up who Ntozake Shange was on the Internet. I was unable to find much information that was unrelated to for colored girls, most likely because at the time, Tyler Perry’s cinematic rendition of the work had just begun playing in theaters. Shange’s wide breadth of work thus remained relatively unknown to me—that is, until I transferred to Barnard. At the time, it was entirely unbeknownst to me that Shange was an alumna of Barnard. It was not until I began reading her work in classes and speaking about her to faculty members that I discovered she had spent her undergraduate years where I had chosen to spend mine.

In the spring of 2013, Barnard held the “Worlds of Shange” conference in an effort to forge a stronger relationship with the esteemed alumna as well as to honor her works. The conference explored the tremendous impact of Shange’s work across a number of different art forms. Needless to say, when my professor, Kim F. Hall, mentioned in my “Food, Ethnicity, and Globalization” class that interested students would have the opportunity to work on a creative piece inspired by Shange’s work, which would be performed at an event during the conference, I was quick to volunteer. My eagerness to be involved with this project stemmed most clearly from the performance I had seen years back at FAMU; Shange’s words had a profound impact on how I thought of my own personal experiences as well as the experiences of other women of color who were prominent forces in my life.

The pieces that I performed at the “Performing Shage” event, which was part of the larger conference, included a poem from for colored girls entitled “Latent Rapists,” as well as a personal reflection I wrote on being a survivor of sexual assault. My reflection was part of a conceptual work by Ebonie Smith in which the performers were instructed to write and perform a monologue that allowed us to “leave a piece of ourselves on the stage,” and which started with the phrase, “The first time I knew I was…” Both “Latent Rapists” and my personal reflection addressed the issue of sexual assault and the extent to which it has become normalized in the lives of women of color. My performances were heavily influenced by my experience of having watched the FAMU performance of for colored girls. Minimally choreographed, performed on the floor in front of the audience rather than on a stage, the performances at the “Performing Shange” event directed the focus of the audience first and foremost to the words and how the experiences they were conveying had impacted the individual who was speaking them. These powerful stylistic choices affected me deeply and stirred my interest in participating in more campus theater focused on women’s varied experiences, such as The Vagina Monologues.

To speak these words in front of an audience of fellow students, faculty, and strangers was both cathartic and profoundly difficult. However, I was incredibly grateful for the space that Shange’s work had made, both for me and for the other performers. Performing Shange’s work and work that was in her spirit allowed me to openly address the prolific nature of sexual assault, without alienating it from my personal experience or presenting it as an abstract political issue.

After seeing my performance, a former Barnard student director of The Vagina Monologues, Morgaine Gooding Silverwood, spoke to me about the possibility of being involved in the Monologues in a director’s capacity in the following year. Consequently, the artistic vision of our production of the Monologues was—at least for me—directly influenced by my work and experience with Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls.

Shange’s artistic influence seriously augmented this year’s production of the Monologues in terms of addressing the manner in which The Vagina Monologues can be neglectful of various identities and experiences. However, even before working with the play as a director, I was well aware of the many critiques of the Monologues, and of how little had been changed to address these critiques since Eve Ensler first performed the play on stage in 1996. Strong arguments have been made that the play is transphobic, reductive, and colonialist—arguments which, for me, were extremely important to address.[1] The universal aspirations of this production—that it implicitly claims to represent the experiences of all women—have led to the alienation of many. For instance, Hall writes that she was “concerned about how ‘The Vagina Monologues’ establishes the vagina as a sign of feminist embodiment, subjectivity, and ultimately empowerment for women.”[2] Reflecting on the play, I found that what the Monologues lacked was what I had so dearly valued in Shange’s work—acknowledgement of the unique experiences of women of color. While considering The Vagina Monologues, I asked myself if it truly reflected my personal experience as a “woman.” The answer, of course, was no, not entirely. It is true that the play is based on interviews with hundreds of women of all different backgrounds, but the play’s aim is to draw all these experiences together as the “common experience” of womanhood. It could be argued that the desire to produce a universal experience within a work is a problem that is persistent throughout the world of literature, poetry, and theater. In fact, Shange addresses this desire of writers and poets in nappy edges. She writes:

cuz we dont ask a poet to speak personally/ we want a poet to talk like an arena/ or l like a fire station/ to be everywhere/ all at once/ even if we never been there/ but especially if we’ve never been there/ we expect a poet to clear a space/ not her space/ not a secret/ not a closed room/ but the town. we assume the poet to be the voice of everywhere we are not/ as opposed to bein ‘everything we are’.[3]

