Eve Ensler’s spectacular celebrates New Orleans women

A staged reading of “Swimming Upstream,” by and about New Orleans women, premiered at V-Day. -Photo: Paula Allen

Part 1

by Regina Cornwell

“I’ve been trying to free myself of Katrina’s grasp. … With what I’ve gone through, I should be just stark raving mad by now, but I’m able to go on.” These are the words of Herreast Harrison, Upper 9th Ward resident, political and cultural activist.

Welcome to New Orleans, newly christened the “Vagina of America” by playwright Eve Ensler, because, as she explained, it’s a delta, it’s fertile and people love to party there. She chose the city to commemorate the 10th anniversary of her global V-Day movement to end violence against women and girls and dedicated the celebration to the women of NOLA (New Orleans, La.) for holding up the sky during and since Katrina.

Not one for small gestures, Ensler rented out the Superdome – the once infamous home to thousands of New Orleanians, mostly people of color, abandoned when the levees broke – and renamed it Superlove. Entry was free to all for the mega-weekend events, April 11-12.

Herreast Harrison is one of many women working to bring the city, its citizens and culture back, to save it from developers. “I don’t like to use the term, ‘gave me a trailer.’ FEMA provided me with a formaldehyde infested temporary residence.” This was like giving the Native Americans “disease infested blankets,” she says. “In hindsight I felt it was done to me rather than for me.” In her 70s, Harrison is surprised at her own resilience.

“Welcome to the Wetlands,” Ensler says in her new monologue. She points to New Orleans after the storm to show “how some folks feel about vaginas. … We call her sultry and sexy when we crave her. … But when she is hurting, when she is waving for help, we ignore her and let her drown.” She chants: “If we honor her/ If we heal her/ If we praise her/ We change her story and the story of women.”

“V to the Tenth” is V-Day’s biggest celebration ever, and Ensler vows to multiply by 10 the work they do over the next decade to “change the story of women.” The first 10 raised more than $50 million for its mission, primarily through performances of “The Vagina Monologues” in more than 100 countries. After the New Orleans mega-events to date, V-Day announced $700,000 donated for local efforts.

When I arrived at the “V to the Tenth” site on the first day, I couldn’t help but remember the images of post-Katrina despair. But what a transformation! I walked uneasily through a giant origami-like vulva that glowed in the dark and exited onto the dimly lit floor of the stadium. Off to one side sat the lighted V-Stage, its backdrop graced with the colossal symbol of a red, white and pink vagina.

The transformation was about more than props. Passionate voices of poets and performers and panelists on stage filled the stadium with the sounds of renewed life. The events created a fertile ground for a shift in consciousness through the range of subjects, creative voices and styles chosen. Entrenched attitudes were absent, replaced by a willingness to listen.

“How have you moved into a loving healthy relationship with your body?” Kerry Washington (of “Ray” and “The Last King of Scotland”) asked other young actors on a panel. “‘Perfectly imperfect’ is what my mother called me,” said Rosario Dawson (“Rent”). “She loved me for exactly who I was and thank god I have that voice of reason, respect, love in my life that I can go to when the stuff in my head or the stuff outside of me is too much.”

The audience, overwhelmingly women, cheered and clapped as Washington, Dawson, Ali Larter and Amber Tamblyn talked about the problems they face in their industry, struggling with their bodies and finding their power. Larter told of being a teen model at 15 when “they took duct tape to tape my thighs back.”

When “V-Men” took the stage, facing a sea of women, moderator and author Mark Matousek asked, “Why aren’t more men involved in this movement?” Later Baltimore Ravens linebacker Bart Scott said, first it has “to be made cool to respect women and show compassion.”

Naomi Klein, author of “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism,” argued that the system her book describes “has no qualms about occupying spaces after disasters and taking advantage of them.” In the Crescent City, she cited the demolition of housing projects to make way for more upscale residences and tax money that ends up in the hands of private developers.

A big part of Ensler’s Superlove plan was holistic care, and the lounges in the upper regions of the dome became a nurturing haven. Hundreds of volunteers offered professional expertise, and yoga, massages, beauty treatments and therapeutic and medical services took over the spaces of fast foods and beer sellers. These were offered free of charge to the women of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. After so much stress and care-giving to others, they relished it.

Regina Cornwell, the award-winning author of a book, essays and articles on art and senior editor of Red Herring magazine, can be reached at rjcornwell@okraco.com. This article was originally posted by The Women’s Media Center at www.womensmediacenter.com. The WMC is a non-profit organization founded by Jane Fonda, Gloria Steinem, and Robin Morgan, dedicated to making the female half of the world visible and powerful in the media.