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V-Day organizers turn Superdome into 'Superlove' (Times-Picayune)

Originally published in:

Chris Bynum

On Friday and Saturday (April 11 and 12) the Superdome becomes a place for healing, pampering and rejuvenation. Think of it as a spa with free admission.

The occasion is V-Day, the annual consciousness- and fund-raising event that began as an outgrowth of "The Vagina Monologues." As her award-winning one-woman play toured the world after its 1996 premiere, playwright Eve Ensler heard real stories of rape, incest, domestic battery and genital mutilation. She launched V-Day in 1998. Its mission: to end violence and abuse against women through education, legislation, shelters and safe houses.

Here is a full schedule of Superlove events.

What Ensler has produced in New Orleans -- with input from the Newcomb College Center for Research on Women and New Orleans activists such as the Katrina Warriors -- is a nurturing event so huge that it fills the Superdome with healing services such as massage, meditation, yoga classes, support groups, performance art and visual art, makeovers, medical exams, plus panels and lectures for and about women.

Those familiar with "The Vagina Monologues" and the V-day events won't be surprised that the Superdome's entrance to this event will bear the likeness of a vaginal canal.

The building has been temporarily rechristened "Superlove" for the occasion.

"This is a welcoming vagina," Ensler said by phone from New York before heading to New Orleans to complete preparations for the weekend's events. "It's not graphic as much as it is symbolic. People will emerge into the newly transformed Superdome, the way it should have been (during Hurricane Katrina). It will be ... warm, inviting."

Organizers say their goal is to provide women "a healing place."

"They will be indulged," said fashion designer Donna Karan, speaking from her New York office a few days before coming to New Orleans to set up her Urban Zen services at "Superlove." Her mission -- and her mantra -- is to help women "find calm where there was once chaos."

Karan's contribution is the "well-being lounge," where services offered will include breath awareness, restorative yoga instruction, meditation, aromatherapy and a range of massage therapy from neuromuscular to Healing Touch and Reiki.

The designer, whose name became a household word dressing modern women, created the Urban Zen Foundation after the death of her husband, sculptor Stephan Weiss, from cancer. Her vision of well-being, now being initiated into select hospitals through the Urban Zen initiative, is about the treatment of patients and their loved ones from "a mind-body-spirit point of view."

"We work with people to assist and guide them through the emotions and trauma one goes through in mind and in body," she said. "The women we are addressing at the Superlove event fit into that category. They need someone to be there for them. It is equally important that they learn tools they can take home with them."

Raw food chef (and guru to detoxing stars) Jill Pettijohn will also be on hand with her "living food" offerings. She made the hip list as the raw food consultant who engineered Karan's 35-pound weight loss.

Yoga master teachers Rodney Yee and wife Colleen Saidman, who assist Karan with the health and wellness branch of Urban Zen, will open the event with sun salutations and provide yoga instruction.

But nurturing at this event is not limited to meditation and massage. It is also being expressed in storytelling. The Red Tent, designed by Paulette Cole of New York's ABC Carpet and Home, provides a sanctuary for story circles, each event 80 minutes long. It is curated by Anne-Liese Juge Fox of NOLA Playback Theater.

Among those participating will be actress Jennifer Beals of Showtime's "The L Word."

"Telling your own story is a radical act, and you can make yourself victorious by writing your own history," Beals said by phone from her California home.

The actress will be leading a story circle with "L-Word" creator and executive producer Ilene Chaiken. The two will begin to collect the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender/Transsexual people) stories of the women of New Orleans -- a first step, Beals says, in a new performance project.

"With stories, people see themselves mirrored," says Beals, who views this potential project as a way to "represent, move and connect" women.

For Katrina Warriors and other local activists, the event will also provide another venue for this expression of support for women. It will provide a stage for the debut performance of "Swimming Upstream," a performance piece about the experiences of women before, during and after the post-Katrina levee-failure flood. The collection of monologues -- written by 13 women from New Orleans representing all races, ages and socio-economic groups -- began (with Ensler's blessings) as "The Katrina Monologues," but as time passed, the local women renamed it "Swimming Upstream."

"We wanted it to be our own," said Asali DeVan, a performer and writer and New Orleans native who resides in Treme.

Those who lived and are still living the experience, she says, will readily key into the emotions of fear, sorrow, rage, frustration, indignation, joyfulness and gratitude the pieces will express. But she has high hopes that the play will "speak to the world."

Ensler has a similar hope. The decision to hold the 10th anniversary V-Day events in New Orleans was anything but coincidental, said the playwright, who estimates she has visited the city to meet with community activists 30 times since the storm.

"We were planning the location for this 10th anniversary, thinking about Nairobi, Paris," she said. "But when I listened to the stories coming out of the Superdome, and I realized we were putting the spotlight on other countries, I knew we needed to be with these women, these women who have suffered environmentally, sexually, economically, emotionally."