Chi Sun Spotlight: Production Diary – JCSVIII women take on Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues

Chi Sun Spotlight

Production Diary – JCSVIII women take on Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues

Written by Nessa Wong, a Year four Accounting and Finance student and actress in the production

If I have to be honest, all of us went into The Vagina Monologues (dubbed the ‘VM Project’ between us for convenience and subtlety’s sake) with reservations. This is why we were so genuinely surprised by the turnout and the heartfelt reception we had, from my conservative parents to some of our, ahem, less-than-feminist male friends. When thunderous applause finally subsided, we hugged each other in euphoria and relief, and I had excited strangers come up to me telling me what a great job we’d done. That, to me, was the best reward an actress could ask for. I could not have wished for a better show.

At the beginning, there were the usual problems that pester HKU students when it came to an ambitious after-school activity like this: funding was difficult to find, time for meetings was scarce amidst finals and the holidays, we had conflicting expectations for the show – which brings me to the underlying issue at hand.

Feminism is and has always been an extremely fluid topic, elusive to define and understand thoroughly. The twenty of us represented a multitude of identities and communities – transgender, bisexual, straight, Korean, Chinese, Indonesian, Indian women, male. Some of us were more radical, and some were new to the debate. We all decidedly agreed on one thing, however – female empowerment, despite and because of its complexities, was a critical conversation to bring to the HKU community, starting with the diverse Jockey Club Student Village III.

Growing up in this city, it is an everyday struggle to witness the confusion surrounding female emancipation; on one hand, we are one of the world’s forerunners in discrimination laws and representation in the finance industry. However, one only has to flip through the various degrading articles that the media churns out, and the horde of Facebook comments that follow with barely veiled misogyny, or the recent comments from the chief of the Equal Opportunities Commission earlier, or our highly inadequate sex education curriculum… the list goes on. The current situation is this: many of us in our society are misinformed about what constitutes as sexism, and hence fail to recognise their own role in perpetuating harmful stereotypes.

Fortunately Ensler’s work is unique in the way that it can unite voices without marginalising individual opinions. We attempt to touch on this uncertainty throughout our seven individual monologues. We chose to focus on sexual expression in the first run of our production rather than some of the darker, heavier themes in the play. These monologues feature voices from an abused wife, an old woman, women who attend a ‘vagina workshop’, an angry young woman, an empowered woman, a lesbian sex worker, and a mother.

The vulgarity of the word was quickly addressed in our introduction: many of the audience immediately realised the jarring quality of the word, ‘vagina’. In Cantonese, it either sounds vile – or medical. At first, the audience chuckled under their breath nervously at the jokes. During the third monologue they began to laugh, and by the end they were roaring with laughter and whistling at some of the more risqué lines.

I saw my fellow actresses getting more encouraged as time went on as well. Practiced as they were, some were more reserved at the beginning of the play, tentatively engaging the audience’s attention without coming off as trying too hard. However, when it came to my part, the atmosphere in the room reached to its apex, creating the perfect backdrop for me to express my emotionally-driven monologue.

I should also mention that I was blessed with one of the more expressive stories – The Angry Vagina. I had the liberty to vent all the frustration and toils of daily life on the stage. There was a lot of foot-stomping, screeching, glaring, hissing, and shouting every obscenity I can think of, talking about sex toys, tampons, and lingerie. I think my parents in the crowd didn’t appreciate it as much as all the other girls there did!

DSC03179

I want to give special shout-outs to Siya (Chi Sun, 8th floor, The Flood), who did a convincing job of being an 80-year-old woman and blew me away with her spot-on Scarlett O’Hara accent. She also had to undergo the misfortune of painting on wrinkles and saggy cheeks while the rest of us pranced around in high heels and glitter. She was also very pleased to hear that I cried at the end of her monologue backstage.

