This Year, February Began and Ended with a V

By Sarah Brown
Across the world, women performed “The Vagina Monologues” in February for V-Day — V for Victory, Valentine, and Vagina — to increase support for anti-violence groups in their communities. P&S joined the movement with performances and other events to raise awareness of domestic violence and provide aid to a community organization dedicated to helping victims.
   A year after first performing in the ensemble of “The Vagina Monologues” at the medical center, Mahsa Sohrab’09 was back on stage for an encore. “Women secretly love to talk about their vaginas,” she said, wearing all black, with a red rose tucked behind her ear. “No one’s ever asked them before.” This year’s three performances of Eve Ensler’s episodic play about female empowerment — including one performance in Spanish for the community — was part of February’s V-Day activities at Columbia. Like the 2006 performance, this year’s performances benefited Alianza Dominicana’s Project FAITH, which provides services to victims of domestic violence in Washington Heights.
   Ms. Sohrab wanted to recreate the warmth, energy, and connection that resulted from the 2006 performance. She approached Andrea Sturtevant, director of student activities for the P&S Club, about staging the play again. They made plans to integrate the performances with educational and fund-raising events in collaboration with other campus organizations, tying activities together into what they called V-Month.
   Ms. Sohrab enlisted the help of Jeni Harms Amorosa’09, who has experience with event planning, and the result was a postermonth of activities involving nine campus organizations and the Washington Heights community. Activities ranged from a beer tasting fund raiser by Beerchus, the campus beer appreciation club, to a talk with Linda Glenn of the Women’s Bioethics Project at the University of Vermont, sponsored by the Clinical Practice course. About 40 students showed up for LUNAFEST, a screening of short films about women sponsored by LUNA, the nutrition bar manufacturer. Students watched videos that included “Dear Talula,” a half-hour documentary about a young mother’s bout with breast cancer. Another group attended a self-defense workshop.
   Students had the opportunity to learn more about Project FAITH and the women it helps at a lunch with three domestic violence survivors. The lunch began with the crinkling of sandwich wrappers but fell silent as the women told their stories. “I literally escaped from my abuser, so I give thanks that I’m here to be able to say to everyone that I’m a survivor,” one woman said. “I’ve always been a survivor.” Students asked questions to find out how they can better serve victims of domestic violence as they practice medicine.
   As February drew to a close, the curtain rose on “The Vagina Monologues.” Thirty-six women acted in the performances, including 12 in the Spanish-language matinee. Women dressed in black accented by red took the stage on a set that looked like a café; a sign over the doorway read “V Spot” in red and white. The women sat down and, one by one, talked about vaginas. The stories, based on a series of interviews the playwright conducted with women, ranged from the playful to the serious. “It opens up channels for dialogue,” says Neda Dowlatshahi, a student in the Mailman School of Public Health who co-directed the performances with Zulaika Velazquez, a lab and grants manager in the developmental neuroscience division of the Department of Psychiatry. “It creates a comfortable environment where you’re really free to talk about anything.” The monologues range in topic from sexual experiences to the birth of the playwright’s granddaughter.
   Performing the monologues in Spanish expanded the efforts to raise awareness beyond the campus to the surrounding community. Because the proceeds were earmarked for an organization that serves victims of domestic violence in a mostly Hispanic area, students wanted members of that community to listen to the play’s stories of empowerment in their first language. The performance was advertised throughout Washington Heights, and about 170 people attended.
   During the performances, Ms. Amorosa worked in the lobby selling raffle tickets and cupcakes, muffins, and brownies to contribute toward the more than $7,000 raised throughout the month to benefit Project FAITH. Many of the prizes raffled were handmade objects donated by students and others. Ms. Sohrab contributed jewelry she had made and she solicited donations from others in her jewelry-making class. Cast members asked local businesses for donations or gift cards to raffle. One woman contributed yoga bags she had designed and made. When theatergoers arrived, they could choose from 200 lipsticks donated by Maybelline. Ms. Amorosa and Ms. Sohrab were directing a flurry of activity until the lights went down and the show started. “It wasn’t just a production,” says Ms. Sturtevant. “It was really an event.”