In order to address critiques of the Monologues, we decided to cast all self-identified women of color in our production. We felt it was important to address scholarly critiques that this work “suffer[s] from a lack of diversity,” and, as a result, frames the experience of being a person of color as “something strange, oppressed, and weak.”[4] When I was preparing to direct the Monologues with my codirector Dorian Barnwell, we had various discussions regarding how we were going to contextualize our casting decisions for the Columbia community, and later, once V-Day began to inquire about our artistic decisions, we talked among ourselves about why and how an all women-of-color cast would be a meaningful step toward inclusivity for this play that has left so many feeling excluded. What I really thought, going into these conversations, was that as directors, Dorian and I would be drawing on our personal experiences and infusing them into the collective artistic vision that we wanted to see on stage and share with the audience. I would ask myself: how were the monologues speaking to me?

We decided to produce an all women-of-color Vagina Monologues because we wanted the play to represent our personal experiences as women of color. We wanted to address the valid and well-argued critiques of the show that were taking place on Barnard’s campus, many of which were coming from students of color who had previously participated in the Monologues and who felt that while the show was fun to participate in, it was not necessarily an experience that honored their identity in the way they desired. There was also, for me personally, the visual memory of the power of seeing a cast of women of color on stage—claiming space in both a performative and highly public manner. The claims to space that occurred when women of color stepped on stage were linked to the idea of visibly resisting through existence—you cannot ignore what roots itself in front of you, what demands to be seen. In her work, Shange is vocal about the importance of claiming personal space. It is a theme that appears throughout her work, but particularly in nappy edges, where claiming one’s own space is discussed in multiple poems. As such, the decision to cast all women of color was as much an artistic decision as a political one.

The announcement of our decision generated controversy, enough so that we received a call from V-Day’s national executive board inquiring about the nature of our decision, and how we had come to it as a group. In the announcement, we had stated that we believed the monologues had historically overlooked women of color. We were asked, in our conversations with V-Day board members and Eve Ensler, why we had argued that The Vagina Monologues had done this. We were told that Ensler and board members were confused by such an assertion, as V-Day was a “global movement” that worked to end sexual violence against all women. With regards to the content of the play, we were told that, “women of all races have delivered and were interviewed in the process of writing the monologues.”

The problem with this, however, is that a global movement, one that is admittedly widespread and far-reaching, is not necessarily reflective of the experiences of women across the globe, perhaps not even of all women in this country. And herein lies the important distinction between feminist theater that is purportedly “global” and that which is specific and, above all, “personal.” Shange does not presume to speak for all women, and yet her experiences, turned into poetry, novels, plays, choreopoems, and works that defy genre and categorization allow and perhaps challenge women of all kinds to empathize, grapple and reckon with her work, even if they cannot, wholesale, insert themselves into the narrative. Shange’s specificity is her strength; it allows her work to exist as a beacon to a woman’s experience without foregrounding her experience as the be-all and end-all of womanhood. Speaking to the importance of understanding lineage and unique experience in artistic form, Shange writes of poets in nappy edges, “we shd give you a moment that cannot be re-created/ a specificity that cannot be confused. our language should let you know who’s talkin, what we’re talkin abt & how we can’t stop sayin this to you.”[5]

This was what I wished the Monologues could do as an art piece, what my personal goal was in tailoring the show to reflect the experiences of a wide range of women of color. It was about making it personal and making it relevant to so many people whose identities and experiences had been rendered invisible by the “universal.” And while we were given tacit permission from V-Day’s national board to move forward with our all women-of-color production of the Monologues, we were still faced with the issue of the play’s content, which lacked specificity with regards to the unique challenges, experiences, and subjectivities of women of color. In order to address this issue, we faced another challenge: negotiating permission to put on a separate performance. This performance was meant to “talk back” to and be in dialogue with the official Vagina Monologues script, which contractually cannot be modified or include any additions, including student-written pieces. Titled, The Snatch Chats: Women of Color in Dialogue with the Vagina Monologues, the second performance included both student-written pieces, as well as pieces Dorian and I chose for their value in representing the experiences of women of color. Authors such as Gloria Anzaldúa, Audre Lorde, and Ntozake Shange were featured in this second performance in order to augment and, in certain cases, interrupt the universal narrative presented in the Monologues. The Snatch Chats were the words that I hoped would give the audience that “moment that cannot be recreated.” These were the words that we just couldn’t “stop sayin’”.

Many justice movements fall into the trap of becoming invested in a dream of sameness and commonality. This type of rhetoric plays on the professed desire to build community and respect through the shared experience of humanness. The result of justice movements that ignore the specificity of historical experiences—for instance, of racism—end up glossing over and sometimes silencing attempts to examine how these historical experiences are relevant to how we experience our identities in the here and now. These historical experiences are indeed relevant. The statistics speak for themselves: black women in the United States are eight times more likely to be incarcerated than American women of European descent, with most serving sentences for nonviolent crimes; the rate of American Indian women who are sexually assaulted is 3 to 3.5 times higher than the rate experienced by any other race.[6] Outside the statistics lie the tired stereotypes that are certainly left unaddressed in the Monologues as they are written to be performed. Black women are highly sexualized and at the same time denigrated for expressing their sexuality in any manner that is not projected onto them. Asian American women are characterized as submissive and childlike. Indigenous women’s cultures are repeatedly appropriated and sexualized through the practice of donning native headdresses as a fashion statement. By failing to complicate these stereotypes, the Monologues has failed, for many women, to do the work of empowerment that it claims.

Shange battled with monolithic conceptions of identity within her art and her own community. So many of her works reflect this conflict within her lived experience, but also in the reception of her art. In an interview published in the Black American Literature Forum, Shange says:

This monolithic idea that everybody’s the same, that we all live the same lives. That the Black family, the Black man, the Black female are the same thing. A one image. A one something. It’s not true, but it’s very difficult to break through some of that . . . I don’t know why we’re trying to become some solid unit of something. Part of our beauty is the fact that we’re so much.[7]

Shange’s comments in this interview truly speak to what those of us working on the Monologues were trying to figure out in our production. We did not see the value of representing ourselves as “some solid unit,” rather, we wanted to address an idea that sounds almost taboo in the wake of the inundation of colorblind rhetoric and equality politics—the idea that our identities as people of color, of various racial and ethnic heritages, influence our lives in a profound manner that should not be ignored, and for us, cannot be ignored. We wanted to address this idea in our show, if not to reveal the unique existential struggles that women of color face, then simply to reveal the variance in our experiences as “part of our beauty.”

Working with the Monologues and V-Day as a movement ultimately revealed to me that substantial conflicts can arise when mixing art with activism, personal success, and celebrity. One of the most pressing issues that we had to contend with when working within the confines of V-Day as an organization was the manner in which producers and directors are contractually obligated to present the content of Ensler’s script with few or no edits, additions, or modifications. While a discussion of ethics and intellectual property is best left to another article, there is clearly a potential for conflict between the preservation of the Monologues as intellectual property and the priorities of a movement which seeks to bring awareness to problems of social inequality and sexual violence across huge numbers of communities, if we are to truly recognize V-Day in its global capacity. A degree of self-awareness, too, must be taken up by any organization that seeks to engage in activist work—such self-awareness allows one to be accountable to the people who are purportedly helped and uplifted by the movement.

Art can be praxis for political change. If anyone’s work shows us that, it is Ntozake Shange’s. However, art married with activism, particularly art that desires to bring awareness to violence against all women, cannot be static, unchanging, and unmalleable. The unique challenges and experiences of women in every community must be recognized, heard, and seen in order to even begin to be addressed in a substantive and concrete manner. Can a movement that does not allow for such flexibility, accountability, and fluidity truly fulfill the activist mission it has set forth?

Footnotes
  1. See Kim Q. Hall, “Queerness, Disability, and the Vagina Monologues,” Hypatia 20.1 (2005): 99-119. [Return to text]
  2. Hall 2005: 99. [Return to text]
  3. Ntozake Shange, Nappy Edges (New York: St Martin’s, 1972) 5. [Return to text]
  4. Alyssa Reisser “Our Vaginas, Not Ourselves: A Critical Analysis of the Vagina Monologues,” MP 1.4 (2006). Available at http://academinist.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/Reiser.pdf (PDF);
    http://knollpaper.wordpress.com/current-issue/gender/vday/. [Return to text]
  5. Shange, Nappy Edges 1972: 11. [Return to text]
  6. See http://www.nhcadsv.org/uploads/WOC_domestic-violence.pdf (PDF). [Return to text]
  7. Henry Blackwell, “An Interview with Ntozake Shange,” Black American Literature Forum 13.4 (1979): 135. [Return to text]