I thought a while before posting today. I read an article in the New York Times yesterday about a play touring in China. It is inspired by Eve Ensler’s play The Vagina Monologues which has become a cornerstone for a global movement to end violence against women and girls, V DAY. I only hesitated because the article is very frank, then decided that the power of theatre wins out against possible embarrassment. It is written by Didi Kirsten Tatlow:
Play Tests China’s Sexual Limits
BEIJING — There is a moment in the play “Our Vaginas, Ourselves” — a frank and funny exploration of feminism with Chinese characteristics — when the audience freezes in embarrassment. It is right after the actress Xiao Meili asks, “Do you masturbate?”
“It’s so hard getting people to answer that question!” Ms. Xiao, a 20-something with a razor-sharp black bob, exclaimed in an interview. “A lot of the time I had to answer myself,” she said of her scene, in which she plays a teacher.
During a recent performance in Beijing, Ms. Xiao paced in front of a white board demanding answers of her “students” — in reality a standing-room-only crowd of college-age women, some older women and several men. “A former professor of mine who attended told me she was terrified I’d ask her,” she said. Yet at one performance, “a woman yelled ‘Yes, it’s relaxing!”’ Ms. Xiao said, relishing the moment. “Totally spontaneous!”
Inspired by Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues,” with an English title that makes reference to the feminist classic “Our Bodies, Ourselves” — its Chinese title translates as “The Way of the Vagina” — the taboo-busting “Our Vaginas, Ourselves” was first staged in January at an L.G.B.T. center in Beijing before an audience of 50, said its producer, Ji Hang.
Written by four women, it is based on the life experiences of about a dozen contributors who gathered last autumn at Yiyuan Gongshe, a nongovernmental organization in Beijing, where they sat on cushions in a circle and talked.
“Writing this play was really just getting it down,” said Ai Ke, 29, one of the writers, who by day works for the publishing house of a major social science research institute.
It has been a hit. Since January, the amateur actresses and playwrights have performed it about 10 times in Beijing, Tianjin and Xiamen, to enthusiastic audiences numbering up to 150, who squeeze into small venues, sharing chairs and fanning themselves, as on a recent evening in the MOMA arts district of Beijing. But their performances have been limited in scale. The play has only been staged in unofficial venues because it was unlikely to get the necessary script approval from the authorities to show in official theaters, said Ms. Ji, the producer.
“We really want to enter the mainstream theater scene, but it’s impossible because the scripts would have to be censored,” she said. The subject matter is far too edgy to pass, she said.
While the play clearly owes a debt to Western feminism, what is striking — and exciting for the actresses and their audiences — is how thoroughly localized it is, with uniquely Chinese stories and a fast-paced style that at times recalls the xiangsheng, or crosstalk, of traditional Beijing humor, and rich, pun-laden language. Localization was crucial to the artists. “It’s so important to us I can’t even find the words to say it,” Ms. Ai said. “From the beginning we knew that was what we wanted.” The goal? Nothing less than to bring live, theatrical feminism — with its truths and relevance for hundreds of millions of people — to China. And to create an opportunity for personal transformation.
“It was important to us as a consciousness-raising exercise,” Ms. Ai said. “The personal transformation was No. 1.”
The localization is spelled out in the very first scene. “I’ll say it: vagina!” two actresses, called A and B, say in Mandarin, on a stage with minimal props. “I’ll say it in the Shanxi dialect: vagina,” B says. “In the Wenzhou dialect: vagina,” A says. Then it’s the Hubei dialect, and so on until they have uttered the word in 10 dialects, the audience reacting with delight to the shock of the familiar, yet rarely heard word, spoken in their hometown tongues.
Of the play’s 11 scenes, eight consist of original material, while two are Chinese translations of excerpts from Ms. Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues,” and one is from an earlier Chinese play inspired by the American play, Ms. Ji said. Humor figures highly, as in Ms. Xiao’s scene and another called “The First Night.” Six women identified by the letters A to F chat about how they lost their virginity. “After we got a room,” sighs E, using a Chinese euphemism for having sex, “he got a receipt,” indicating that the man planned to make the encounter tax-deductible. The audience erupted in laughter.
But there is also real tension, notably in scenes that focus on rape, health and abortion. In the final scene, “I Am an Intern in an OB-GYN Ward,” a medical student recounts her experiences at a hospital: An elderly woman embodying the Chinese cultural ideal of the selfless grandmother — who will not seek medical treatment for a gynecological problem — says, “Son, don’t spend the money on me. Spend it on my grandson to go to university.”
The student also describes helping at births; the horror of aborting fetuses because they are female; and young women coming for routine abortions, sometimes several a year. China has a high abortion rate, and as I gazed around the audience, all their laughter gone, I reflected that quite a few women there probably knew precisely what she was talking about.
I have seen the play a couple of times and it is indeed a powerful piece. If you are interested you can read the original text here. A little bit of researching later, it became apparent to me just how widely the play has been performed – it has been translated into 22 languages (and counting). It has been running in India for 11 years. Following the awful Delhi rape case that made headlines across the world earlier in the year, it is not surprising that the play took on a greater importance, as this report, Vagina Monologues challenges India’s taboos, from the BBC highlights. Indeed following it, Eve Ensler went to India to support the movement there:
A report from zeenews.com, When art impacts life, makes interesting and thought provoking reading as does a review of the play from the Times of India. Mind you, it has been banned in certain parts of India, as it has, believe it or not, in certain American states.
I was surprised to read that it has been staged in a number of more liberal muslim countries – Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan and Indonesia, but is banned in Malaysia.
And the purpose of my post? Simply to highlight the power of theatre to challenge orthodoxy and repression across the world.