“My vagina is angry!” a woman’s voice loudly echoed through a large gym at a minimum security prison in Queens, New York. Minutes later, the gasping and moaning of an imitated orgasm filled the space, accompanied by the loud, uncomfortable laughter and knee slapping of the men in the audience.
Clad in black and red, actor Lin Tucci of the hit Netflix show Orange is The New Black, stared intensely at the sea of hunter green uniforms, men serving time for robbery, drug dealing and manslaughter. This scene was part of an unusual performance of Eve Ensler’s 1994 play The Vagina Monologues, a feminist script about women’s bodies and sexuality, performed every year at your local college or community center, mostly by amateur actors.
This year, for the first time, the play was staged at two male prisons, for solely male audiences. It was put on by the theater collective Mightee Shero Productions, in cooperation with V-Day, an initiative launched by Ensler to raise awareness about violence against women.
Before the performance, the two dozen men at the Queensboro Correctional Facility, a prison that prepares inmates to re-enter society, did not know what to expect of the show. Then, after the sounds of Prince’s “I Would Die 4 U” faded away, the show was introduced with a resounding: “Who has used the word vagina?”
For the next 90 minutes, the inmates listened attentively as a diverse, all-female cast including professional actors as well as two formerly incarcerated women, acted out monologues about sexual pleasure and sexual violence. They heard detailed descriptions of the female anatomy, of visiting the gynecologist’s office, and of being abused.“I thought that the men’s body language would be uncomfortable and awkward—and it wasn’t.”
The men laughed, throwing their heads back when they heard actors unabashedly spitting out descriptions of vaginas: “New Jersey twat”, “split knish,” “poonani,” or when they saw them mime examining their private parts in a mirror. They shook their heads in disbelief when hearing about genital mutilation of young girls. Every once in a while a guard’s walkie-talkie would go off, reminding everyone of their place.
The men gave the show a standing ovation, particularly applauding the two formerly incarcerated women, Sharon Richardson and Rhonda D. Covington, who each served 20 years in prison.
“They wanted to know, to hear what we had to say. I loved it,” said Tucci, who said that part of her motivation to do the show was research for Orange is the New Black. The cast had performed The Vagina Monologues in several women’s prisons earlier in the week, a reprisal of a 2015 initiative. Tucci said she expected the women to engage in the play, because they would relate to it—but that the men would be antsy. “I thought that the men’s body language would be uncomfortable and awkward—and it wasn’t.”
In a discussion with the actors after the performance, one question seemed to be on many of the men’s minds: “Where would I go take my daughter to see this?” The inmates thanked the women from bringing “some positive” in a “negative environment,” and for bringing them out of their comfort zone. “I love and support vaginas,” one of them said.
Every once in a while a guard’s walkie-talkie would go off, reminding everyone of their place.
But many had reflections of their own on women and masculinity. They said they were taught to put the women in their families on a pedestal, that sexuality and gender, as a topic of conversation seemed off limits.
“We hold women to a higher standard than men, that’s what we were taught, to cherish our women,” one man said.
Tysheen Cooper, who is at Queensboro for a parole violation, has a four-year-old daughter. He was protective of her, but was not entirely at ease in their interactions.“I didn’t feel comfortable changing her diapers,” he said, underlining that it was “easier to connect to a boy.”
The play had changed his attitude. He asked the actresses about how to start a conversation with his daughter. “As a father I wouldn’t know how to go about it,” he said.
The women in the play emphasized that it doesn’t have to be some elaborately planned discussion. “Start really small, make ‘vagina’ a word that’s okay to say,” said actor Julia Crockett. “It doesn’t have to be a huge conversation, but just so she learns some place along the way that men are safe and respectful, and that she should only invite men into her life that are also safe and respectful.” The show’s director, Ira Kip, said that forming a bond with her father started with something as simple as him doing her hair—and doing a terrible job.
This uneasiness of talking about bodies and sex was familiar to some of the actors. “I come from a West Indian background, and we barely talked about our vaginas. We barely talked about sexuality. That was just not something that was at the breakfast table, the lunch table, the dinner table,” Sharon Richardson, who served two decades in prison for domestic violence, told me.
Michael Williams, who has been incarcerated for 15 years for a robbery, has five daughters. He says he wasn’t sure whether the advice he was giving his daughters was correct—until he saw the play.”When they got to a point when they felt they needed a man, I told them masturbation wasn’t a sin, and to get to know themselves.”“Where would I go take my daughter to see this?”
Williams found one moment in the play to be both new to him and relatable at the same time. Dana Levinson, a transgender actor and composer, performed the monologue “They Beat The Girl Out Of My Boy…Or So They Tried,” detailing the abuse of a transgender girl. “I was told growing up to be a manly man kind of guy,” Williams told me. “I feel so ignorant right now.” He said that everyone faces some sort of uphill battle. “I wouldn’t be so fast to judge people. I’m an incarcerated black male. I know people judge us as well and they don’t afford us the opportunity to show them that we have changed.”
Elizabeth Mackintosh, an actor and one of the play’s producers, who was sexually assaulted as a teenager and who had been putting on The Vagina Monologues since college, said that at their performance the day before, one man revealed he was a survivor of sexual abuse as a child. “It’s not surprising that men could relate to the play in its exploration of gender roles, but you wouldn’t expect such a sincere exchange of vulnerability and empathy within the confines of a men’s prison,” she said.
Kevin Knox, in prison for 12 years for manslaughter, came to see the show because he was curious. “It’s one thing to be sympathetic, it’s another to understand another person’s point of view,” he told me before the show. “I consider myself a feminist.”
But he still gleaned something from the performance. “I learned that women are not going to take our bullshit anymore,” he said, laughing, after watching the show. “It’s comfortable for us to hold ourselves up here and have the woman down here to make ourselves feel better, but you’re being selfish and you’re not thinking about society as a whole,” he said. “Once you think about society as a whole I think anyone would be a feminist.”