'Duh," she said, "wetlands."
It's a glib but appropriate metaphor and the central point of one of her newest monologues. "New Orleans is the vagina of America," begins the piece, which casts New Orleans and the Gulf South in the role of the feminine in a culture that disrespects and underserves women; seductive and sustaining and repeatedly abused.
Ensler developed the new piece during a year and a half when she visited New Orleans almost monthly after Katrina. During her trips, she connected with a group of women who represented local women's resource providers, educators, artists, advocates and activists, who meet regularly at both Newcomb College's Center for Research on Women and the Ashé Cultural Arts Center. The group named itself the Katrina Warriors Network as a riff on Ensler's concept of "vagina warriors," women who survive trauma and then transform the energy of their pain to fight against violence. They helped guide Ensler and V-Day staff through the traumatic landscape of post-Katrina New Orleans.
Several art-as-healing projects emerged. Working with the group, Ensler presented a show at Tulane University's McAlister Auditorium in which hurricane survivors presented their own stories. She also worked with local artists and musicians at Ashé to create the hurricane-themed play, Swimming Upstream, which will premiere at the Superdome on Friday night. With the help of the Ashé Center executive director Carol Bebelle, Ensler organized a second-line parade from Ashé to Armstrong Park complete with the New Birth and Free Agents brass bands, to preview coming V-Day events. One evening, she hurried from a speech at UNO to appear, faintly out of breath, in the last act of a student performance of her play A Memory, A Monologue, a Rant and a Prayer at Tulane.
All of this is culminating in a pink juggernaut of vagina-friendly programming this weekend under the V-Day/Katrina Warriors Network umbrella, including a celebrity-packed reading of the updated Monologues, complete with new, New Orleans-inspired stories; a performance in the Superdome of Swimming Upstream; a visit from radical sexpert Susie Bright, art shows, film screenings, radio broadcasts, a wine tasting and a silent auction. A complete takeover of the Superdome (which the V-Day group and the Katrina Warriors Network have temporarily rechristened the Superlove) will open the Dome to the public for free yoga classes, massages, meditation sessions, health screenings, support group meetings, musical performances, storytelling and more. (A full schedule of Katrina Warriors Network/V-Day events is available at www.katrinawarriors.net.)
Actress Kerry Washington, who lived in New Orleans for several months while filming the movie Ray, will perform in the 10th anniversary reading Saturday night as part of a star-studded cast that includes Jane Fonda, Salma Hayek, Marisa Tomei, Didi Conn (who some may remember as Frenchy, from the film version of Grease) and Oprah Winfrey, who will perform a new piece Ensler wrote based on her interviews with Katrina survivors.
'The metaphor is that we celebrate New Orleans. It's hot, spicy, pleasurable, but when it needed us most, we turned the other way," Washington explains. "We celebrate female beauty, but when it's being violated and abused, we turn the other way. [New Orleans] is a wonderful place to focus on healing violence against women."
Washington remembers watching news footage of the Superdome in the days immediately following Katrina and noting, as the world did, the disproportionate number of African Americans that had gone to the shelter of last resort and were left, literally, twisting in the wind. The actress also noticed something else.
'I remember thinking, "Look at the disproportionate number of women in the Dome,' too," she says. "I thought, "Wow, a cross-population is being affected. Women of color.' Which is what I am, so I need to be involved."
When Ensler first visited New Orleans in 2006, talks were underway already about where to hold the 10th anniversary of V-Day. Both Paris and Nairobi were being considered. But she found herself intensely moved by the stories of the women she met in New Orleans. The urging of the Katrina Warriors Network, as well as the powerful metaphor she saw in the neglect of the people who took shelter in the Superdome, convinced her that New Orleans was the place. It also inspired her to launch a brand-new element of V-Day the two-day free lovefest of services, performances and talks in the Superdome on Friday and Saturday.
'We've never done that before," Ensler says. "We really wanted to gear it toward the women of New Orleans.
'It's one part healing, one part reflection, one part culture, one part spiritual uplifting and ritual," she says. "Part of the grotesqueness of what happened in Katrina was lack of care. People in the middle of the worst experience of their lives were shuttled around and treated like animals which is something for which the local government needs to make amends."
Even if the Superdome event has a schticky sound to it, Crystal Kile explains that it is important to remember that it's only the tip of a much bigger iceberg. Kile directs programming at the Newcomb Center for Research on Women and is a founder of the Katrina Warriors Network.
'It's an incredibly idealistic thing to reclaim the Superdome as the Superlove with this event," she says. "But it's the idea that what should have been there, will be there. The V to the Tenth Superlove project is intended to heal from ground zero, starting with the people who were in the Dome, who were in the water, everything. That's where you start healing New Orleans, and that has been V-Day's impulse to go to the most extreme trauma points, and I think rightly so."
