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Vagina's Ensler Knows She's Made a Difference

Originally published in:
San Francisco Chronicle

By Joshunda Sanders, Chronicle Staff Writer

Playwright in final engagement at Geary

Six years ago, the word "vagina" had a pretty low profile. It's an awkward and clinical little word and ranks high on a short list of "embarrassing" references to female anatomy. After all, it sounds like a cold or an exotic delicacy.

That's pretty much how "The Vagina Monologues," a play based on Eve Ensler's interviews with 200 women and their relationships to "down there," was regarded. Soon it became clear that underneath the slick humor and raw pain, "The Vagina Monologues" was less about that word and more of a metaphor for how women regard themselves, their intimacy and their freedom.

Ensler, 49, wrote the play largely in reaction to her personal experience as a victim of sexual abuse at the hands of her father. It was her way of moving the world away from violence against women. How the play won an Obie Award after three months in a small New York theater, inspired a global movement and became the catalyst for men and women worldwide to contemplate that part of the anatomy is still a mystery to her.

"When I first started doing this show," Ensler says with a thick New York accent, "you couldn't say the word, and now it's all over the place. It's great." Quite literally, the monologues seem to have been everywhere. They've been translated into 28 languages and performed in more than 40 countries. She's be performing the play as a one-woman show for the last time at the Geary Theater; her final performance is on Aug. 11.

"It just felt like the right time," Ensler says simply. "I won't be performing it after that, but the life of the play will get bigger and bigger."

In some ways, it already has. "The Vagina Monologues" is currently being performed in three cities, each year it's performed on hundreds of college campuses -- and Ensler expects the numbers will continue to grow long after she's left the stage.

In the meantime, she will continue her international crusade to end violence against women through the V-Day foundation, which she started and has funded with proceeds from the monologues. Ensler refers to most of her work with V-Day as "The movement," and she embodies and inspires that phrase -- the woman never sits still.

The same wry humor and electric energy she lends to her one-woman show follows her offstage. On this afternoon, she's drinking a cup of cappuccino, complimenting a stranger on her frilly pink dress and wondering whether to change her all-black satin outfit for the benefit she's speaking at in less than an hour. She does serious work, she is passionate about her purpose, but she's also an expressive diva who carries a purse with a red and silver "V" on it. (It was a birthday present.)

"I really love women, and I believe if we come into our own power, the human species will go on, and if we don't, it won't," she says. Her passion is infectious, her vision wide and varied as her body of work. Ensler has written 12 plays and is in the process of doing what she seems to do best: more.

She's writing a book and play called "The Good Body" about the ways women mutilate and tailor their bodies to fit popular images of women in their cultures. She's adapting "Necessary Targets," her play about Bosnian women, to film. And she is constantly organizing for her V-Day foundation, which sponsors a national celebration every year around Valentine's Day.

Perhaps the most important part of her work, though, comes from her ability to hear and convey women's stories. Ensler was a playwright for more than 20 years before the monologues became popular, writing for the stage because "it's a place where you can fully be your emotional self, it's so vulnerable." She is hungry for the narratives of women's lives, wherever she can find them. But it's still a bit of an adjustment for her to have strangers telling her their life stories.

"You never get used to it," Ensler says. "Everyone's life is so important, all of their stories are so unique."

Ensler's foundation raised $8 million last year, organized a meeting with dozens of Afghan women and built a safe haven for women seeking asylum from the threat of female genital mutilation in Kenya. Those changes have made all the difference to Ensler; they are part of the reason she's continued performing the play from Jerusalem to San Francisco (which she refers to as the "Vagina World Fair Zone").

"I've always felt so deeply for women," Ensler says. "Seeing how much they do in silence, how unrecognized they are. When I was little, I just couldn't understand why they weren't running the world."

As the somewhat accidental spokesperson for a word usually reserved for the gynecologist's office, Ensler has also found personal liberation through her work. As her performances of "The Vagina Monologues" come to an end, it's clear that her responsibility to increasing the visibility of the feminine mystique has only just begun.

"I was a hippie girl, I thought I'd die before 30," she says, shaking her head. "But I finally came into the work I was meant to do. I found the love of my life, I have money to give away and I feel I have a purpose."