A woman’s body serves as the stage for this production. As the vestibule of her family’s honour, as the punching bag that absorbs all her abuser’s frustration, as the evening’s amusement for a gang of would-be rapists – a woman’s body, it appears, can be put to many uses. With the 13 stories that make up “A Memory.
A Monologue. A Rant and a Prayer: Writings to End Violence Against Women and Girls,” Eve Ensler and Mollie Doyle illustrate this effortlessly. So it shouldn’t surprise you that each is difficult to enact and harder to hear. However, the belief that they are nevertheless stories that must be shared unites the play’s cast. In addition, as is befitting Colombo’s first V-Day event, the funds raised will be directed toward The Sunila Foundation and The Shelter for Women and Children who have been subjected to gender-based violence.
|Ready with their different stories: Back row L-r: Sean, Ashini, Hans, Rajinda and Neidra; middle L-r: Dilrukshi, Shanuki and Gayatri and front: Pia.
Pic by M.A. Pushpa Kumara
The monologues are surprisingly diverse, drawn as they are from sometimes very different cultural contexts – for instance, a traditional burial ground and a soccer camp each serve as a setting. The latter appears in ‘My First Kiss’ delivered by Pia Hatch. Here the narrator is a 35-year-old woman remembering how her coach forced a very adult kiss on her six-year-old self. So many years later, you can still see how it has coloured everything, says Pia, explaining that the woman’s prayer is that this wouldn’t happen to someone else.
The narrator’s fears are something Pia, as a mother herself relates deeply to. “I think we have to start being open about it, not because we should be paranoid, not so that we can lock them away, but so that we can learn to read our children,” she says encouraging parents to really listen when their child says something like ‘I don’t want to go to school.’ She knows the story will resonate with local audiences. “I don’t think it matters where it happened, it happened...It is the happening that is universal, it is everywhere.”
Pia and Dilrukshi Fernando (whose monologue ‘Blueberry Hill’ chronicles a near gang rape) both want to communicate the complexity of their character’s responses to abuse. Both actresses draw attention to how a woman who has been attacked often finds her own virtue questioned. “They say you were asking for it, flirting, you were dressed provocatively when you were just physically weaker at that point,” says Dilrukshi. “I’m stunned by the number of times I’ve heard the question, ‘But what did she do?’” reveals Pia, adding, “when you’re a victim you know that’s what you’re faced with.” Dilrukshi thinks it could be even harder when a woman has to keep up the facade for social reasons. “There’s a lot going on once the doors are shut in any household,” she says.
That the houses of the rich and the educated are exempt is a myth the organizers would love to shatter. Under the banner of the Grassrooted Trust, Directors Hans Billimoria and Anuruddha Fernando says that they have plenty of real world evidence that this is not the case – domestic violence and sexual abuse proliferate in modern Sri Lanka.
Ashini Fernando says she struggled to find a voice for her character, a girl murdered in an honour killing. “It’s a dramatic piece, and very challenging emotionally,” says the actress, explaining that she wants to deliver a subtle, nuanced interpretation to balance it out. Her monologue is one in which the violence is taken to its farthest extent, but for Ashini while the obvious tragedy lies in the killing of a young girl by her own family, she says she wants to communicate the fact that it is as much a tragedy for the girl’s brother who is made his sister’s watchdog as a young child. “I want people to feel for her, and in a way to feel for her brother as well,” she says..
Unlike The Vagina Monologues (the play that continues to fuel most V-Day productions), there are plenty of male voices here. Among them is Rajinda Jayasinghe. Along with Neidra Williams, he enacts ‘Conversations with My Son’. In stark contrast to Ashini’s monologue, this story is an easier listen. It also draws attention to what Neidra describes as the pressing need for “mothers to be thinking mothers who raise thinking sons.” (Speaking earlier, Dilrukshi makes the same point. “We may not be raising children who will be physically violent, but are we raising children who are respectful to women and who treat them as equals? There’s a gray line between when you disrespect a woman and when you raise a hand at her. These lessons need to be taught.”)
Though it takes him some time, his mother’s words do make a deep impression on him, says Rajinda. He adds that he’s pleased also that his character ultimately accepts that “the bulk of the responsibility lies with the man, simply because he is more physically powerful.” Both Neidra and Rajinda describe their ‘monologue’ as one of “hope.” In the production itself, its light-hearted and positive messages help lighten the seriousness of the other monologues. However, should you need any more cheering up, you may not have to look further than Shanuki de Alwis’s take on ‘Maurice’.
Shanuki describes her monologue as “a little ray of hope.” Her character is a teenage girl who manages to escape her rapist. Though she was initially asked to do another monologue, Shanuki knew that ‘Maurice’ was the one for her. “It’s totally easy because I can completely relate to her,” she says of her rambunctious character. She’s also pleased to present a great role model – “We definitely need a lot more young women standing up for themselves, at the risk of being called a lot of names, at the risk of being harassed by society for what we are, but I think there’s nothing to be ashamed of, we should be proud of being strong,” says Shanuki.
It’s unfortunate, in that light, that women can also be the instigators of violence. Revathi Chawla’s monologue, ‘To Stop the Violence against Woman’ is a very short piece on how women perpetuate violence against other women. Citing difficult relationships between women and their relatives or their domestics, Revathi says there is a pressing need to look inward. “What happens to us in private, we don’t like to talk about in public,” she says, adding that theatre provides a great forum in which to discuss what affects so many women in Sri Lanka.
Sean Amarasekera echoes her sentiment when he says “women have to stop abusing women.” His monologue, a description of a woman awaiting her abuser is called ‘Eye to Eye.’ Sean says he wants to model his delivery along that of Thom Yorke’s in ‘Exit Music (For a Film)’. “His voice is so naked and straight,” says Sean of Yorke, adding that he would like his own performance to be “just about a voice...I’d even prefer not to be lit.” He might just get his wish – characteristically, V-Day events keep production costs to a minimum. Without anything in the way of complex sets, this production will probably do the same. The focus then is where it belongs - on the stories being told.
Also in the cast are: Anuruddha Fernando, Gayatri Natrajan, Hans Billimoria, Marsh Dodanwela and Venuri Perera.
“A Memory. A Monologue. A Rant and a Prayer: Writings to End Violence Against Women and Girls” is being staged on Friday, April 1, from 7.30 p.m. onwards at the Barefoot Café. Priced at Rs.500 tickets are on sale at Barefoot. Suitable only for adult