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Thursday 12th December 2019

By Joanne C. Hillhouse

This reflection on Sugar Apple Theatre’s staging of Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues will be my third CREATIVE SPACE post on a Zahra Airall production this year – and that’s not the half of it. Previously, I wrote about her Honey Bee Theatre’s staging of The Long Walk and Derek Walcott’s Ti-Jean and His Brothers, and, on the Wadadli Pen blog, I’ve noted their sweep with The Long Walk of the Caribbean Secondary Schools’ Theatre competition. And after the December 6th and 7th 2019 staging of The Vagina Monologues, it’s fair to say that she is at the vanguard of modern theatre in Antigua and Barbuda. She is producing consistently – Sugar Apple Theatre has already announced two other productions for 2020, one an original production and another, their take on William Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew – and she is producing at a very high level. It should be noted that in the past year Airall has also earned her theatre-related Masters, further evidence that she continues to push herself to raise the standard, and per Antigua and Barbuda’s national anthem, raise if boldly.

Her staging of the Vagina Monologues – a widely performed collection of stories that fit comfortably in the genre of theatrical activism, gathering as it does episodes from the lives of women around the world in an effort to illuminate trials specific to their womanhood and their journey to wholeness – provides an opportunity to map her growth as a storyteller. You see, Airall co-produced and co-directed the only previous stagings of this play in Antigua and Barbuda – a roughly four year run as part of Women of Antigua, an effort that also yielded a local mirroring production entitled When a Woman Moans. Those stagings were well received by audience and critics alike, and as a performer I was immersed in the hard work and commitment to quality and purpose that underpinned those efforts. And even so, even as my brain instinctively compared this or that monologue to how it was presented in the past finding this or that that I liked more about the earlier staging (e.g. the one about a survivor of rape as a tool of war and incidents of vaginal mutilation), this was just more theatrical…and frankly better. High bar raised even higher.

I feel inclined to pause here and mention that one of the criticisms said to me personally about the stagings we did then was that the words should have been the focus and that there was too much going on, distracting from the words. And if you are inclined to feel that way, well, this staging in which there is so much else going on will not sit well. This is not a reading; this is a performance utilizing all the elements of lighting, sound, rhythm, set, props, music, and movement that the stage allows. In fact, these monologues were re-framed in to real-life vignettes – some a little more abstract or spare than others – but all with characters and character stories, not just words, at the forefront. So, yes, sometimes words were lost here and there but the overall impact was felt.

When it hangs together so well – with even the transitions being super-smooth – picking a favourite is pointless…but also, impossible. The parts were too much a part of the whole – this or that person shining more here and there (I regret I do not have the performers’ names to hand), but the framing, handling of tone, and pacing being the thing that truly impressed. You know a play is well paced when it finishes and your first reaction, and that of the person sitting next to you, after two hours, is “wait, it finish?”.

I will mention some aspects (with the understanding that there is no intended ranking, just a selection). The inclusion of male voices. When we did it before, they were mostly stage hands. Their inclusion front of stage throughout, but especially in the finale about being witness to the birth of a child shifted something in the conversation between men and women around issues having to do with women’s bodies. The militancy (literally) in the chorus like drilling on what a vagina needs and what it wants. The Cater-to-You, burlesque-ish staging of the monologue on the alpha woman who liked eliciting moans. The silhouetted kiss that skirts the line of appropriateness, not because of the lesbian-themes but because of the fact that one character is 16 and a survivor of sexual violence and the other a worldly young woman of 24. The fact that within this at once sexy and provocative vignette, this connection helped heal the younger woman’s broken relationship with her body. The raunchy as in rated R duet between one woman and the man who made her vagina come alive; and speaking of the vaginas coming alive, the yoga/birthing class milieu in which the vagina workshop was framed. Even with its darker themes, the entire production – and that last referenced monologue is a good example of it – was rich with humor, all strains of laughter (like moans) filling the Dean William Lake Centre. Surprised laughs, laughs of recognition and agreement, dry laughs, wet laughs, full belly laughs, now and again laughs of embarrassment and unease, and most satisfying of all free and freeing laughter. The material – unfortunately in cases of sexual violence and sexual repression, judgment and shame – remains all too relevant, but Zahra has managed to bring a delightfully fresh take with actors my theatre companion described as “brave”.

I, for one, can’t wait to see what Sugar Apple Theatre (which debuted in 2015 with a revival of of Harambee Theatre’s Tangled Web and now receives a revival of its own with another) does next.

My only strong criticism really is for the people who can’t resist the urge to check their phones even when theatre is this alive and engaging – you are a distraction and disrespectful; stop it.

This post is part of the online edition of the culture-and-arts-focused CREATIVE SPACE series which gives local businesses an opportunity to boost their brand while boosting local art and culture. Contact author and content creator Joanne C. Hillhouse at jhohadli@gmail.com for more information. The original/extended edition is posted at her blog – Jhohadli.

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