The writer formerly known as Eve Ensler has made some changes. First, there is her name. She is no longer Eve Ensler, not since writing her brilliant, blazing memoir, The Apology, which excavated the dead father who violently abused her throughout her childhood by jumping into his skin and speaking, chillingly, from inside his darkly skewed world.
She is now V, joyously freed from the last vestige of that prescribed paternal identity. She has always loved the letter besides, she says, with its shape of “two arms outstretched in opening” and all the other words its holds within its embrace: “Vulnerable. Vital. Voluptuous. Vulva. Venus. Verisimilitude.”
And vagina too, of course, the V-word incontrovertibly linked to the award-winning American playwright, activist and performer, as a result of her groundbreaking play, The Vagina Monologues. That drama touched so many hearts – and nerves – that it sparked V Day, a global activist movement to end violence against women and girls.
It is not often that a single work of art lights a match to a worldwide movement of such scope. Since 1998, V Day has raised $120m for grassroots anti-violence groups and spawned initiatives including City of Joy and One Billion Rising. V did not anticipate the drama’s potential for transformation when she began performing it off-Broadway in 1996. “I was just hoping that somebody wouldn’t shoot me. That was my greatest fear,” she says, laughing. “What the piece taught me is that when you bust open something that people aren’t talking about, all they want to do is talk about it and share their experiences.”
Although her drama has remained at the heart of V Day for the past 23 years, the writer has decided that, though it will still exist as a performed work in its own right, it will no longer be the centrepiece. So, why must the play that created the movement be decommissioned?
Because it is time for other voices to be centred, says V on a Zoom call from upstate New York. “I have become profoundly aware of my privilege and my platform as a white woman, and I’ve felt a deep desire to recentre voices inside this campaign, particularly the voices of black women throughout the world. Everything we’ve seen in recent months – the rise of racism and fascism in this country and throughout the world, the rise of police killings from Breonna Taylor to George Floyd, on and on until [Walter] Wallace in Philadelphia, to the 400 years of racial oppression, slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, the insidious denial of rights, and particularly the attempt to invisibilise black women in our culture – led me to this.”
What comes in its place is Voices, a campaign grounded in black women’s stories from across Africa and its diaspora. An interdisciplinary performance project in autumn 2021 will be created by women identifying as black; around 20 chosen pieces will comprise the work, for which submissions are open, and each selected work awarded a stipend. It will be curated by the poet and activist, Aja Monet, who has dialled in from Los Angeles to join V on the Zoom call.
Monet is keeping the remit wide, accepting everything from songs to visual art, poetry, work based around sound as well as oral storytelling. Narratives that are not traditionally western are welcome, and ones that do not present a “unilateral feminism” but “lean into” the difference. “This piece will ultimately be in service to and for black women all over the world, to speak to the complexities of our experiences as well as a collective vision for change, justice, compassion and solidarity,” she says.
The Vagina Monologues has, in recent times, been called out by some for biological centricity, and Monet speaks of the shift in focus from women’s vaginas to their voices in this new campaign. “What we hope is for the ‘V’ in V Day to expand its definition and its relationship to women’s stories, realities, bodies and experiences.”
“We know that the vagina informs many women in our communities. However, that is not the totality of the woman experience, so we really want to push ourselves to think about the ways our voices shape our representations of womanhood.”
How far has this V-word come, I wonder, since V felt she could be shot down for saying it aloud in public? Has there really been any progress with this particularly intransigent taboo? “We move forward and we move back. In fact, there are many places where you can say the word comfortably, but we’re also seeing amazing pushback against women’s rights everywhere. We only have to look to what happened in Poland recently or what’s happening [in other parts of] the world, whether it’s child marriages, or the shutting down of contraception rights through health care in the US and the rightwing Christian pushback that says women need to be married.
“The thing about racist patriarchy is that it’s persistent. It’s like a virus, always lodged somewhere,” says V. “When the conditions are right, it will rise up. But women’s movements around the world – whether black feminist movements or those fighting for healthcare, or the Earth, or immigrant rights – are the strongest they have ever been. Women are much more embodied and, as a result, patriarchs are pissed off and terrified.”
“Change doesn’t happen without resistance,” adds Monet. “Of course, those who don’t want it are going to rise up against it.”
V has long believed that art can incite and enact social change; The Vagina Monologues is proof that it can be done. But I wonder if it serves the same purpose in these unprecedented times – during a global pandemic in which it is at risk of being seen as a luxury, not a necessity. “We are in a very weird place right now with our theatres closed for the most part around the world,” concedes V. “We’re in crisis, and crisis, as we know, is opportunity. It means we can open up and become something else as human beings. The role of art is to help that, to encourage that, to make people uneasy and to destabilise them so they begin to look at their lives in different ways. I have seen the power of women storytelling in a theatrical shape. It blows people’s hearts and minds open. I have enormous faith in art. If anything, it’s what I have most faith in because it gets beyond dualities and lives in ambiguities.”
Monet also thinks this is a potent moment in which some boundaries have blurred and left us feeling more global. The internet, she says, has changed the way we receive art and “people now have an aerial view of the world in a way they didn’t before”.
The way to meet the future, they both believe, is through listening, something that stripped-down pandemic life might have better tutored us in doing. “How do we really lean into active listening and what does it look like to cultivate a society that deepens its relationship to listening?”
What Monet says is vital, adds V, who has spent years listening to women’s stories, and making art out of them, most recently Nurses in Their Own Words, for which she interviewed nurses contending with the pandemic. She has also worked with women in prisons and those affected by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. “Because I’ve had the privilege of interviewing so many people, one of the things I’ve learned is that when you really listen, you are changed because people actually enter you. You hold their joys and triumphs and suffering in your body. What I’ve been excited about [during the pandemic] is that we’re stationary. We’re not going ‘what’s next?’ because the next is the same day over again.”
So might this pause serve us well in some way? “I think so. That’s why I’m very excited about Voices. The role in this for anybody who’s not a black woman is to listen, take this in, to allow this material to impact you, to transform you, to take you somewhere else where you haven’t been before.”