Last weekend I performed in the Vagina Monologues. Yes, that play. It wasn’t a school assignment, or some extra-curricular vanity project. Rather, it was part of an initiative called “Sexual Violence, Justice and War: Saving Survivors of Comfort Women in China”, headed by the Shams Development Organization, a non-profit that my friend works for in London. The initiative was dreamed up by a Chinese woman, Yan, who came to London to study international relations, and ended up writting her MA thesis on the comfort women system during WWII. While doing research in China, she saw first hand how the surviving comfort women, now in their 70s and 80s, were slowly dying off, and how there has been a lack of dialogue and discussion about this war crime in the general Chinese society. Compared with Korea, who has seen the publication and release of interviews, documentaries, and memoirs, China seemed shamefully silent. Through a benefit performance of the Vagina Monologues, Yan hopes to raise awareness about this bit of history, to help the surviving comfort women get an official apology from the Japanese government, to raise funds for a documentary, and ultimately, to start a dialogue about this topic in a society where feminist discourse is still nascent.
When I first agreed to do this play, and to recruit fellow Lispa students for the show, I didn’t know what I was getting myself in for. Not really. I was moved to do this initially because I cared a lot about the subject, and I wanted to help these women. Somehow, I had not thought about the fact that this will be the first time I am performing with such a large amount of text. I had danced/moved in, directed, and choreographed a lot of shows before, but I had scarcely ever acted with a script. The fact that I will be doing three-page monologue about being a dominatrix for women (“The Woman Who Loved to Make Vaginas Happy) in front of paying strangers didn’t really strike home until about a week before opening night, when we entered into our week of daily rehearsals and race against time to put the show together.
Memorizing lines were not that difficult; I already had my monologue in my head by Monday. Yet I kept feeling like I had no idea what I was doing. I could say the words but this dominatrix character remained somehow elusive, it was hard to reconcile being both her and myself at the same time. When I first worked on the monologue with Louise (another actress in the show), we found out that playing it sexy felt flat. I was trying too hard to put on this act of speaking as a dominatrix, when in fact the words became much more effective when I said them naturally. The difference was enormous. When I played up being the dominatrix I didn’t get affected by the words, but I ended up blushing and stammering when I tried to say the text more as myself. That was my first revelation, and I relaxed a bit more into the text.
Then I hit a wall. I started performing the monologue in a much more natural way, but I was doing it as my shy and reserved self – which stifles the text as it is a matter-of-fact account from a confident sex worker. On the suggestion of my fellow performers, I acquired a whip and a S&M body suit, which I wore beneath a demure pantsuit. The props helped, yet I still found myself struggling with the monologue. I became absolutely terrified, panicked that I will be doing this in a room full of strangers, wondering how I had gotten into this in the first place, thinking about I would pull it off.
The bigger issue here, I realize, is a reluctance to own my sexuality in public. I am afraid to be sexy. I am afraid to exude sexual confidence. It was like a flashback to that class with Thomas again, when I was moving Jackson Pollock and he was talking to me about sharing my sensuality with an audience. How this sensuality was such a true part of me, that it became absolutely riveting to watch when I did so. As Louise said, this sensual nature is there, all I have to do is bring it out with confidence. In this way the monologue became to me like an necessary challenge. It dared me to become a woman on stage. It dared me to find the dominatrix within myself. I just have to rise up to the occasion and respond to the provocation.
The night before the show, I put on the S&M bodysuit, and spent half an hour in the bathroom looking at myself. I just sat there on the toilet, looking at my reflection in the full length mirror. I played with my whip – grabbed it, fondled it, stroked it, kissed it. I took my suit jacket on and off, on and off. I don’t know if that was the thing that ultimately helped me, but when people watched the performance, they saw a confident dominatrix who loves women, who is proud of her ability to make them moan and who, at a stroke of her whip, can make them come. They saw the dominatrix, and they also saw me, Janice, the performer. We were one.