We heard about it through the grapevine. My friend Kam mentioned at brunch on Sunday (over some cheddar cheese crepes, hash browns, and mimosas) that The Vagina Monologues would be playing in Tbilisi for V-day. We all wanted to go. I hadn’t made any Valentine’s Day plans yet except a tentative agreement to hang out with some friends somewhere. “Send me the link,” I said. “And make sure you send it to Jess, too – she’ll definitely want to go.” Jess is Jessica Mishaga, a fellow TLG teacher and veteran Vagina Monologues performer. Kam sent us the link.
Then we heard that we might not get in. The event was semi-private – invitation only. Kam knew some people who knew some people who knew the organizers. My friends and I planned to meet up with her. We’d convince them to let us in. Then I asked a stupid question: “It’s in three languages – are any of those languages English?” No one knew. But we were going to go anyway.
Monday night rolled around slowly. We arrived at maybe 7:05, afraid we’d be too late for the 7pm performance, but it, like us, was on Georgian time. We found out the show was in the Georgian, Armenian, and Azerbaijani languages, but with the English script projected on a screen. We debated staying or trying our luck at a bar for the evening. I advocated at least checking it out. We took some seats. One of the organizers asked us who we were, and we explained – “we are from America, we know the show, can we stay and watch?” She issued us invitations – three post cards for the five of us – and we thanked her.
The performance began. The room – more of a lounge than a theatre – was filled with press, or, well, with photographers, anyway. It felt a little odd to be the subject of so many photos. Moreover, the photographers were blocking the screen, making it almost impossible to follow along with what was being said. I know a tiny bit of Georgian, and I’ve seen the Monologues before, but still, it was underwhelming to be basically unable to be in the moment. Finally, the photographers moved to the back, and by the second monologue, we could read along.
The performers sat in a chair behind a desk and read into a microphone. At first we couldn’t even see them, and thought we were hearing a recording, but as the people standing in front moved out of the way, we could see that there were people actually reading. One of our group kept saying, “this is not how it’s supposed to be.” This confused me but I said nothing.
Yet, the crowd was interested. Yes, there was talking at first, and in general the speakers of one language talked while a monologue was being read in another language – so the English speakers tended to chat throughout, the Georgians chatted while Armenian was being read, and so on – but people were paying attention. This was clearest during “My Vagina Was My Village,” when everyone was basically silent. For those who haven’t seen it, it’s not the kind of piece you talk through.
I had wondered what the reactions would be from the Georgians who were there. This crowd must have been selected carefully, because there wasn’t any kind of shock or embarrassment that I could see – except from the young TLG guy who came along with our group, who was completely unfamiliar with the Monologues and clearly felt some degree of discomfort with some of the subject matter. He wouldn’t even finish reading “Village” because it is such a disturbing piece. Still, I wonder what was going on in the heads of the people in the crowd, especially during some of the racier parts of the monologues.
About halfway through the performances, something unexpected occurred. Just after the Georgian reading of “Because He Liked to Look At It,” Jess came over to where I was sitting to tell me that she was going to read a monologue.
“In English?” I asked, idiotically.
“This is my favorite one!” I exclaimed.
“Mine too,” she said, then off she went to the microphone. The m.c. introduced her, and she began to read. She read with a clear, steady, authoritative voice – the kind of voice I wish I could call upon at will for my classes. She seemed to really step into the role and inject a lot of personality into it. Later she worried that she had read too fast, but she hadn’t.
Of course, aside from the English monologue, we were also able to follow along pretty well with the moan sequence in “The Woman Who Loved to Make Vaginas Happy.” After all, some things really need no translation.
So those were the highlights, for me, but of course there’s also the experience of going to foreign-language dramatic productions (which is, I think, culturally important and character-building, since everyone should push beyond their comfort zones regularly, and the experience of not knowing the local language is great for that) and of course it was thrilling to get to witness something like the first Vagina Monologues performance in a particular country, especially a country with the issues with sex and gender and social practices that I’ve blogged about before. Jessica described the experience of performing in it as “bad-ass.” Well put.
So, was Georgia ready for The Vagina Monologues?
On the one hand, yes. There was an audience (mostly women and foreigners) who wanted to see the show, who received it well, and who will talk about it and probably benefit from having seen it.
On the other hand, no. The show was kept under the radar, was basically word-of-mouth and invitation-only, and thus generated no controversy or even real interest from the Georgian public at large. I personally didn’t tell my Georgian students the name of the show that I was going to go see, partially because I didn’t know if I could explain what the show was and why I wanted to go given our current communication capabilities, and partially because I prefer to keep what might be viewed as a radical streak well outside any classroom discussions so no one can accuse me of trying to corrupt Georgia’s youth (and yes, many of my students are younger than me, for instance, in their early 20s).
My impression about the show, as a whole, is that it’s an important performance piece because it takes on subjects and offers perspectives that are often shunned or ignored because of social taboos. I think it’s important that people be exposed to things like anecdotal stories about the variety and depth of female embodiment, sexuality, and experience, because otherwise, how will they know? Critics accuse the Monologues of having some political agenda, of having bias, of being immoral – but I would fire back and ask what it says about your worldview if it is threatened by simply hearing a story about a woman’s experience of her own body?
Yes, of course, “The Personal is Political” is a classic second-wave slogan and I get how a series of personal stories can imply a political worldview or opinion, and of course the project of challenging widespread ignorance, fear, and prejudice – which the Monologues does – is a very political project. But I don’t think that there’s anything prescriptive in the Monologues. It doesn’t advocate any particular feminist cause, it doesn’t push towards any kind of solution to the problems that it poses – it merely illuminates subjects that were once dark.
And yet, there are always people who would prefer for certain subjects to remain dark.
It’s a good sign, though, that Georgia was able to have this show, and I think that it will continue and maybe reach a growing audience next year and the year after that. It’s good to know that there’s a small but important movement in Georgia pushing to educate and inform people, pushing to fight taboos, and to replace ignorance with knowledge, fear with acceptance, and prejudice with solidarity.
there are some things that you can’t know
unless you’ve been there
but oh how far we could go
if we started to share: