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Voice Activated 

New Orleans has become a primary venue for Vagina Monologues creator Eve Ensler and organizers of V-Day, a global campaign to end violence against women and children. Last spring, Ensler led discussions at an event led by the Katrina Warriors, a feminist group dedicated to empowering New Orleans women. Ensler spoke of the bravery of women after the hurricane and lauded the unique matriarchal culture of the Lower Ninth Ward, but also talked about the city's problems with gender inequality and violence.

To confront problems with violence, New Orleans' V-Day groups affiliated with the organization's college campus and worldwide campaigns have staged performances of The Vagina Monologues, and V-Day NOLA's March performance at the House of Blues is the final event in more than a month of productions.

"In my opinion, this project is a chance to shed light on issues which are largely ignored, overshadowed, or tossed under the rug by mainstream media," says Kristina Denapolis, co-organizer of the V-Day NOLA event. "In our celebrity-obsessed culture, social issues seem to be put on the back burner. The atrocities seem so far removed this way, when in fact, violence against women and children are a sad and silent part of many communities."

As Ensler said last year, domestic violence has increased since the storm. The Metropolitan Center for Women and Children provides 24-hour support for battered women in the New Orleans area, and recently has seen more brutal cases of domestic violence than ever before.

"I've rarely seen bite marks on women in 15 years," Center Director Dale Standifer says. "I've probably seen five or six cases since the storm. I think this is a big indicator of high levels of stress. But we're here to support the victims. We won't turn anyone away."

In 1996, Eve Ensler created the The Vagina Monologues as a one-woman show based on interviews with more than 200 women on issues of female sexuality, identity and strength. The play explicitly confronts taboos surrounding women's bodies with outspoken stories and questions about anatomy, menstruation and orgasms. At one point in the show, audience members are encouraged to interact with actresses in chants designed to reclaim misogynist language as a tool for women, not abusers. After her initial success with The Vagina Monologues, Ensler founded V-Day in 1998. Using the empowering message of the play as a springboard, Ensler and the V-Day organization now hope to end violence against women worldwide, including rape, battery, incest and female genital mutilation.

Events explore the many meanings of "V" in V-Day, including victory, valentine and vagina. Though each production of the play must feature the monologues in the same order with the same words, staging is open to interpretation. Many directors choose a minimalist presentation, with three or four women delivering solo monologues with very few props. However, performances can be radically different from group to group, with some including singing, dancing and group segments.

For the V-Day NOLA show, a few monologues have been converted to group pieces to accommodate the 19-woman cast, and although staging is for the most part very simple, some video-props will be incorporated into the show. DJ Soul Sister will spin an hour of entertainment before the performance. Though most V-Day events are scheduled closer to Valentine's Day, V-Day NOLA's production was moved to late March to secure a larger venue.

Several local productions have already been a part of 2007 V-Day NOLA efforts. The AshŽ Cultural Arts Center performed its version of The Vagina Monologues March 2-3. "We were an amalgamation of original choreography, original music and original videography," AshŽ V-Day Organizer Karel Sloane says. AshŽ donated proceeds from its event to the Upper Ninth Ward Women's Center and Crescent House.

Loyola University participated in V-Day as part of the organization's college campaign. The Valentine's Day show raised approximately $2,500. "I was very surprised with the amount of money we were able to raise. Everyone in New Orleans is trying to rebuild their own lives, but they were each willing to give gracious amounts to the V-Day fund," says Amanda Credeur, marketing campaign manager for V-Day Loyola.

Also part of the college campaign, Tulane University staged two sets of productions, one at its Uptown campus and another downtown at the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. The downtown show raised more than $5,100 for charity.

The majority of money raised is donated to local women's organizations, with 10 percent of proceeds reserved for special spotlight campaigns. This year's spotlight project is "Women in Conflict Zones," designed to raise awareness about the high levels of violence against women in war-torn countries. Money will be sent to aid women in places like Iraq, Congo and Sudan.

All New Orleans groups except V-Day AshŽ donated the remaining 90 percent of proceeds to the Metropolitan Center for Women and Children. "The level of support is just phenomenal," Standifer says about the donations from V-Day events. "Sometimes, we feel just beat up in the trenches around here. The support from the community is just great."

Donations from groups like V-Day help the center support women with expenses not covered by most of its grants, like school uniforms and transportation to other women's shelters when the center is too crowded.

Ensler continues her involvement with New Orleans efforts. At last year's Katrina Warriors event, she unofficially announced that New Orleans would be the site of V-Day's 10th anniversary celebration in 2008. According to V-Day spokeswoman Susan Swan, plans are in the works for a weeklong celebration of New Orleans women, ending with a march to the Superdome.

V-Day has not yet announced its plans for 2008, but Ensler has been collaborating with local leaders of the movement. AshŽ and Ensler are co-producing a multimedia art project titled "Swimming Upstream," which will be presented as part of the V-Day 2008 festivities. Fifteen local artists are collaborating on the piece, which will be based on local women's storm stories.

"It's still in its infancy," Sloane says. "We've been meeting since December, sharing our own stories and listening to women's stories in the community. It's really about how women took it into their own hands to triumph over tremendous adversity, about how matriarchal figures, for most families, took the initiative to ensure people moved from a distress mode to an 'out of distress' mode."

With New Orleans as next year's slated spotlight campaign, 2008 performances of The Vagina Monologues all over the world will end with a monologue about the city.

click to enlarge A large cast prepares for the final installment of Vagina - Monologues performances in conjunction with the V-Day - NOLA campaign. - DONN YOUNG
  • Donn Young
  • A large cast prepares for the final installment of Vagina Monologues performances in conjunction with the V-Day NOLA campaign.
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