DSC03223

Blessing (Chi Sun, 17th floor) and Ruhi (Lap Chee, 20th floor) performed together in The Vagina Workshop, giving an insight into self-understanding and self-pleasure. Their monologue was less of a speech and more like a water dance of sorts.

Brenda (Lap Chee, 6th floor) as well as the tutor-in-charge of this project, was dressed up to the nines that night as she showed us how loving and appreciating our female self felt like, as well as the daunting prospect of hating our vaginas in Because He Liked to Look at It.

DSC03040

The highlight of the performance was undoubtedly Ashley (Chi Sun, 12th floor)’s performance of The Woman Who Loved to Make Vaginas Happy, a lesbian sex worker, a performance that my mom called “extremely outrageous”. Ashley put together a performance that demonstrated her powerhouse vocal abilities, yoga and dance moves. Her performance was shameless – and I mean that in the most awesome, insane way possible.

Last but not least, Chinny (Chi Sun, 10th floor) probably had the most to manage that evening, from introducing the cast, making announcements to the audience, and perform all the transition speeches in between our monologues in a soothing tone.

To me, being in The Vagina Monologues wasn’t simply like acting in a contemporary play, where stage directions and characterizations are imposed. We had to build a platform brick-by-brick into which our actresses could breathe life. Most of the time wasn’t spent in perfecting our acting, but the design of the stage, the backbone of the play. In the many months leading up to the performance we debated over what sort of form and structure suited our delivery the best, watching other renditions from Ivy League schools for inspiration.

Although the end result was minimalistic – tall black chairs on an elevated platform with three spotlights – with an incredible amount of consideration put into every detail. The choice of makeup and costume, what music to play during transitions and for how long, whether to include fairy lights and whether they should be yellow or white, etc.

I remember all of us panicking because we couldn’t rent the lights we wanted in time. Thanks to Zhiliang (Chi Sun , 10th floor)’s quick thinking, the select few of us hurried (seven hours before the performance!) to visit Apliu Street and various parts of Sai Ying Pun to get cardboard boxes, light sticks, and duct tape.

I would argue and say that our technical and logistics team backstage was the most important element of our production, the glue to prevent everything from falling apart. I was particularly amazed at how Ivan (Shun Hing, 8th floor) always instantly understood how we wanted our monologue to be presented with the sound system. Nayantara, Tiantian (21st floor), and Chaeeun (21st floor) from Lap Chee College worked tirelessly to make sure everything was perfect, from props, bookings, positions, to refreshments, promotions, and so on.

DSC03699

The Vagina Monologues was an expression of our beliefs and opinions that could not be effectively articulated in everyday life. Like many of my fellow actresses, I had difficulty approaching my parents, or my friends who did not understand the importance of women’s rights or why I was so impassioned about it. It sounds cheesy, but when the show came to a close, we didn’t feel like we had come to the end of the road, but the start of a movement. I remember how fervently everyone started bringing up new ideas – feminist film screenings, slam poetry nights, making the VM project into an annual tradition and bringing in more monologues, more actresses – this team is truly inspirational.

All proceeds of The Vagina Monologues at HKU will go to The Bethune House Migrant Women’s Refuge, a registered charitable institution established to provide assistance and social counselling to needy migrant workers and their families. I hope to see you there in our upcoming second performance, which will feature more monologues and will take place on April 18th in Rayson Huang Theatre starting 8pm.

Actresses: Sally Oh, Kelsi So, and Zhiliang Fang, Alison Sulaiman, Siya Kulkarni, Ruhi Soni, Blessing Naw, Brenda Alegre, Nessa Wong, Alice Wu Songying, Ashley Leung Hei Yiu, Leona Chen. Backstage: Ivan Narendra, Nayantara Bhat, Tiantian Diao, Chaeeun Lee. Special thanks to our photographers: Yongki Sunarta, Chrysilla Ongky, Alvin Dharmas Saputra, Levinna Natalia, and Lap Chee College’s senior tutors, Pauline Liu and Kelvin Leung for their generous contribution and unwavering support.