Is New Orleans the Vagina of America? (V-Day and V to the Tenth, part 2)
I said in my post Practicing Presence at V-Day that “I saw .. Eve Ensler weeping in the hallway, carrying a burden …” If you saw what she’s seen, heard what she’s heard, and have been where she's been, then you would know why this is so, that she walks sometimes and weeps.
Last night I attended the culminating event of V-Day, the performance of V TO THE TENTH: THE VAGINA MONOLOGUES, featuring a star-studded cast, even the wondrous Jane Fonda, who I’d seen close up the day before at V-Day: Superdome/Superlove. (Fonda pictured). Oprah Winfrey was supposed to perform as well, but did not. Ensler announced that Oprah had taken ill and not arrived. Perhaps that’s why Gayle King shot up from her seat during the finale of Swimming Upstream: The Katrina Monologues the night before, which was April 11, and rushed past me in her yellow dress with the plunging neckline.
Back to what’s really important
V TO THE TENTH was the 10th anniversary benefit performance of THE VAGINA MONOLOGUES, produced to raise money to help end violence against women around the world. In between monologue performances by Fonda, Doris Roberts, Jennifer Beals, Shirley Knight, Christine Lahti, Liz Mikel, Ali Larter, Rosario Dawson, Kerry Washington, and others, the big screens high above us in the New Orleans Arena showed videos from around the world that told us about violence against women in the world. The images astounded, humbled and horrified us.
Do you understand that in some places in the world violence against women is systemic?
The day before at the Superdome I met three women activists, who are pictured here left to right: Rada Boric of the former Yugoslavia (Croatia), Danijela Dugandzic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, who is Co-Founder and Manageress at Foundation CURE, and Sandra Ljubinkovice of Serbia. They have been working with V-Day and with performances of The Vagina Monologue and say they are creating a vagina triangle of power in their part of the world.
Boric was among the international activists who joined Eve Ensler on stage at the end of the show. I heard her speak at the Superdome on Friday where she said that the former Yugoslavia is a nation of male dominance and fascism and women routinely are the victims of war crimes such as rape.
Dugandzic, at center of the photo, said she wears the T-shirt that says "This is what a feminist looks like" to help dispel stereotypes. She said others in her country wore the shirts and showed that feminists come in all shapes, sizes, and looks. You know we have stereotypes here in America also of what feminists look like. Despite Gloria Steinem being so vocal and visible, people still don’t think of feminists as willowy, attractive women who easily attract male attention should they wish to do so.
During THE VAGINA MONOLOGUES performance, Rosario Dawson performed a monologue with Kristina Krepela of Zagreb about violence in the region of the world from which my three woman activist friends come.
The piece, “My Vagina was My Village,” tells the story of a young girl who says:
My Vagina was green, water soft pink fields, cow mooing boyfriend
resting sweet boyfriend touching lightly with soft piece of blond straw. (from The Vagina Monologues)
Soldiers came and tortured her and no longer could she touch herself:
Not since the soldiers the soldiers put a long thick rifle inside me.
So cold the steel rod cancelling my heart. Don’t know whether they’re
going to fire it or shove it through my spinning brain. Six of them,
monstrous doctors with black masks shoving bottles up me too. There
were sticks and the end of a broom. (from The Vagina Monologues)
The New Orleans Metaphor and Violence Against Women in the Congo
Saturday, bathed in the bright morning sun, Eve Ensler led a parade, an entertainment staple and cleansing ritual in New Orleans, from Congo Square in that city back to the Superdome/Superlove. I wanted to see that, but couldn’t because I was at home watching my mother, a Katrina survivor, who has Alzheimer’s disease. Still, I know it must’ve been beautiful and tasted the wonder briefly when the Big Queens of the Guardians of the Flame tribe of black Mardi Gras Indians led the actresses for the evening to the arena stage. Congo Square was renamed as Louis Armstrong Park sometime ago, but that doesn’t change its history. It’s a place where black slaves met to dance, sing, and commiserate. It’s a place where Voodoo queen and free woman of color Marie LaVeau held court and washed away sins and kept people’s secrets, both black and white. Ensler said she didn’t know that New Orleans had a Congo Square and felt its existence more fortuitous as she honored warriors for women from Africa’s Congo during V-Day and at V TO THE TENTH.
Before Ensler honored a particular Congo warrior at V TO THE TENTH, she focused the audience's gaze upon New Orleans, opening the night with these words, “New Orleans is the Vagina of America.” (If you are familiar with Ensler’s work, creative work, you know that she comes from a psychic space that forces people to see how women are disrespected to the point hat even the most private part of our anatomy is scorned and abused.)
She said this nation has come to New Orleans for its pleasures and comforts, but when the city was ravaged the government turned its back. Like a woman, New Orleans has been blamed for its own troubles. Ensler drew simile after simile to build her case for this metaphor: New Orleans is warm and moist, good to eat when we love it, with its fishy taste and spices a murky, disease-infested swamp when we hate it. And after using her, we want to forget her.
