For two decades, students in Berkeley proudly put on a rare high school production of Eve Ensler’s pioneering feminist play, The Vagina Monologues.
In the provocative annual performance, which developed something of a cult following, student actors played the parts of women grappling with sexual trauma and pleasure — a sex worker demonstrating the different genres of orgasmic noises; a woman recounting her experiences of childhood sexual abuse.
But in 2020, the once-groundbreaking play feels irreparably “outdated” and “problematic” to today’s teenage thespians.
For the first time since it started, Berkeley High students are breaking with tradition, replacing The Vagina Monologues with Our Monologues. The new student-written and -directed play is meant to represent the diversity of local high schoolers’ experiences, and force an inward look at issues within the Berkeley High community.
“Something that’s so clearly built to effect change, and be a revolutionary awakening, just doesn’t make sense to do 20 times in a very progressive city where it felt like it just wasn’t effective anymore,” said senior Mara Halpern, Our Monologues co-director.
Halpern and co-director Daphne Eleftheriadou, both 17, have each performed in The Vagina Monologues twice, and still feel sentimental about the play they decided to scrap. When they were named directors of the 2020 production last spring, they thought hard about their own discomfort with aspects of the show and the mounting criticism of Ensler’s play coming from Berkeley and beyond.
As the societal understanding of gender identity has evolved, The Vagina Monologues has been criticized for equating womanhood with the possession of a vagina, excluding transgender and non-binary experiences of sexuality. (In 2004, Ensler added a monologue from the perspective of trans women.) Other monologues have been blasted for handling or judging, typically from a distance, issues of sexual violence and sexism in countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Afghanistan.
“It had this weird ‘white savior’ aspect to it where it felt like a bunch of very privileged people standing on a stage and telling stories about the Democratic Republic of Congo,” said Halpern, who said Berkeley High auditions didn’t draw diverse contenders. “It felt like too much pity. This is just a mindset shift, saying we need to observe ourselves before we look down on everything happening other places in the world. There’s enough to fill a whole show about things happening on this campus.”
The directors said they know they’re making a “sacrifice” by cutting The Vagina Monologues, but they’ve worked to create a show that retains the format and other beloved aspects of its predecessor while modernizing the content.
In the spring they put out a call for monologue submissions, only requiring that the stories be true. The writing could be on any topic of importance to the author.
The 45 student-written monologues they ended up receiving proved their peers have something new to say.
The result is a set of around 20 pieces written and performed by a diverse group of students. Writers could submit their pieces anonymously, and could indicate whether they wanted to audition for the monologue themselves or have a classmate perform it. Some students are even performing someone else’s piece while a peer is acting out theirs. Dancers are involved too.
In one Our Monologues piece, “Living the Dream,” a student describes immigrating to the U.S. from Mexico, crossing the border without their mother.
Another piece, “Do Something, Anything,” addresses the fear of gun violence at schools like Berkeley High.
Another touches on the same themes that drove Ensler but includes the sort of painful and urgent self-examination the directors felt was missing from past Berkeley performances.
In “The Things I Wish I Could Say to You,” five students speak about sexual harassment and assault in the Berkeley High community.
“That’s something we are really, really proud of,” Halpern said. “We’re lucky to have this platform to highlight this thing that I swear I hear about every day.”
In keeping with the mission of Ensler’s nonprofit V-Day, proceeds from Berkeley High performances of her play always went to local and international organizations working to prevent violence against women and girls. Our Monologues proceeds will continue to be sent to Bay Area Women Against Rape, as well as other to-be-determined organizations addressing issues discussed in the show.
Halpern and Eleftheriadou are graduating this spring, but they hope the reception to Our Monologues is powerful enough to launch a new annual tradition.
“When The Vagina Monologues came out, and for most of the time it was performed at Berkeley High, it was really needed,” Eleftheriadou said. “Now we’ve sort of closed the door — and we’re opening it wider.”
Outside of Berkeley, though, it remains a radical act to perform Ensler’s play on a high school stage.
In 2007, some of those actors were suspended for saying the word “vagina” on campus.