For Noella | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

For Noella

When Kimberly Griffin told me that the Fondren Theatre Workshop had agreed to direct "The Vagina Monologues" in Jackson, I was happily stunned. Nearly seven years ago when we started the Jackson Free Press, I couldn't have imagined that in the not-far-off future, we would present Eve Ensler's empowering, funny, tragic and eye-opening ode to womanhood. I wouldn't have guessed that I would be one of 21 women sitting in my home state, reading one of the monologues to a mixed-race and age (and, I suspect, religious orientation) audience of men and women laughing, crying and appreciating a work that is so, well, edgy. (As director Diana Howell warned both nights before the show began, "Now, there's cussin'.")

There was cussin', indeed. And frank stories about women's violence, problems with love and being loved, and some pretty remarkable, er, ecstatic sounds.

Producing—and selling out—"The Vagina Monologues" is one of many things "they" would have thought we couldn't do, alongside having a racially diverse readership, building a viable business doing a local progressive newspaper and attracting fans across partisan lines. But we have.

We didn't, however, present the "Monologues" to shock people, or just because we could. The Jackson Free Press is not that kind of newspaper; we leave sensationalism to the corporate media and the evening news. We presented this show because the monologues themselves have something to say to and about women and, thus, our society. And because women here should get to say these things, too, if they want. (Even the words that embarrass many of us.)

What separates America from so many of the places around the world that many Americans love to hate is exactly the freedom to address difficult issues, to get a little saucy and, yes, to cuss a little in public if we feel like it. Our freedom butts up to the line of where another's begins. It should only be in the gray areas—where my freedom is harmed by your freedom (such as allowing smoking in restaurants)—that there is even a discussion of what freedom is or should be.

And our freedom should never be limited merely because it makes someone else uncomfortable—as long as they have the ability and choice not to participate.

"The Vagina Monologues" is art that challenges, empowers and, God willing, effects positive change. There is no better use of art, and the best art is created because the artist had to do it. She had to write it. She had to paint it. She had to sculpt it. She had to sing it.

The best art is created because the artist could not not create it. As author John Updike said, "What art offers is space—a certain breathing room for the spirit."

"The Vagina Monologues" did that for so many of us. Dressed in pink and red, we women could say things out loud in a packed room that most of us had never said. The audience could hear things many had never heard said out loud.

It was a collection of readings and performances that made us laugh, cry, hoot and holler a bit, and ultimately think.

I was blessed with the assignment of "The Spotlight"—the piece with a serious focus that playwright Ensler wants the audience (and cast) to think about. This year, the spotlight was on rapes in The Congo.

But it wasn't just about over there. My piece, "Baptized," was about a young girl who had been raped so many times that she had fistula, which meant that she couldn't hold her pee. Ensler met 8-year-old Noella at a hospital in The Congo: "She had an extra hole inside her/When she accidentally peed on me/I was baptized ... ."

Ensler's art does not stop there, however. She sticks a mirror in our faces, reminding us that each of us bears some responsibility in the violence that hurts children like Noella. Outsiders' greed drives the war and violence in a country that has the richest mineral resources in Africa. International desire for tin and coltan, a material used in our cell phones and Playstations, she reminds us, is behind the war, in which vicious rape and murder of 300,000 women is a tool of war.

Thus, my piece begged: "Think of your luxuries as corpses/Count the bodies/30 hacked children for a new Playstation/20 tortured women so you can text photos from the party ...," and then ended: "It isn't over there/The Congo/It's inside everything you touch and do/Or do not do."

I read this piece in the middle of the federal trial of Frank Melton, during which I Twittered news constantly on my company Trio. The irony of this was not lost on me as I looked at my "smart phone." I thought of Noella and how it is so easy to ignore the results halfway around the world of our greed and desire for the latest toy. I thought of all the "dead" cell phones and laptops that have passed through my life as Apple or Palm or Blackberry released the next new thing.

Knowing full well that I would continue "tweeting" the news long after that trial, and that run of the "Monologues," ended, I felt a bit helpless. How can we change habits that both drive our economy and cause such pain for so many people?

After the performance ended the second night, one of the cast members asked me if I had seen Bob Herbert's column that day in The New York Times. Herbert had written about this very thing: rape in The Congo in a war over their natural resources. He had quoted Eve Ensler.

Something about knowing that gave me hope. And it reminded me that art is one way to get the word out, to get people to think about the small things they do, or buy, that add up to something very large.

I like to tell my writing students that every good story is told one at a time. In order to get people to understand, say, the scourge of AIDS or domestic violence or rapes in Africa, we must introduce one character at a time to help our readers feel empathy for them. They, and we, are overwhelmed by statistics and sermons, but good art breaks it down for us. Art introduces us to individual human beings like little Noella.

I will not get rid of my Trio, or stop tweeting the news—which has its own benefit right here on my little postage stamp. However, I do vow to make do with what I have for as long as possible, and not allow Noella's tears to just end up gathering dust in a discarded junk pile in the store room.

It's the least I can do.

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Thus, my piece begged: “Think of your luxuries as corpses/Count the bodies/30 hacked children for a new Playstation/20 tortured women so you can text photos from the party ...,” and then ended: “It isn’t over there/The Congo/It’s inside everything you touch and do/Or do not do.” I will never look at my cell phone the same way again.


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