The Vagina Monologues
Went to the Muson Centre at Onikan, Lagos on Wednesday the 15th of March to see the heavily publicized Vagina Monologues written by Eve Ensler and directed by Najite Dede. With an all-star, all-female ensemble, this stage play with a controversial title promised to be a show unlike any seen around this country in a long while. The actual performance itself was not far off the mark.
This one production was sponsored by more groups and organizations than have sponsored all stage performances combined at the same venue over the past couple of years. Sponsors included KIND (Kudirat Initiative for Democracy), The British Council, The Lagos State Government, Virgin Nigeria, and The National Centre for Women Development, amongst a host of others. It might be safe to write that the calibre of those who were involved as producers, actors and sponsors, encouraged many of those not naturally of literary leanings, to jump on the sponsorship wagon.
Featuring tested thespians such as Joke Silva who also doubled as producer, Iretiola Doyle, Najite Dede, Bimbo Akintola, Iyabo Amoke, Funlola Aofiyebi and Omonor Imobhio, the drama also had stage neophytes like the television talk show presenter-Funmi Iyanda, the gynaecologist-Bosede Afolabi, Marie Ekpere and Elvina Ibru. All-in-all, it was a cast made up of “insiders” and “outsiders”
For many who had heard of the drama, it was assumed that the thrust of the performance was to speak against violence to and on women. Even the programme printed and distributed for the event stated that it was to “celebrate women and raise awareness for a world without violence.” For those of us who had expected to see a tame performance expounding on the harmful effects of women-battering alone, we were mistaken.
Firstly, an oddity observed by this male writer was that the audience mostly consisted of women. Close to 90% of those seated were of the female gender, and one could sense that they had come to participate in a “female thing”, something akin to a rite of passage that women know they must go through. It is the same way Nigerian women watch the American TV show, “Sex and the City” and feel pity for men who have no idea what can be so fascinating about Sarah Jessica Parker contorting herself into amorous positions.
Secondly, there were more non-black people there than had been in any drama at the most popular venue for drama in the country. I can authoritatively state this, having attended close to 40 productions at the Muson Centre since 2002. Everywhere I turned, there were Americans, Britons, Germans, Indians, Italians, Pakistani, and a host of others, representatives of many nations from around the world.
With a stage bare of all superfluous props but those necessary for the performance, the production had an almost scientific feel, with a flat-toned holographic talking head (Najite Dede) eerily issuing statements from a console. The lighting effects were simple but adequate for the performance and the sound effects served their purpose; the sound of a car revving away, the steady dripping of water and the only man allowed on stage, (David Akubeze), a workman who said nothing but stood on a scaffold and kept chipping away at a bar, producing a rhythm that the women moved to, two steps forward, one step back. I sought the meaning to this movement, certain that it must symbolise an issue; the progress of women through the centuries?
The play ranged across many issues, from the “natural” observance of women as mere sexual objects by men, to the ever-recurring matter of female circumcision or as opponents of the practice call it, female genital mutilation, and on to acid-bathing (the disfigurement of women by men through the use of the flesh-eating substance), and lesbianism.
One thing that was notable was the attention to graphic detail paid by the director and the entire cast. Hidden and often unmentionable parts of the female anatomy were described with clarity and pride, said details causing me (and probably all other men in the audience to cringe repeatedly). Words not often accepted in “civilized” gatherings were freely bandied but not used frivolously. It was a performance designed to set the teeth on edge, like lemon. The plan worked. The hypocrisy of society in laying parameters of free speech particularly in issues concerning the feminine gender were laid bare.
There was a very vivid display of the birth process, and a detailed description of the orifice through which children come into being was painful to hear but wondrous. The actors ridiculed the small-mindedness of many men, but even in this, were gracious enough to poke fun at themselves. Many of those who sat in the audience will never take women for granted again.
There was no vulgarity in the drama as might have been expected from such a title, but many spectators were forced to grow up and re-align their way of thinking to that demanded by the production. There is little doubt that sensibilities would have been offended by the forthrightness of the play. Often as humans, we resist change, and the change in thinking patterns demanded by the performance would certainly have caused circuitry overloads in some members of the audience.
Vagina Monologues stretched boundaries of socially accepted discussions, and managed to make some taboos, sexual and societal, appear unfounded.
