After 18 years of hosting the largest college production of “The Vagina Monologues,” this year UC Berkeley’s show may look a little different than what audiences are familiar with. The evolution away from Eve Ensler’s seminal 1996 play began last year when the annual campus production was presented alongside a new feature called “Our Monologues.” In an op-ed to The Daily Californian, production staff cited the original play’s “increasingly problematic material” and “myopic vision of womanhood,” as well as a desire to tell “our own stories in our own words and on our own terms,” as reasons for the creation of “Our Monologues.”
UC Berkeley wasn’t the first to make this transition. In 2015, a theatre group at Mount Holyoke College, an all-women’s college, decided to cancel their annual production of “The Vagina Monologues” for being gender essentialist and trans-exclusionary.
Since then, a number of other schools have either ended, replaced or modified their own productions of the show to focus explicitly on inclusion and intersectionality. Rice University debuted “The Vagina Monologues: Rice’s Critical Approach 2019,” which pairs Ensler’s original monologues with discussions of the play’s problems and its historical context. Students at UC San Diego began performing “The Vagina Monologues and TheirStories,” Occidental College now hosts “The Untitled Narratives: A Space of Radical Creative Resistance,” American University hosts “The Breaking Ground Monologues,” and the University of Rochester hosts the “Me Too Monologues.”
This year, UC Berkeley’s production, which is a student-led endeavor supported by the Gender Equity Resource Center, abandoned the original entirely.
From March 8-10, the first production of the independently sequestered “Our Monologues” took place in Wheeler Auditorium. On March 9, the lobby of the building filled with a diverse crowd of folks all present to support, hear and learn from the stories of the inclusive cast.
In an interview with The Daily Californian, cast member and former Daily Californian assistant social media editor Zahira Chaudhry described the experience as being “a very physical manifestation of what it feels like to be heard and respected and understood.”
Despite its efforts toward inclusivity, the production, at times, felt disorganized. After navigating the throng of theatergoers and working through a confusing maze of lines, many were left waiting to enter the auditorium well after the show had started. Being thrust into the theater midmonologue was jarring, and the printed program offered little clarity. Because the three-hour production ran over its allotted time the night before, subsequent nights reordered the monologues in order to give opening night attendees who left early the chance to see the performances they missed, changing the show’s planned multi-act structure. The lack of an introduction to frame the show’s intentions meant that a sizeable part of the audience was left without a full sense of what “Our Monologues” intended to be.
While it excelled in highlighting the voices of its individual cast members, the show as a whole is still developing a voice of its own. “The Vagina Monologues,” for all of its problems, is a professionally-written play, and the logistics of producing a show from a script is different in just about every way from workshopping and performing student-written pieces.
For the newly-independent “Our Monologues,” following in the footsteps of previous years’ productions has understandably resulted in some growing pains. But what the show lacked in rigidity and polish, it made up for in authenticity and inclusivity.
The show featured content covering race, sexuality, gender identity and beyond — complicated and raw accounts of how difficult it often is for those on the margins to navigate the minefields of their existence. In an interview with The Daily Californian, cast member Josephine Chiang described the event as “incredibly loving and caring and reciprocal.”
“It’s not about whether or not the audience deserves to hear [our story] — it’s that we deserve to share it on stage to everyone because oftentimes we don’t get to do that,” Chiang told The Daily Californian.
All monologues were introduced by vibrant forewords from the show’s emcee, many of which felt like small monologues in themself. At one point, the emcee stated, “These aren’t ‘The Vagina Monologues’ anymore!” And true to form, they were not. Rather than adhering to the sex and body-focused narrative of the original play, “Our Monologues” placed a myriad of themes at the forefront of its production.
On the show’s Facebook page, the people behind “Our Monologues” described the event as “centering the voices that are finally getting the platform they deserve.” And this is something the show excelled in. The voices featured in the show laid their stories bare, creating a raw, painful and powerful atmosphere — one that will hopefully only see growth and flourish in years to come.
Areyon Jolivette covers queer media. Contact her and Maya Kashima at [email protected].