Talkin' Broadway: In the Body of the World

Publication date: 
May 22, 2016
Author: 
Nancy Grossman

Eve Ensler is one of those impressive people with a plethora of hyphens attached to her name. She is a Tony Award-winning playwright-activist-author-performer who is renowned for her Obie-winning The Vagina Monologues which led to her 1998 founding of V-Day, the global activist movement to end violence against women and girls. If she had called it a day after that initiative, one might say she had accomplished a lot in her life, but she was just getting started. In 2007, Ensler was invited to the Democratic Republic of Congo to observe the trauma that women were experiencing in that war-ravaged country and she became a cornerstone of a new project to build City of Joy, a place where women could turn pain to power. However, mere months before its scheduled opening, on March 17, 2010, a huge tumor was discovered in Ensler's uterus.

In the Body of the World is a world-premiere stage adaptation of Ensler's 2013 memoir of the same name which chronicles her journey through Stage III/IV uterine cancer, treatment and healing, and how she reconnected to her body by forging a connection with the planet via the resilience of women whose stories inspired and changed her. Ensler is both the writer and performer of the piece at the American Repertory Theater, under the direction of Artistic Director Diane Paulus, who commissioned the one-woman show after reading the memoir. Although she is alone on the stage, Ensler is not the only character in the story as she introduces us to her large circle of friends, doctors, nurses, healers, family members, and Mama C, the head of City of Joy Women's Center. She makes them all come alive through the power of their stories, her words, and the strong emotional ties that bind her to them.

Ensler's performance is engaging and without a shred of artifice as she obliterates the fourth wall and addresses the audience in an intimate, conversational style. The design elements created by Myung Hee Cho (set and costume), Jen Schriever (lighting), M.L. Dogg (sound), and Finn Ross (projection) constitute a palette of colors and sounds that take us from Bukavu in the Congo to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, from a lush green forest to the hellfire of the poisonous chemo regime, and from the trippy comfort state attained by smoking pot to a catharsis at the coastal bedside of her dying mother. The non-linear journey sometimes feels a little disjointed, but Ensler always brings it back to the central theme of reconnecting with her body, making herself whole, and finding her place in the world.

One of the remarkable aspects of In the Body of the World is the degree to which Ensler can relate the most harrowing experiences with humor and grace. In her worst moments, she became more empathic, as if she understood that being in touch with the pain of others enabled her to share her own horrific pain and make it more bearable. She shares her story now in an effort to take back her body and take back her power, while offering the same prescription to other women. The women who survive gender violence and become part of a class at the transformational City of Joy are able to heal by turning their pain into power. After six months, they return to their communities as leaders, teaching other women that love has more power to heal than medicine. Building on the foundation of V-Day and City of Joy, in 2012 Ensler launched One Billion Rising, a global campaign in over 200 countries to demand an end to violence against women and girls. As long as the stories are told, the message spreads, and that is the power of theater.

Throughout the run of the play, audiences are invited to participate in "Act II," a series of post-performance conversations that will feature a roster of guests including doctors, activists, and scholars from Harvard University, the Mayo Clinic, and other organizations.

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