'Vagina Monolgues' writer debuts work in SAfrica

July 15, 2011 - 9:29 AM

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Playwright Eve Ensler is a survivor — of rape, of ensuing depression and alcoholism, of cancer.

So the creator of "The Vagina Monologues" speaks with authority when she tells girls and young women around the world not to give up hope as they struggle through adolescence.

Hope is the central theme of Ensler's newest play, "I Am an Emotional Creature: The Secret Life of Girls Around the World," a work-in-progress that took the stage for the first time in Johannesburg on Friday.

The collection of monologues for a new generation is based on Ensler's 2010 book of the same name.

Ensler said she finds hope in the lives of women and girls she has met around the world: A Congolese girl, kidnapped at 15 and made a soldier's sex slave, escapes after two years and prepared to cherish the baby her torturer fathered.

A Masai girl resists her village's demands that she undergo genital mutilation. A 13-year-old Chinese sweat shop worker churns out the Barbies that shape an American teenage anorexic's sense of her self.

"There are horrible things happening to girls every day," Ensler said in an interview Friday with The Associated Press. But "there's a spirit and a resiliency and a fierceness and an untapped energy in girls. It's like another natural resource."

The South African workshop production, with performances through July 27 under the umbrella of Johannesburg's renowned Market Theatre, will be followed by a similar staging at Paris's Cine 13 Theatre in September. Ensler will take ideas, music, and perhaps actresses from both for a world premiere planned for next year at California's Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

Ensler brought two American actresses with whom she's worked previously to South Africa, and held auditions at local high schools to find five young actresses for the production in Johannesburg.

Audience member Mapitsi Moraba, 17, said she was most struck by a monologue Ensler wrote for the Johannesburg production about "corrective rapes." That is the local label for the attacks on lesbians that have erupted in recent years in predominantly poor and black South African neighborhoods. Some attackers have reportedly said they believed they could "cure" women of being lesbians by raping them.

Moraba said a line in the monologue by actress Karabo Tshikubu about having to choose between being called a "bitch or a dyke" made her think about the ways homosexuals are boxed in by labels.

"It shouldn't be like that," she said.

Ensler acknowledges to lip-synching along with her actresses, whose ages range from 16 to 19, as they perform her words.

"When you're working with girls, I just feel so invested, in their rising, in their stepping into the light," she said. "It makes you feel like everything is possible."

Ensler did her homework, visiting impoverished neighborhoods to talk to South African women. According to the most recent South Africa police statistics, 55,097 cases of rape and indecent sexual assault were reported in 2009-2010. While the figure is less than in previous years, it still comes to 150 cases a day, and most of the victims are women.

"The issue of sexual violence cuts across the whole spectrum of South Africa society," said Karabo Kgoleng, a Johannesburg writer and host of a talk show on contemporary literature.

Kgoleng marvels at the understanding Ensler, a foreigner, has brought to a subject so central to the lives of South African women.

"We all have our story of our pain, and what you need to hear when you're in a position of pain is that it happens to other people and you can get out of it," Kgoleng said in an interview.

Since its 1994 off-Broadway debut in New York, "The Vagina Monologues" has been made into an HBO movie, translated into nearly 50 languages, and performed around the world.

Ensler has traveled with the play and its message that women own their bodies and their sexuality. Along the way, she started a project to use theater to raise awareness about violence against women and to raise money to help abused women.

Earlier this year, Ensler spent weeks at an eastern Congo hospital that treats women who have been brutally raped, and she has helped raised money to build a haven for survivors there.

She first visited South Africa in the 1990s for a staging of "The Vagina Monologues," and was eager to come back to launch her newest work.

"Africa's the heart of the world," she said. "It makes sense that we should do a play that's about the heart, at the heart."

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Donna Bryson can be reached on http://twitter.com/dbrysonAP

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On the Internet:

Market Theatre: http://markettheatre.co.za/

V-Girls: http://www.v-girls.org/