This is why Ensler chose New Orleans as the site of V-Day and V TO THE TENTH, and why she was pleased that it had a Congo Square because its connection to Africa’s Congo further connected it to the her metaphor and New Orleans’ global connection and reflection of the problems all women face. The night before at the performance Swimming Up Stream: The Katrina Monologues, she'd honored four women called Katrina Warriors with V Awards. These are women who've worked hard to rebuild New Orleans, help stop poverty, fight to save the environment, and be anchors in the community.
She finished her New Orleans metaphor monologue by shouting, "Welcome to the wetlands!" At this the audience roared and applauded.
In the middle of V TO THE TENTH, we watched a film about violence against women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Africa, and the doctor who works hard to save women’s lives, Dr. Denis Mukwege. Ensler said that Mukwege changed her opinion of what a man could be. Here’s an excerpt from Ensler's 2007 article in Glamour magazine to give you a sense of the magnitude of horrors in the Congo:
I have just returned from hell. I am trying for the life of me to
figure out how to communicate what I have seen and heard in the
Democratic Republic of the Congo. How do I convey these stories of
atrocities without your shutting down, quickly turning the page or
feeling too disturbed?
How do I tell you of girls as young as
nine raped by gangs of soldiers, of women whose insides were blown
apart by rifle blasts and whose bodies now leak uncontrollable streams
of urine and feces? (Women Left for Dead and the Man Who’s Saving Them by Eve Ensler)
Dr. Mukwege runs a clinic to help these women. Ensler called him on stage and presented him with a V award. His translator teared up translating his gratitude.
And these are the things that humble us who live in comfort.
Oh, the evening was a blast of entertainment. Faith Hill performed alone and then again with Jennifer Hudson and Charmaine Neville, singing Aretha Franklin’s "Respect." We stomped our feet and clapped, rocking to the beat and shouting “R-E-S-P-E-C-T find out what it means to me.” But it wasn’t the song that first raised us; it was Ensler’s request that every woman who had been a victim of rape or physical abuse stand in this safe space of V-Day's culmination. I stood, as did the small, white woman in the white blazer with pink V-Day boa next to me.
Then Ensler asked everyone who knew a woman who’d been a victim of violence to stand. The whole audience seemed to be on its feet, people up to the Arena's rafters. And finally the whole audience was up. She’d asked everyone to stand who would make sure violence against women stops.
So, we were already standing as Hudson climbed the stage stairs and started wailing out “Respect,” but we soon shimmied on our feet and claimed it, that ense of security and dignity we all want to know.
If you’ve read it all, perhaps you’ve seen how this has been a story of cleansing, of how I arrived at the Superdome, the sprawling haunted house of New Orleans sheltering its Katrina ghosts, and walked into its circle a hot mess of rage against self, of how I stood still and took hold myself so I could feel the transformation of Superdome to Superlove, my struggle to embraced the moment and accept the sweet love pinkness and dreams of a woman who works to stop violence against everyone with a vagina. I saw her, and the women who stood with her. I looked into their hearts and stood myself.
So much more happened. V-Day in New Orleans could easily birth a month of blog posts, reflections on awards to Katrina Warriors on Friday, a parade of Black Mardi Gras Indian Queens on Saturday, an altar to Katrina fallen, poets, artists, environmentalists fighting for Mother Earth’s life, a market of women vendors from the Gulf Coast and the city, a red tent of hurricane tales that I’m sorry I could not visit, Code Pink women and other activists’ songs, but I must end this story here and tell you what Eve Ensler told me in the hall when I saw her weeping on Friday and later releasing herself to joy within her superlove labors. I asked her, “Ms. Ensler, you say you want to change the story of women in this world. What would that story look like changed?”
Eve Ensler: (My change to the story of women would be) that women could
walk anywhere they pleased and wear whatever they wanted and be safe.
Blogger's Notes: Many kudos to the women/stars who performed The Vagina Monologues, but really big props to Dallas actress Liz Mikel. Mikel peformed two monologues, the both poignant and funny "My Angry Vagina," and the newly added piece that was written specifically for V TO THE TENTH, "Hey, Miss Pat." Oprah Winfrey was supposed to do this piece, but in the talk show mogul's absence, Kimel filled in. Before the audience knew of Winfrey's absence, they shot to their feet after "My Angry Vagina" and gave powerhouse Kimel and standing ovation. Even more stood after she delivered "Hey Miss Pat." The monologue is about Katrina survivor Patricia Henry.
Photo from Lizkimel.com
The picture of Black Indians from Mardi Gras did not come from V-Day and I don't think they are from the Guardians of the Flame tribe. The photo came from this site that features another tribe,
The "Oh, Fuck, I'm A Victim" photo is from artwork at V-Day at the Superdome.
Part one of this post is at this link, Practicing Presence at V-Day.
Nordette Adams is a contributing editor with BlogHer.com