More than a playwright, she's an activist on a mission. By Kate Sidley
V... v ... va ...va ... They just couldn't say it: vagina. In company. On TV. On the stage. In families. In bed. It just wasn't done. It wasn't allowed. It wasn't ... polite.
Vagina was a word for the doctor's office, and even there, it would be issued with a stammer and a blush. And then, in 1996, along came Eve Ensler, with her play The Vagina Monologues, saying the word loud and proud and without shame on a New York stage. And women responded: they found the breaking of this taboo exhilarating, profound, powerful, transforming.
More than a playwright, Ensler is an activist. In conversation with SAFM's Karabo Kgoleng at The Market Theatre, she moved the audience (and herself) to tears on occasion. And made us laugh, too. With her close-cropped hair and red lipstick, she looks young for her 57 years, with an energy and emotional intensity that draws others to her. After a brief meeting, you want to invite her to dinner or tell her your deepest secrets.
Her activism, she says, goes back to her abusive father: "His rule of law, his domination - it was either succumb to it or resist it. Fighting for my survival, for my own self and dignity, I became an activist. You weren't allowed to speak back, but I always did and I paid a huge price for it. I realised if I continued to do that, even if I was being choked or punched, at least I had me."
Although her own life has had its challenges - divorce, a battle against addiction in her 20s and against uterine cancer just last year - she's chosen to go into battle on behalf of others.
"In fifth grade I was very unpopular because I was so desperate for friends, but I remember organising all the unpopular girls to come to my house, so we'd have solidarity."
She laughs, although it must have been a painful time. "It was unsuccessful, because they were all these social misfits with no desire to be in a group at all. Still, it was an attempt."
Her subsequent attempts have been spectacularly successful. On the strength of The Vagina Monologues, Ensler founded V-Day, a worldwide movement to end violence against women. Community groups are encouraged to put on the play to raise money for the cause of women.
Says Ensler: "You can be a street sweeper, a model, anybody. You follow the script and you just do it. When I travel, people come up to me and they don't say 'I've seen your play', they say 'I've been in your play.'"
When you consider that there were well over 5000 productions of The Vagina Monologues last year alone, there are a lot of "anybodies" out there who have been in Ensler's play, and millions more who have seen it.
The V-Day movement has raised more than $80- million.
One of V-Day's finest achievements is City of Joy in Bukavu in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In one of the poorest and most dangerous places on Earth, where brutal mass rape is endemic, V-Day has worked with women and international donors to create a centre where rape survivors have a place to heal and empower themselves.
Ensler has travelled the world - Downing Street, the Secretary General of the United Nations, the White House - to talk about what was happening in the Congo. "It is staggering, at this time, this century, the lack of true will to end violence against women."
EVE is in SA developing and, for the first time, sharing a performance of her new work, I am an Emotional Creature: The Secret Life of Girls Around the World. It is based on her book of the same name.
She says: "As I've been travelling for the last 14 years I couldn't help but notice what's going on with girls. (I had) real hope that I could write a piece that would help liberate the horrible obsession of girls, which is essentially to please; to please your boyfriend or the fashion editors or your father."
I'm an Emotional Creature inspires girls to question, to stand up and be heard, to be authentic, to own their power. But this is no simple girl-power ra-ra, the stories are sobering: a Masai girl narrowly escapes female genital mutilation; the cult of popularity spreads fear and misery in a high school. There's an anorexic, a pregnant teen considering her options, a Chinese factory worker making Barbie dolls.
"You can say it's much worse to be a sex slave than to have an eating disorder, but everyone has different circumstances and struggles," Ensler says.
She says she still feels 15 in some spiritual sense, and perhaps it's this that has given her a deep understanding of and empathy for adolescent girls. The work has touched a chord with them, and readings have spurred girls to start V-Girls, a global network of girl activists and advocates, empowering themselves and one another.
Once the commercial production of I am an Emotional Creature has run its course, like The Vagina Monologues it will be given away to activists. She would like to see those productions fund a global education fund, raising money for girls to go to school.
Ensler is blown away by the girls she's met in South Africa, both the ones in her play and those who attended a workshop she organised: "They're so energetic, and just wildly talented. They're organising speakers at the schools, a march, and all this with no adults telling them what to do. With the lightest wind at their back, they'll just go."
She says: "When we give what we need the most, we heal ourselves. Seeing those girls stepping into their power and being funny and outrageous and sorrowful, I don't know a time when I've ever been happier."