Thursday, March 11, 2010

Learning to love your vagina: SASSE’s production of “The Vagina Monologues”

The word “vagina” echoed off the walls of Hendricks Chapel on February 19.

There were other words, too. Words like beauty, orgasm, period, pain, and happiness resonated throughout the building. These words capture the essence of “The Vagina Monologues” as performed by Syracuse University and SUNY–ESF students and faculty.

“It’s about celebrating the vagina,” Caitlin Guthoff, a senior television-radio-film major and cast member, said. “It’s a forgotten body part sometimes, and why should it be?”

“It’s a roller coaster ride. Some of it is funny, poignant, some of it is really sad,” Tula Goenka said. Goenka is a professor of television-radio-film who acted as a narrator for the show.

Brianna Garcia, co-president of Students Advancing Sexual Safety and Empowerment (SASSE), the organization behind “The Vagina Monologues” at Syracuse University, said the show is more than entertaining: it is powerful.

It can help women who have been victims of sexual abuse “overcome their own trauma and come to terms with themselves,” she said.

SASSE and “The Vagina Monologues” have many common goals. “SASSE is about being empowered to make good sexual choices and to be emotionally okay with those choices,” Garcia said. “There is a lot of stigma surrounding sexuality, particularly women’s sexuality. We’re sexual beings and I think it’s important to celebrate that.”

According to the program, “The Vagina Monologues” is a play derived from feminist Eve Ensler’s interviews with over 200 women about their vaginas and sexuality. This performance included monologues about first periods, sexual slavery and abuse, lesbian experiences and the female orgasm. Proceeds from the show benefitted local organizations that deal with women’s issues, including The Vera House, Planned Parenthood, SU R.A.P.E. Center and The V-Day Haiti Rescue Fund.

“The Vagina Monologues” set gave Hendricks Chapel a new look. Benches and chairs were draped in fuzzy fuschia and candy-apple red blankets. Pink and red pillows of various shapes and sizes dotted the platform.

The all-female cast was bedecked in reds and pinks, too. They were a diverse group that included women of different ages, races and personalities. The cast was made up of undergraduates of all ages from SU and SUNY–ESF, graduate students and professors. Their clothing ran the gamut: conservative pantsuits, short skirts with bare legs, tailored vests, corsets, sky-high stilettos, ratty sneakers. But they were all clad in shades of red and pink.
“Vagina colors,” Harriet Brown said with a smile. Brown is a magazine professor and member of the cast.

Although Hendricks Chapel may seem like an odd venue for a play with such a racy theme, Goenka said it’s the “perfect space” for “The Vagina Monologues.” “It is a very spiritual piece,” she said. “It’s about reclaiming your body but also reclaiming your soul as a woman.”
There was general consensus among the women involved that everyone should see “The Vagina Monologues.”

“I can’t really think of anyone I wouldn’t want to see the show,” Garcia said. Goenka said she thinks the content of the show is very relevant on college campuses.
“It’s important on a college campus because there is a lot of sexual abuse at college that is never talked about,” Goenka said.

“I would prefer if more men saw it...they have no idea what women go through,” said Tamara Williams, a junior English major and member of the cast. Brown also said that men should see the show. “It’s important for young men to see that young women can be empowered to talk about their sexuality. It’s not just men who can talk about sex.”

Sean Eberle, a sophomore computer science major, was one of the few men in the audience of 80 on Friday night. It was his first time seeing the show and he said that it opened his eyes “to what women experience regarding their sexuality and process of maturing.”

Garcia said that performing in “The Vagina Monologues” can be an eye-opening experience for freshmen, as well. “You see them really uncomfortable talking about vaginas or periods,” she said. They feel like it is not acceptable to talk about these subjects and “we’re like ‘It is!’”

Brianna Collins, a senior communications design major and the other co-president of SASSE, can attest to the powerful effect of “The Vagina Monologues” on a first-year student. She wandered into one of the organization’s meetings by accident her freshman year, and left with a role in the show. “It was a transition for me,” Collins said, and explained how she was making her own decisions for the first time in college.

The importance of her first experience with “The Vagina Monologues” is what kept Collins from auditioning this year. “I didn’t want to take away the opportunity from anyone who walked in the door,” she said. “I’ve seen it as my job essentially to help other women experience what I experienced freshman year.”

The women said they had high hopes for the show and its impact on the audience. “I’m hoping they take away the idea that women’s sexuality is as individual as everything else about human beings. There are many ways to be sexual,” Brown said. “There is nothing embarrassing about your body, it’s part of who we are and it’s OK.”

Similarly, Guthoff hopes to remove some of the taboo that surrounds sexuality. “It’s a very natural thing, if it’s between a man and a woman, a woman and a woman, or a man and a man, it’s something to be celebrated,” she said.

After the show closed, the women reflected on their experiences. “I had tears in my eyes the first time I heard it,” Brown said about the first performance of all the monologues together.

Williams said she felt the performance had a huge impact on the audience. “It’s always profound to see the whole show together. It just makes me love vagina,” she said.

Collins said one of the most amazing things about “The Vagina Monologues” is that it “invites all different kinds of women” to bond over “a common goal.” Women are coming together because they are “passionate about what we do with the Monologues,” she said.

Williams agrees. “We all have this common bond,” she said. “We all come of age, we all get our periods...because we share this we always have something to talk about, regardless of things like age or race.”

Despite all the stress and hard work that goes into the show, Garcia was sad to see it come to an end. “The last night is always bittersweet, because it's amazing to see their growth but sad to let them go,” Garcia said. “Those ladies rock harder than they'll ever know.”

Goenka said that she believes the women who were part of “The Vagina Monologues” have been empowered by the experience and have learned about their own sexualities. “Hopefully when they graduate they can take this sense of themselves out there into the universe and continue this work in some way,” she said

by Jacqui Kenyon

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