The original play had its genesis in 1994, when Ensler interviewed more than 200 women about their vaginas and the thoughts their genitals evoked everything from pleasure to abuse to grooming. The Vagina Monologues opened as a one-woman show Off-Broadway in 1996, and after a six-month run and an Obie award, Ensler took her show on the road. Soon, she realized that what she had thought was her most avant-garde piece turned out to be the one that resonated with the broadest audience. After every performance in every city, the writer was faced with crowds of women eager to meet her and share their own stories. They weren't happy ones either. Each night, Ensler heard a litany of abuse, incest, rape, fear and shame. This was what the women of America thought of when they thought of their vaginas. The constant barrage of traumatized confessions, Ensler writes in an afterword to the 10th anniversary edition of the play, finally moved her to think that maybe what she had conceived as "a moving work of art on violence" might have the potential to be "a mechanism for moving people to act to end violence."
On Valentine's Day 1998, Ensler enlisted a celebrity cast to perform a gala reading of the play at New York's Hammerstein Ballroom, and called it V-Day. (According to press materials, the V in V-Day stands for "victory," "Valentine" and "vagina.") The event drew 2,500 people, and raised $250,000 for groups that fight violence against women. A campaign ensued to encourage college campus productions of The Vagina Monologues as benefits for schools' own regional women's resource providers. Ensler realized that her play was growing new legs as a movement.
'I don't think I really got it until the first year of the college campaign when 50 colleges signed up," Ensler says. "It was a gradual, incremental awareness. Madison Square Garden was really the turning point." In early 2001, a benefit performance of the show sold out the 18,000-seat venue and brought in more than $1 million.
Kerry Washington was drawn to The Vagina Monologues after watching two of her co-stars from different projects, Julia Stiles and Anna Deavere Smith (who will appear in Swimming Upstream), perform in different Broadway productions of the play. Washington then appeared in several versions of the play, including in one with an all-women-of-color cast at the Apollo Theatre, and eventually came to sit on V-Day's board. With nearly 15 years of sobering messages about violence against women under the belt of The Vagina Monologues, she's bemused that some audiences still startle at the words used to describe genitalia, bringing up the recent infamous Today Show interview with Ensler and Jane Fonda.
'Jane said "c**t" on the Today Show, and for me it's funny," Washington says. "Here is Hanoi Jane, who's had a lifetime of scandal, and the country is in an uproar because she said the C-word. I showed up for rehearsal and just pointed at her and said, "You got in trouble again.'"
It's both funny and disturbing that women onstage talking about their vaginas can be considered shocking or more shocking than the stories of violence done to them in direct relation to their vaginas. But the instant attention-getter of the word "vagina" is still V-Day's secret weapon. Mayor Nagin earned the event priceless publicity when he declared himself a "vagina-friendly mayor" at a March press conference. (He went one step further than Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, who was present and voiced his support but stopped short of saying the word out loud. Nagin didn't go as far as the president of Iceland, who before a performance there claimed to be "Iceland's first vagina president.")
In general, art will always be political, Washington says. "When you're creating art, you're creating a voice. As artists, we're carriers of culture. When people look back after 100 years to see who a population was, what they believed, what they stood for, they look at art." And as funny as it is to get public officials to say "vagina" on camera, it is the idea that language has power that remains at the core of V-Day's vision and mission. From college productions that sell out in alternate locations because university officials ban them from campus to a packed Islamabad performance held in secret, it seems to be working.
'Talking about women's private parts," Ensler explains, "gave birth to a public social movement."
Crystal Kile describes it as the emotional start to what can be a political process.
'The whole mechanism of V-Day," she says, "is that you go the first time, and you hear a story that resonates with you somehow. And you're motivated to get in touch with your own story, and figure out how that ties in with all the other stories." Thus bonded by common experience, women can work together, she says.
Talking about private pain can also give birth to revelation and healing. The New Orleans singer Troi Bechet, who wrote five songs for Swimming Upstream, met regularly for more than a year with the 14 women who are part of the play. She struggled for months with one of the songs she wrote. She sat at the piano and started to play it and wound up breaking down in tears. Whether she was ready to deal with it or not, however, there were people depending on her to tell her story. Deadlines and sharing helped it emerge.
'To me it was a healing process to be able to give voice to what we were feeling personally and what we were hearing in the community," Bechet says. "I knew I had a safe place, where people would understand what I was saying and embrace it."
Poetry, Ensler thinks, can succeed where politicians miss the mark. The ritualistic elements of storytelling have been her working tool to prompt catharsis and healing. In her experience, healthy people can then work for change.
