Actor/executive producer Julia Rhee performing "The Woman Who Loved to Make Vaginas Happy" (Photo Credit: Albert Law)
To the right of the concession stand in the historic Castro Theater, six or so varieties of vibrators, blue and sleek, are spread across one corner of the silent auction table, pulsing in the hands of casual perusers. On the other end of the table sits an autographed portrait of Helen Zia, activist and founding sister of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, a sponsor of the night’s show. In between, other items repose on their corresponding bidding sheets: abstract paintings of vaginas, one pink and florally in bloom, the other more sketched and glittery, a Yellow Peril Dildo, an acupressure massage session, a banana protective case, a handmade vagina “costume” whose wearer’s face is framed by two long felt lips -- like a pink hot dog bun -- pinched together on top and bottom.
Ten minutes before the show, a rumble of voices stirs overhead in the lobby, coming from the landing on the top floor, which the patient patrons in the popcorn line slowly discern as the cast's warm-up cheer. A wave of sound from above, the women’s voices grow louder and stronger until erupting into screams of laughter and whooping.
"cunt. cunt. Cunt. Cunt! Cunt! Cunt! CUNT! CUNT! CUNT!"
Photo Credit: Andre Nguyen
Presented by NAPAWF Bay Area and V-Day San Francisco on May 17, 2012, The Asian Pacific American Vagina Monologues (APAVM) showcased a talented cast of APA Bay Area women committed to ending violence of all forms against women everywhere. Performing Eve Ensler’s celebrated The Vagina Monologues on the Castro stage with an all-APA cast to an audience of nearly 1,000 people, it was an event truly rooted in community and advocacy, and raised over $23,000 for women's organizations.
The monologues span a range of experiences and perspectives relating to vaginas, in a delicate balance of humor and levity. Powerful performances about domestic violence and rape are offset beautifully by sweet and hilarious reenactments of sexual encounters. Abuse, violence, birth, bedroom pet names, and masturbation are discussed in provocative and heartbreaking ways. The all-APA cast was especially significant, considering that such subjects can be under-discussed or considered taboo in APA families.
Actor Jade Law performing "My Vagina Was My Village" (Photo Credit: Andre Nguyen)
“None of us even know the word for ‘vagina’ in our mothers’ language,” said Julia Rhee, the show’s executive producer, at the curtain call for the show. The show and its production are a testament to female empowerment, felt poignantly throughout the performers’ presentations, and their evident bonds of support. The APAVM show was also dedicated to raising awareness around female API-specific issues, such as human trafficking (API women compose the largest segment of persons trafficked into the US) and domestic violence (Immigrant API women are at higher risk domestic violence compared to the general U.S. population). [Source: NAPAWF]
For first-timers seeing The Vagina Monologues, the show is a revelation. For others more familiar, phrases like “duck lips” and “coochi-snorcher” are a welcome reminder to make time to cherish our lady parts -- and by extension, our womanhood and our entire beings.
I had a conversation with APAVM executive producer Julia Rhee after the show, to learn more about the production, cast, and the Asian American moan.
What was the process of preparing for the APA Vagina Monologues?
I was in a production of The Vagina Monologues back in 2008 when I had just moved to the Bay Area. I had never seen it before. My roommate was the director of the show (Gabrielle Padilla-Patacsil, who also directed the APAVM), and encouraged me to audition. I was always so afraid, always so scared, but that first time was incredible. The cast was mostly made up of people who’d heard about it or done it in college. I’ll never forget what it felt like. To be on stage, working alongside these women, intensely focused on something we don’t talk about enough.
After this performance, I just kept thinking, wouldn’t it be amazing to do this for the APA community? At that time I was already connected to NAPAWF Bay Area, so I told the sisters, “wouldn’t it be great to do this show with an all-APA cast?” I guess the rest is history.
What was it like assembling the cast?
Most people came through friends of friends or word of mouth. We got a real range of folks -- some stepping on stage for the first or second time, some had done the show in college, and others who perform in spoken word, or do regular public speaking. One thing that was really so wonderful was that so many folks were coming from the community -- youth workers, students, educators, such a wide range of folks. It is so powerful, and the show is not about casting professional actors, but using the monologues to talk about the issues that are happening in the community.
What types of issues?
Labor violations, our own anecdotal experiences, trafficking -- the show really gets the conversation started. Our show was dedicated to ensuring that our women and girls have the resources and support they need to really work on these issues. That’s what the proceeds from the show supports. It is absolutely a part of the experience.
What were your cast rehearsals like?
For the first few meetings, it felt more like rehearsals, theater games -- but it evolved -- we dedicated time to really get to know one another, we talked about everything from eating disorders to family violence to sexual assault, depression, whatever it was -- we made the space to discuss. We all started to realize how much violence plays a role in our lives. We had folks in the cast really talk openly about what they experienced growing up, being in a relationship, having a mother in an abusive relationship, what it felt like to feel pathetic, ugly.
Why is it important to talk about vaginas?
