In the Body of the World, a World Premier Play
Written and performed by Eve Ensler
Based on Ensler’s memoir of the same title
Directed by Diane Paulus
American Repertory Theater
May 10 – May 29, 2016
Eve Ensler has a way of making her experiences translate the personal to the universal. The tempo and rhythms of her delivery often scale the walls of poetry.
Based on the quotes in the advertisements, I expected the connection between her struggle with her own cancer to be more directly political and connected to the horrors of the sexual atrocities committed on women by militia in the Democratic Republic of the Congo than it was, but she did graphically connect the wanton rape of the women to the economic rape of the country by its leaders and the uncaring conglomerates that plundered the country’s natural resources.
Ensler’s accounts of stories of the African women who were brutalized were incomprehensively ghastly. To balance the weight of the heinously inhuman rape of hundreds of thousands of women with the suffering and pain born by one woman, Ensler, enduring uterine cancer, requires an enormously strong bridge.
Ensler’s genius is that she uses the way her own body was beaten up in order to ‘save’ her - out with her uterus, ovaries, fallopian tubes, cervix, part of colon, and anus, her body becoming a fountain sprouting an assortment of piss, poop, and pus-filled tubes looking like a subway map of Manhattan, as a way to connect with the brutalization of African women in the Congo. (Sidebar below)
As one part of her treatment concludes, she’s informed that her doctors want to radiate her vagina. ”My vagina! Do you know who I am!” she shrieks. Only a woman with Ensler’s history and sense of irony could make that funny. And her musing that the scourge of how we get cured is so great that dying occasionally felt like a comfy option.
She has the gift expressing her emotions with from-her-gut powerful words that somehow make the rest of us feel better, liberates us, as if she spoke the words for us that we couldn’t have mustered the courage to say, like what she said about her sister who she hated and her mother who was emotionally distant, and makes us laugh about it. No one does dark humor better.
The staging of the 90-minute play resembled choreography as Ensler moved props to represent different scenes. The way she rearranged the objects on the set to replicate medical settings, with the crisp white sheets, were so strong I could almost smell ‘hospital’, that vaguely antiseptic odor that always makes me feel like taking a shower when I leave, and yearn to get the fuck out of there so I can take a breath of clean fresh air and expel the funky heavy air that reminds me of mortality, fragility of life, sense of there-but-for-the-grace-of-god go-I surreality of all of it.
It’s a long way from “I hated my sister,” to having that sister become an ally in healing. And it’s a long way from being emotionally starved for a mother’s touch to an act of bonding and forgiveness with the frail pale woman as she spends her last days in hospice care. Ensler drives home the irony that cancer has the power to heal.
As a cancer survivor I loved what Ensler called the “Sue” moment when her friend the therapist turns Ensler’s fears on their heads with a whole series of mantras. “If you feel shitty while the chemotherapy courses through your body, think of what these cocktails are doing to the cancer, kicking the shit out of the cancer cells as it flows through your arteries and veins, seeking it out and killing it with a vengeance. Chemo as the Empathetic Warrior.”
I’ve been in that room. I’ve felt the chemo heating up my whole body, making me mildly nauseous then sliding me into a long flushy nap. I woozily visualized it seek and destroy every creepy little carcinoma cell trying to evade the hot cocktail pumping through my body. And I’ve felt radiation so strong that it blistered my skin. Like Ensler, I’ve read the reports and heard my oncologists keep talking about stages of cancer, even when I thought my treatment was finished and I was clear of cancer. The Onco YoYo.
Forget courage. It takes someone with imagination, perception, searing honesty, and the elusive ability to make us laugh about the road to recovery, let alone survival, that can suck away every little milligram of dignity you’ve ever had.
Ensler is deeply embarrassed when a very handsome doctor comes in to examine her anus. She is taken aback when, after examining her, “Dr. Handsome” walks around the table as she’s lying on her side with her ass exposed, looks her in the eye, and says,“Ms. Ensler, I know who you are and what you’ve done for women. I will do everything I can to make this succeed.” He has connected with her as a human being, not just another body to work on. Gratitude replaces shame. She is reduced to tears.
Fear of dying makes you remember all the stuff in your life that you haven’t done, or have done badly. And all the love you didn’t get or got and didn’t acknowledge. And the hurts you got along the way. It’s easy to connect with her, we’ve been there. And with luck, like with Ensler, you will yourself to cope while feeling pain, fear, and uncertainty. You do it alone. You do it with people who love you. You do it sometimes with complete strangers.
This nearly bald, fifty-nine year old zaftig woman standing on stage chronicles it all. As she said in one of tons of laugh-out-loud observations, no amount of tofu or yoga or meditation or good sex is going to prevent you from getting cancer. Learning to become an Empathetic Warrior may not cure you but will put you in the arena.
In 2007, before her cancer was diagnosed, the founder of the Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, Nobel Peace Prize nominee Dr. Denis Mukwege, invited Eve Ensler to the Congo. As good as he was at stitching up cruelly sexually violated women, he knew that the power of these women’s stories could shock the world into caring and that Ensler was the person who could do it.
Over weeks, she listened. “What help do you need?” she asked. The dream? To build a safe place where sexually shamed women who had lost everything could recover their sense of self and dignity then return to their communities and be a force for change. That place would be called The City of Joy. By 2011, it was completely built. Against all odds, today it flourishes, spreading hope and empowerment by women who return to their homes to become leaders in their communities. https://drc.vday.org
Photos courtesy of American Repertory Theater