'Theater I believe in as much as anything else," she says. "I think it has the power to create revolutions. What I've seen with The Vagina Monologues is that it's been able to communicate with people across the world, in 20 countries, in 45 languages, without the polarity that politicians set up. It creates complexity, ambiguity. It's a place where people come together in the dark and can think without locking into position."
Each year, in spotlight campaigns, V-Day has focused its attention and directed 10 percent of the proceeds from every performance worldwide on the needs of a different group, from women threatened by mysterious murderers in Juarez to the surviving "comfort women" who lived as enslaved prostitutes for Japanese soldiers during World War II. Following Hurricane Katrina, the women of New Orleans got the year's spotlight, but the V-Day organization, after embedding with the Katrina Warriors Network, wasn't ready to end it there.
In the wake of Katrina, New Orleans area service-providers for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence reported the same problems (see "Network Difficulties," Gambit Weekly, March 21, 2006). While the effects of the storm had ravaged their staff numbers, their funding, and in some cases, the physical buildings where they operated, they were faced with a greater and more urgent need for services than before. They were forced to pool their resources sharing office space, using a single crisis hotline to field calls, and juggling grants to put funding where it was most needed. Newcomb College, which had long been a nerve center for women's information and resources in New Orleans, was preoccupied and financially paralyzed due to Tulane University's decision to dissolve it.
Statistics consistently have borne out that following natural or man-made disasters, women suffer disproportionately, says Dale Standifer, director of the Metropolitan Center for Women and Children. Not the event itself but resulting burdens of stess and difficulty coping leads to increases in abuse of women. The frequency and intensity of sexual assaults and domestic violence increase. In a cruel inverse ratio, the availability of services for women in need from available childcare services to shelter beds declines. The aftermath of Katrina affected women in shocking ways. Emergency medical services that were functioning had very few forensic nurses the trained staff who deal with sexual assault victims and collect evidence for rape kits. Abusive partners were able to track down their victims through post-Katrina networks set up to help families and friends find one another. Victims of domestic abuse found themselves dependent on abusive spouses who signed up for FEMA benefits under the abusers' names.
In conflict zones, some Third World countries, and in nations where religion and cultural tradition incorporate misogyny into law and custom like Taliban-controlled Afghanistan or West African countries that practice the female genital mutilation referred to as female circumcision Ensler saw women becoming casualties as a matter of course. In post-Katrina New Orleans, she saw it on American soil.
'In any war, or any place where infrastructure falls apart, poverty increases, racism increases, abuse increases. And women are on the front lines," Ensler says.
V-Day's worldwide approach has been built on a kind of Johnny Appleseed model. Performances of the play garner funds and galvanize communities emotionally as well as raise public profiles for populations in need. Working with local activists is also a key component to the approach of the V-Day team, which employs less than 10 full-time staff members. Women on the ground direct the out-of-towners as to their real needs and provide contacts. Ensler's combination of art therapy, star power, and in New Orleans, perhaps most importantly an outsider's energy, offers a strong shot in the arm.
'In most cities we go to, it's the local base that brings us there," Ensler says. "We're trying to help support building infrastructure in cities that are affected by disaster or war."
The Superlove and the V to the Tenth gala in New Orleans are, Kile says, V-Day's "healing gift" to New Orleans. And in a way, planning it and the dozens of events that led up to it were part of the healing for herself and the other groups involved in the Katrina Warriors Network.
'It's been a learning experience, working with each other and with all the groups that have come in from out of town, V-Day being the biggest one," Kile says. Working together was a fluid process of trial and error, and wasn't always easy. Charged with being V-Day's local arm, Kile and the Katrina Warriors found themselves struggling to connect resource providers who were themselves dealing with the aftermath of Katrina.
'People say, how do you reach the women? Oh, you just bring them all together. Not traumatized women, you don't," Kile says. The need to create the V-day event, however, spurred the women of the network to push through, creating new bonds and strengthening old ones. Projects in the network's future include generating a detailed report on the status of women and girls in New Orleans after Katrina, and designing and disbursing grants from the Katrina Warriors Fund, which will include money raised from Saturday's benefit show. Once the pink flags and banners are taken down and Oprah has left the building, in many ways the real work of the Katrina Warriors Network will begin anew.
7:30 p.m. Fri., April 11
Louisiana Superdome, 1500 Girod St., 569-9070, www.acabnola.blogspot.com
V to the Tenth
7:30 p.m. Sat., April 12
New Orleans Arena, 1501 Girod St., 587-3663
10 a.m.-6 p.m. Fri. and Sat., April 11 and 12
New Orleans Superdome, 1500 Girod St., 587-3663
Complete schedule of Superlove events at www.vday.org.