It goes by many names — “pussycat,” “pookie,” “coochie snorcher”— but if you ask Cuesta College drama director bree valle, there’s only one word that matters: “vagina.”
“ ‘Vagina’ in my mind represents women and femininity,” said valle, who directs Cuesta’s upcoming production of “The Vagina Monologues.” “I want to break the silence and censorship of that word. If you can’t say the word ‘vagina,’ you can’t own it, and if you can’t own it, you can’t protect it.”
A perennial production at high schools, college campuses and community centers, Eve Ensler’s “Vagina Monologues” celebrates female sexuality with a series of fierce, funny and touching monologues based on interviews with more than 200 women. They deal with such tough issues as incest, rape and sexual abuse.
“The whole purpose of ‘The Vagina Monologues’ is to fight violence against women and children,” valle explained. “It’s about spreading understanding.”
According to the director, Cuesta College’s production features collaboration between the college and the community at large. The 15-member cast includes students, teachers and retirees.
Cuesta student Emily Barbera penned the song “Hidden Scars,” which opens the play. Shell Beach artist Joey Salazar created the colorful, feminine paintings that hang over the stage, and local musicians Andrew Hanson, Kristy Packer and Meredith Hobbes play before performances.
“We wanted a woman who felt strongly about women’s issues to donate her time and energy to do the backdrop,” valle explained. “The match …was unbelievable.”
“The Vagina Monologues” cover a wide range of experiences, from menstruation to childbirth.
Many of the monologues are sobering, such as “Say It,” which deals with “comfort women” kidnapped by Japanese troops during World War II and forced into service at military brothels. “A Teenage Girl’s Guide to Surviving Sexual Slavery,” added this year, details a young woman’s horrific experience in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Arroyo Grande resident Marilyn Rossa performs “My Vagina Was My Village,” told from the perspective of a rape camp captive during the Bosnian War.
“It’s meant to represent the extraordinary women of Bosnia and Kosovo but also the terrible straits they went through,” explained Rossa, who teaches English at Cuesta College.
Not every monologue is serious, however.
The much-quoted introduction is a humorous list of euphemisms for the female organ — such as “pussycat,” “pookie,” “toadie” and “dignity” — and “The Woman Who Loved to Make Vaginas Happy,” about a sex worker, invites the entire cast to break into happy moans.
According to valle, working on “The Vagina Monologues” has been a life-altering experience for some of the cast members. They’ve opened up in rehearsals, sharing their own powerful stories.
“The women come from such diverse backgrounds,” valle said, “and they are one big family now.”
For Elizabeth Bucker of Paso Robles, “The Vagina Monologues” has a deeply personal meaning. She’s a survivor of rape and abuse.
“I kept my secret for many years,” Buckner said. “This is my way of trying to help other people know you can survive it and you can rise above it.”
“That’s the whole point of the ‘Monologues,’ ” she added. “It’s time to stop suffering in silence and let the world know that this is happening.”
“The Vagina Monologues” is part of V-Day, a global movement aimed at ending violence against women and girls. Over the past decade, the organization has raised more than $70 million for community groups.
Proceeds from Cuesta’s production will go to three charities: Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo County, Inc., CASA of San Luis Obispo County, which provides court advocates for children, and the Gryphon Society, which provides sober living housing.
The play also benefits female survivors of sexual violence in the Congo.
Rossa described “The Vagina Monologues” as a vehicle for change.
“It’s a loving slap in the face that opens the eyes of men and women (to see) that women are more than their body parts,” she said.