V-Day Montclair: A Conversation with Two “Sheroes”posted on March 1st, 2012 by Brandon Monokian
Throughout March, Montclair State observes Women’s History Month with discussions, lectures, film screenings, and performances on the theme “Engendering the Arts and Sciences.” Peak Performances and les ballets C de la B’s Gardenia will be part of the celebration March 17–25. But first, V-Day Montclair gets the theatrical ball rolling with the annual benefit reading of Eve Ensler’s play The Vagina Monologues, March 5 and 6 at 7:30pm. Montclair State’s V-Team has assembled a cast of student, faculty, alumni, and community performers to present Ensler’s play and raise money in support of the Women’s Rights Information Center of Englewood, New Jersey, and the women and girls of Haiti (via the global V-Day organization). Below, director Brandon Monokian gives his perspective on the impact of V-Day and talks with two local celebrities in the V-Day Montclair cast.
Four years ago, I was asked to be a last-minute replacement as director of The Vagina Monologues at Montclair State, when the original director dropped out three days before the scheduled start of casting and rehearsals. At the time, I was just excited to direct a show, completely unaware that The Vagina Monologues would change my life.
Originally performed by its author, Eve Ensler, as a one-woman show in 1996, The Vagina Monologues has since spawned the V-Day movement, an annual global event in which women and men from all over the world perform various Eve Ensler plays to raise funds and awareness to aid women worldwide. The piece was created from interviews with women talking about their vaginas, their womanhood, and their life experiences. Stories range from hilarious to devastating, but, even at its most somber, the celebration of survival is continuously present. Learning the magnitude of violence toward women both globally and in my own community, paired with witnessing theater’s transformative and educational power, was an experience that completely shifted my life’s mission. Theater was no longer solely a mechanism for entertainment—rather, it was a vehicle for change, education, and community creation. One of the joys of my now third time directing this piece is bringing different yet equally ferocious women together on one stage, standing united for one cause: to end violence against women. I had a chat with two of those women: the award-winning, awe-inspiring actress Suzzanne Douglas and the reality TV starlet and makeup guru Jessica Romano.
Suzzanne Douglas has had a diverse 35-year career on both stage and screen; she is best known for her roles in films such as Tap and How Stella Got Her Groove Back. Douglas was best known to me in my middle school days as Jerri Peterson, the flawless sitcom mother of The Parent ‘Hood. As I ate my macaroni and cheese for dinner and watched her weekly televised adventures, I never imagined that one day this woman I looked up to on television would be someone I would look up to in my personal life. As luck had it, after graduating from Montclair State, I found myself collaborating with Douglas on multiple theater gigs, including last year’s The Vagina Monologues benefit. Her performance was epic and unforgettable. When I was asked to return as director, I couldn’t imagine doing it with out Douglas reprising her role, something she was excited to do. “I didn’t know how life changing it would be for me,” she said of last year’s production. “What really struck me most was how many women had been violated.” Statistics show that one in three women will be physically or sexually abused in her lifetime, which makes theater like The Vagina Monologues vital for communities.
Douglas also enjoys the piece because, well, she enjoys being a woman! “Everything about being a woman is fabulous. I love the sisterhood that comes with being a woman. I love being able to go up to [one of] my girlfriends and hug her openly and kiss her openly and celebrate her openly and know that it’s okay.” One question continually asked in The Vagina Monologues is, “If your vagina could talk, what would it say?” I posed this question to Douglas, who quickly responded, “It talks all the time!” She smiled, then elaborated, “You think about how life emanates from it, so our thoughts are birthed out of it. The Vagina Monologues birth into existence what our vaginas are saying. It’s almost like the vagina has been given license to speak the truth.”
Long before Jessica Romano was the star of the Style Network’s ratings juggernauts Glam Fairy and Jerseylicious and the savvy owner of the Glamorous Cosmetics line, she sat next to me in my undergrad theater history class. She worked her magic on the first show I ever directed, a 20-minute concert of music from Stephen Schwartz’s Children of Eden, using her makeup skills to create an evil yet sexy snake. Since then, we have remained friends. When she came to see The Vagina Monologues last year, I saw how affected she was by it and suggested that next time she perform in the show. I had seen her act while we were still in school, and, although she might not be the first to admit it, she was fabulous. My codirector, Allison Andresini, and I were just about finished with casting, and I wasn’t sure Romano would end up being able to do the show, when I got a text message from her saying, “Hey Brandon, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about vagina.” With that, she joined our cast, bringing along her television partner in crime, Briella Calafiore.
“Last year was my first time seeing The Vagina Monologues, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Needless to say, I was moved. I laughed, I cried, and, most importantly, I was inspired. This is a show that everyone needs to see…again and again.” Romano was so inspired that she decided to join this year’s cast despite not being comfortable saying the word “vagina.” “I’m so uncomfortable talking about the topic of the show, let alone saying the word ‘vagina.’ I thought it would be liberating to get on stage in front of a room full of strangers and just say it. Every monologue in the show has a story, and this, in a way, is mine. Vagina. See? I said it again. Good practice.”
Being comfortable saying the word “vagina” is not the only stimulus for Romano’s passion for V-Day. “This movement has women from all over the world coming together, educating, and taking action. It’s changing lives, and it’s empowering that we can really make a difference. One day, when I have a daughter, I want her to feel safe and powerful in this crazy world. Together we are working towards that future.”
Like Douglas, Romano also loves being a woman. The best part for her? “If a boat sinks, we got first dibs on a life boat…and multiple orgasms.” Because she works in the beauty industry, I just had to ask another question frequently asked in The Vagina Monologues script: “If your vagina got dressed, what would it wear?” “A pink superhero cape!” Romano’s passion and support of the V-Day movement make her (and her vagina) a superhero indeed.
“Great women” has been a topic frequently discussed in our rehearsals. Douglas and Romano are on the same page when it comes to female heroes in their lives—or “sheroes,” as Suzzanne Douglas likes to call them. “My first shero was my mom. I always give her credit because of circumstances in her life that she was able to overcome given the climate she grew up in in our country. It was not an easy time for an African American woman.” Romano finds a shero in her mother, as well. “She has the patience of a saint and unconditional love for everyone in her life. She’s unstoppable as a mother and wife, and an all-around beautiful woman.” These two beautiful artists and activists are surely making their mothers proud.
V-Day Montclair performances of The Vagina Monologues are March 5 and 6, 7:30pm, in Memorial Auditorium on the Montclair State campus. For more info, click here.
Brandon Monokian works professionally as an actor, director, and writer. For more, follow him on Twitter: @brandonmonokian.