We all come from vaginas -- I love the last monologue (performed by Lisa Lee, “I Was There In The Room”) about witnessing birth. We forget the power that is held within the vagina. How else could you describe misogyny? When really we should have complete reverence and respect for this powerful vessel that stretches and stretches, that really makes way for what is in the world. It was important to take the time to talk about things like: when's the last time our vaginas got some lovin'? Some maintenance? It was important to talk about how we have been affected by violence, and how our vaginas are affected by policies from Washington D.C. when the decision makers have no idea what menstrual cramping feels like.
Who did you feel was the intended audience for the performance?
This is the first time NAPAWF Bay Area had ever done it, so we didn’t know what to expect. Asian American women as a community are warrior women -- we’re often the matriarchs, the ones who get shit done, the ones who carry our country, and the ones keeping the families together. The driving point home is that we are not passive. We have desire -- we can be happy, we can be angry. We hold so much power. We nurture and care for our communities, but we can also be instruments of change. We performed the show during APA Heritage Month, which recognizes that there are still inequities in our community and issues that go unseen. The Vagina Monologues is really about jumpstarting those conversations.
Asian American women are a vital force in this country. We vote, we organize, we give birth to life, we provide, we’re nurturing, passionate, physical -- and that’s all in the show. We want to establish a legacy of leadership, and to have such amazing support from the community really meant the world.
(left to right) Actors Judy Tan, Karolyn Wong, Victoria Ma and Tiffany Refuerzo, who performed "If Your Vagina Got Dressed..." and "If Your Vagina Could Talk..." (Photo Credit: Albert Law)
I felt a powerful aspect of the performance was that Asian Americans played non-Asian or non-Asian specific roles, which to me felt like a statement against the under-representation of Asian Americans in the media. What was it like for Asian Americans to be performing non-Asian specific roles?
The entire show was organized, featured, and produced by an all-APA cast. Asian American women are targets for sex work and sexual harassment, and this was really about trying to take control of our own narrative. As Asian American women the community is complex, but there are common threads that bring us together.
I have seen productions of The Vagina Monologues a few times before, and I was surprised you did not choose to perform “Say It,” the monologue about Japanese wartime comfort women. What was your creative reasoning behind this decision?
That’s actually the first I’ve heard of it. I would have loved to see it in the play. V-Day selects the monologues to be performed each year, so we didn’t have that creative control. Comfort women are very much ingrained into our cultures.
Perhaps that’s an interesting comment on the Asian American narrative being cut out of the “universal” women’s experience. Maybe next year?
Yes, absolutely. I'd love to.
What was the most difficult part about producing/performing in the show?
When we were searching for venues, one venue questioned if we could fill the seats. They said, "we’re not sure there’s an audience for this." It felt personally insulting. I felt like they were underestimating the support we could demand. The Castro Theatre was so wonderful, and having that experience early on made us more emboldened. I felt like saying to that first venue, “Don’t you ever question our power. Wer’re talking about Asian Americans in the Bay Area -- know your demographic!”
This show would not have been possible without our director Gabrielle Padilla-Patacsil, and Linda Yang, my co-chair for NAPAWF Bay Area and managing producer. It’s a team of incredible vaginas. Gabi is more than just a director, she’s our biggest cheerleader, and went above and beyond the call of duty. She committed so much of her time because not only does she love working with folks without a lot of experience -- she loves the sisterhood. She encouraged people to be even bolder and even more badass. Having someone in your life saying you can be bigger, bolder, better -- that level of support and encouragement is unique. The energy she brought to the rehearsal space was one of the biggest benefits. Without her I’m convinced the show couldn’t have been what it was. As the producer I couldn’t have asked for more.
Gabi was the backbone, and Linda was the arms -- she carried us through. She really made sure everything was taken care of. We’ve spent hours and hours on this, weeks and weeks. Since February I have pretty much eaten, breathed and lived The Vagina Monologues.
Actor/Director Gabrielle Padilla-Patacsil performing "My Angry Vagina" (Photo credit:Albert Law)
I was amazed at how fresh the performance at the Castro felt, as if the cast was seeing each other’s performances for the first time, which I know can’t be true.
There was something about that night; it was such a marathon experience. You can run the same trails, but nothing will get close to that actual day-of experience. We saw new limits reached we’ve never seen before. Even though we’d been in rehearsal, it was like seeing it for the first time. It was like pulling back another layer. And everyone wore so many hats, we all pitched in. Jenny Ton would say, “I’m not just half of ‘Reclaiming Cunt,’ I’m also the event planner and video producer.” Just like I was also the clean-up crew and lunch pickup lady. There’s no better way to describe the production than a labor of love.
In your show-stopping monologue “The Woman Who Loved to Make Vaginas Happy” in which you played a sex worker, you performed a catalog of orgasmic moans -- including the African American moan and the Irish Catholic moan. What is the Asian American moan like?
It is powerful, and surprising, and gives pleasure in the most unexpected ways.
NAPAWF is the only national multi-issue organization for APA women and girls. NAPAWF advocates on numerous policy issues, from reproductive justice, human trafficking, immigrant rights, and more. Donate to the NAPAWF Bay Area Chapter here.