It caused this writer to muse on why it is so difficult for men to discuss female sexuality except in smoke-filled bars exchanging lewd jokes over glasses of alcohol. After watching the performance, I know the reason is simple. Many men know next to nothing about the female psyche or about female sexuality. Our definition of it is through our own eyes, men’s own guidelines, and it is humbling to know our lack of knowledge is often tolerated because women have little choice in a male-dominated society.
The issues touched by the drama were international in nature and common to women all over, but one could see that a great deal of effort had been taken to localise the discussion.
An international issue elaborated on however, was that of “Comfort Women”, women whom the Japanese government had forcefully compelled to gratify the sexual needs of its soldiers during the Second World War (1939-1945). Those women came from China, Malaysia, Korea and Indonesia and many other places. Japan has refused to apologise for the terror visited upon the women that was part of its government policy, up until date, not to talk of compensation for the imposition of sexual slavery. The women on stage all asked to hear “sorry” from Japan. For a while in the theatre, I felt like a Japanese government official and just wanted to shout out “sorry” and pray the matter would be forgotten quickly.
This production, apparently, was not presented only to stop female battering but also to make all women as comfortable with their sexuality as men are, and maybe even more so.
There were times in the production that I felt I was in a witches’ coven with age-old secrets being revealed, from dark and dusty recesses. The female mind was laid bare and we were taken on a guided tour. I felt many times during the performance that I was being forced to look closely into a mirror and what I saw did not make me feel comfortable. It is apparent, when one allows introspection, that women are often pigeon-holed and compartmentalized. Often, for men, they are the subjects of pleasure and not much else.
To hear so many women (there were 13 of them) apart from the Professor character (Funmi Eko) and the talking head (Dede), talk forthrightly about all the parts of their anatomy, their thoughts on the shallowness of their men, their own desires and goals, made the mind swirl and often appeared to be a bombardment on the fortresses that all men and some women have built to protect our stereo-typing of women.
In a performance that was brutally frank, some of the cast members, likened the scents from hidden parts of the female body as akin to that of fish, sour milk or garlic, with a wild one even suggesting locust beans (or “iru” in Yoruba). I gritted my teeth through a great part of the performance, but therein was the greatness of the play. It was not designed to make one comfortable, it was presented as a wake-up call, the pouring of ice-cold water on an unsuspecting other, a slap on the face for all those who have denied the sexuality and personality of woman, who have refused to reckon with female mind and have not given them “a place to stand”.
Joke Silva had an audience filled with corporate types of all races, all smartly dressed with expensive fragrances, chanting a four-letter “taboo” word along with her.
The point? I believe it was to rid oneself off restrictive inhibitions, face issues that are never discussed because norms do not permit such talk, and call a spade a spade. It was, for many, a liberating occurrence, and like Jericho, walls came down that night
The performance by Joke Silva brought to my mind the reason she is regarded as one of one of this country’s greatest actors. However, there were no mean men (I beg your pardon, women) in the cast. All lent strength to make it a splendid performance.
Still, for a couple of actors, there were lapses in diction and such lapses stood out because the rest of the cast was very good. For those who paid attention, there were also moments of hesitancy by one or two members of the cast, a lack of certainty in a room full of assured women.
Apart from Ms. Silva, Omonor Imobhio, Iyabo Amoke and Funlola Aofiyebi tore up the stage time after time, giving compelling performances.
Marie Ekpere, lent power to the stage, with her grey hairs and dignified mien, and her frank talk on sexuality by someone her age was part of what forced soul-searching for many in the audience. Elvina Ibru, even though new on stage, is a natural. It is a pity only “great” events like this, will bring this breed into the theatre.
As for Iretiola Doyle, a coughing fit she had on stage at a time when silence was needed in the theatre, was not enough to take the glint off the platinum performance she put up. She was extra-ordinary and for me on the night, along with those mentioned above, the epitome of womanhood. But then, what do I know? I am a man, after all.
Najite Dede’s direction of the drama should be commended. She succeeded, armed with a powerful script and a strong cast, in helping many women present in the audience, find themselves again, and in forcing men to re-assess their views and prejudices.
For me, I shall never be able to look at women the same way, and therein lies the strength of The Vagina Monologues.