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Actors Reach Out To Aboriginal Audience with Vagina Monologues

Originally published in:
Canadian Press

Michelle Macafee

WINNIPEG (CP) - When Tantoo Cardinal was scouting a location to mount her first production of the Vagina Monologues, she had to settle for her second choice.

The University of Calgary hosted the successful event two years ago after Cardinal faced some resistance from nearby First Nations reserves. "They didn't want anything like Vagina Monologues," Cardinal, perhaps best known to many for her role in Dances With Wolves, said in a phone interview from Saskatoon.

"Most of the chiefs and council are male, and even the older women - somebody was saying, 'Can you change the title?'

"No, face it. Every human has come into this planet because of the vagina. So why run, hide, pretend?"

Powered by her strong desire to continue reaching out to her own community with Eve Ensler's award-winning, poignant reflections of female sexuality, Cardinal is moving her production this year to Ottawa and Winnipeg.

She hopes this will serve as a dress-rehearsal for a full national aboriginal tour.

The two performances - Feb. 14 in Ottawa and March 8 in Winnipeg - are part of the V-day movement, an international grassroots phenomenon spawned by the success of the Vagina Monologues to stop violence against women.

V-day benefits, held each year in February and March, have raised more than $26 million US for battered women's shelters, rape help lines, safe houses in Africa to protect women from genital mutilation and other similar causes around the world.

Cardinal, who this year is partnering with fellow actor and friend Tina Keeper to produce the shows, said her aim is to raise awareness, foster healing and spark a frank discussion about sex and violence among people who normally wouldn't be comfortable with such blunt conversation.

"That is the hope, that every time you do the show you pull in a few of them," said Cardinal, who will also recite some of the monologues in both shows.

"I find the show is really healing, it goes deep, I think it's very, very necessary and when it hits the community it's so inspiring."

The shows will be entirely directed, produced and performed by an aboriginal ensemble.

Several organizations, such as Amnesty International and the Native Women's Association of Canada, are also involved, and proceeds will go to aboriginal women's shelters in Ottawa and Winnipeg.

Amnesty International intends to use the Ottawa event to help spread the word about its recent Stolen Sisters report, which found that aboriginal women in Canada face double the risk of violence compared with society as a whole.

The report, released last October, also concludes no one knows how many aboriginal women have been murdered or have disappeared, in large part because of government indifference.

The findings are a powerful inspiration for Keeper, star of the former North of 60 series and spinoff movies.

She sees the Vagina Monologues as a perfect vehicle to raise awareness and honour the victims.

"I've done projects on residential schools, racism, sexual abuse, but I've never found a script that was so captivating and really made me feel as an artist that I have an integral role in society," Keeper said from her home in Winnipeg.

"It cuts across cultural lines and it's a way for women in the audience and those performing to go, 'We are all women, we're all the same and we have to stand together and be united.' "

In addition to the monologues, which encapsulate more than 200 of Ensler's frank interviews with women about everything from childbirth and masturbation to rape, Keeper says the aboriginal productions will also include a segment from a documentary about the missing women, as well as a traditional honour song and prayer.

Both the Winnipeg and Ottawa performances will also feature amateur performers from the aboriginal community.

Beverley Jacobs, a Mohawk lawyer and president of the Native Women's Association of Canada, admits to some performance anxiety in the run-up to her acting debut at the Ottawa show.

She also can understand some of the awkwardness that comes with using the monologues' blunt language to break down sexual taboos.

"I think it's important to not be ashamed or afraid," said Jacobs.

"But even for myself, going through the script and thinking of the language, you have to get over what we've been taught about our bodies and who we are."

"It creates a self-confidence so it becomes more about respecting our women."