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New Asia Woman: "The Vagina Monologues: A New Voice"


01/10/2001

By Sakinah Manaff

'Down there'. 'Pussy'. 'Vagina'. Nothing raises eyebrows and makes people squirm more than straight talk about women's genitals. But in Asia, one woman is making other women sit up and take notice of theirs.

Monique Wilson wants to allow Asian women to explore their sexuality - without guilt, repercussions and embarrassment. The founder and artistic director of The New Voice Company (NVC) from the Philippines, has brought the award-winning off-Broadway performance, The Vagina Monologues, to Singapore. Having premiered in Asia last September in Manila, the production has traveled to Hong Kong, where it was well-received.

"People think the mention of 'vagina' is dirty or taboo," says the 30-year-old Wilson.

She goes on to explain why the V-word provokes a strong response. "Female sexuality scares people," she says. "Because a woman who's in touch with herself and her sexuality is very powerful. And the vagina is a fundamental part of women's sexuality."

"But the play is not risqué, titillating, or pornographic. We need to make this clear," she insists. "A lot of women will want to see this because it is life-affirming."

Despite its title, The Vagina Monologues is actually a collective and unique testimony of womanhood in all its potency, hilarity, and heartbreak. It was the lack of women's awareness about their private parts that prompted Eve Ensler, an author, playwright, poet and activist, to break silence on the taboo subject.

At the risk of being called lewd, Ensler interviewed hundreds of women from all ages, occupations, races and classes - from the old, the young, the married, singles, lesbians, corporate professionals to sex workers, African American, Asian, Caucasian and Jewish.

At first understandably reluctant to talk, these women slowly opened up and soon, the intimate confessions came forth like a dam bursting. In talking about their private parts, women also bared a range of experiences dealing with sex and sexual abuse, lesbian encounters, indignities of pelvic exams, women's dreams, orgasms, marriage, rape, etc.

The result is 'The Vagina Monologues' -- originally written as a book, but changed later into a three-woman, 90-minute theatrical piece. The play soon became a runaway hit, winning an Obie Award in 1997 and nominations for the Drama Desk and Helen Hayes awards.

Wilson found herself drawn to the material from the start. "It's a powerful show, which opens up a lot of emotions," she says in a recent phone interview from Manila. "It provokes us to ask questions about things that we thought we understood on some kind of level but apparently didn't. As a woman, it allowed a deeper understanding of myself."

She hopes that the play would impact positively with other Asian women as it has done in her life. "I want Asian women to find their voices," she says. "In a society such as ours with its cultural problems, patriarchal structures and machismo, women have more to fight for and more to prove. I hope that the play would allow women their desire -- whether it's sexual, emotional or mental."

Productions abroad have donated a portion of ticket sales to the V-Day Fund -- a fund to help combat violence against women. In Singapore, the production will support the Mission for Filipino Migrant Workers, led by Gabriela -- the National Association of Filipino Women.

Still, there had been problems trying to get funding when the NVC first discussed about bringing the show to Manila. "Sponsors did not want to go near it," Wilson laughs. "They were shocked with the word and [people] reacted strongly against it, although they liked the play."

Clearly, the subjects of Ensler's interviews took a lot of courage to disclose a lot of the deep seated pain and animosity they had tried to bury for years.

Take hair for example. A woman shaves her pubic hair, giving in to her husband's ultimatum: 'Do it, or I sleep around.' He never lived to his part of the bargain. Her exposed private parts made her feel so vulnerable. 'You can't love vagina without loving hair. The hair is there to protect,' was her unhappy realization.

In another scenario, a 72-year-old woman tells how she became frigid. Once, while making out a long time ago in college, her lover felt her wet symptoms at arousal. He made fun of her, likening her smell to a fish. She never got married, never got turned on, and never went down there again. Talking about it caused her so much pain but it also liberated her.
If Wilson looks familiar, it's because you may have seen her in the lead role of Miss Saigon. It's been ten years since her debut in the West End musical, which catapulted her and many Filipino performers to international success.

However, she'd find a lot of problems in playing the Kim character again. "We celebrated the negative stereotypes of being an Asian woman," she admits. "It's so Hollywood to play an Asian prostitute who falls in love with a GI man. Asian women have had that Kim interpretation for years."

Wilson had struggled with the interpretation as early as her second year in the West End production. "As a person, I was growing up, becoming more aware of myself as a Filipina and as a woman. I am an Asian woman, even if my exposure is Western. I would not have done what Kim did."

Though acknowledging that the story is "about an Asian whore, you can certainly give her some redeeming values that will flesh her out a bit more. We need to watch things that will flesh us out as diverse human beings who are faced with choices."

Wilson has been in the business for 21 years - long enough that she was able to hold a one-woman concert last year in the Philippines. She played Peron's mistress in Evita when she was 14 - a role Madonna did at 40. By 24, she had realized a life-long dream - to start her own theater company.

"I never took stage work seriously - in the sense that I could change the world or make a difference - until I was in university," she reveals. "It was in university that I realized that the stage was not just for entertainment and fluff, but also for making a statement. It was for standing up for something you believed in."

"The Vagina Monologues" will be playing between 12th and 17th January 2001 at Jubilee Hall, Raffles Hotel. Tickets are available at all SISTIC outlets.

Note: The play is restricted to mature audiences 21 years of age and above.

To view this article at New Asia Woman, please click here.