The chants reached a heightened frenzy as 61 girls yelled in unison, abandoning all inhibitions as they pumped their fists into the air.
“Cunt! Cunt! Cunt!” they shouted, nearing the end of their performance.
“Flap your arms if you feel so inclined to!” encouraged College and Wharton senior Tamar Lisbona from the front row.
It was late on a Tuesday night, and The Vagina Monologues cast was finishing its dress rehearsal before the show premieres tonight at 8 p.m. in Irvine Auditorium.
Despite an empty Irvine during the rehearsal, the group’s apprehension and nervous energy filled the venue.
For the girls, Friday night’s performance is not just the climax of Penn Women’s Week, but the culmination of months of preparation.
Lisbona, the show’s director, adopted a unique vision for this year’s performance — an annual tradition on Penn’s campus that is in its twelth year.
“I made the effort to showcase the talents of the cast and have those come through in the pieces, rather than mold the cast into their monologues,” she said.
Wharton senior Mansi Jain, who performs in the duo “Angry Vagina” — a monologue between two frustrated women who rant about things like thongs and tampons — found her character to be a natural extension of herself.
“It’s a humorous monologue delivered by a feisty, emotional girl, which is very much me,” said Jain, who, like her dynamic on-stage character, cannot help but talk with her hands.
“The show brings so many groups of women together,” added College senior and producer Mady Glickman. “This sends the message that these issues are cool to care about, because the women who participate are from all walks of life.”
Sexy, funny, serious
In 90 minutes, The Vagina Monologues covers an impressive range of social, political and emotional terrain.
“There’s sexy parts, there’s funny parts and then there are very serious parts about issues in the world that we don’t know very much about,” Glickman said.
Though author Eve Ensler wrote the play 16 years ago, the monologues — which are created from interviews and stories of hundreds of women — continue to resonate with people today.
“The humor, emotion and shock of the monologues are meant to move the audience to ask questions, contemplate their own lives and engage their friends and family members on the topic of violence against women,” Lisbona said.
This year, the production features two new permanent pieces, addressing transgender women and violence against women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A new spotlight piece also highlights the health and safety of refugee women and girls in Haiti.
For student actors, the monologues are not always easy to deliver.
College senior Shana Rusonis had a difficult time preparing for her role in the ensemble monologue “My Vagina Was My Village,” a piece about women who were systemically raped during a genocide.
“It was very hard for me to relate to this woman,” she said, adding that she did extensive research to understand the cultural context behind her role.
College junior Courtney Cilman was also initially intimidated by the subject of her monologue, “The Woman Who Loved to Make Vaginas Happy,” albeit for very different reasons.
“My monologue covers a topic that is not really spoken about: being sexual, moaning,” she said, referring to her character of a lawyer-turned-sex-worker who proceeds to demonstrate dozens of moans on stage.
“If my monologue can start a conversation about that, that’s great,” Cilman added.
The ‘vagina’ stigma
The sudden explosion of vagina-related advertising around campus over the past few weeks has already generated considerable buzz.
For Glickman, this is due to the fact that vaginas aren’t talked about often enough.
“It’s still a cultural taboo,” she said. “People hate the word. They think it’s ugly and gross. It is a scary word, but it doesn’t need to be.”
For College junior Lili Valentine, who says the word “cunt” no less than 30 times in her monologue “Reclaiming Cunt,” The Vagina Monologues has helped her become braver about using the word.
“Now, if you talk to my friends, I’m just like this ‘vagina’ freak,” she said, referring to the play-on-word slang that she’s adopted. “I call people ‘vaggies,’ I say ‘vagnificent’ and ‘vagtastic’ a lot. Getting jiggy? You mean ‘getting vaggy with it.’”
However, College senior and Penn Consortium of Undergraduate Women Chair Meg Hlousek believes that “a word is just a word.” Ultimately, she said, the context in which “vagina” is used is what truly matters.
“We need to break the stigma” that is placed on the word in everyday life, she said.
College senior Joseph Lawless, president and chair of Abuse and Sexual Assault Prevention, said he is all for more “visibility” of the word vagina if it will get people more open to talking about their bodies.
He hopes this will, in turn, create a “community” in which sexual assault survivors will feel more comfortable about discussing their abuse.
“I think it’s important that we no longer relate shame to women’s bodies,” he said.
More than a performance
During the casting process, Lisbona said she scouted not only girls with theatrical talents, but also those with a passion for women’s issues.
Indeed, the Monologues community at Penn has continued to grow, as many girls have chosen to return to the cast and crew year after year.
A large part of the reason for this, Glickman explained, is the weekly educational forums. Every Sunday afternoon, the girls partake in facilitated group discussions, as well as listen to speakers from Philadelphia who talk about women’s issues.
“We try to bring everyone who is involved in the show as close to the issues as possible,” said College junior and Fundraising Co-Chair Raya Musallam.
College senior and Fundraising Co-Chair Lauren Harding added that the Monologues community is a tight-knit one.
“It has connected me to a community of women on Penn’s campus that is connected to women locally, nationally and internationally,” she said.
“We all come from a vagina,” Glickman added.
College freshman and cast member Vinita Saggurti is hopeful that this unifying fact will become clear to the audience during the performance.
“Watching something of this nature, it doesn’t matter what your views are coming into it,” she said. “I feel that peoples’ perspectives are going to change.”
This article has been updated from a prior version to reflect that the production features two pieces from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, not the Dominican Republic of Congo.
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