To the Lighthouse: Sara Juli’s TENSE VAGINA: AN ACTUAL DIAGNOSIS at The Chocolate Factory
No, no, no, nah, no way
At first I was disappointed when I realized that the opening of Sara Juli’s one-woman show fell on the same night as the final presidential debate. But then as I watched her— a vintage vixen in 1950s house dress— gesticulate on a stage covered with vibrating dildos, I understood I was witnessing an equally political event.
In songs, monologues, interactive audience bits, and dance, Juli, done up as a voluptuously maternal Betty Boop in lime-green crinoline (Carol Farrell), evokes the dualities of postpartum life as sexless, all-serving “Mama” and a once autonomous woman recovering from the physical traumas of childbirth. Throughout, she inventively re-purposes the materials of motherhood into what amounts to a physically intense theatrical spectacle. Annoying mechanical voiced plush toys accompany her in song and she straps on a zebra print bustier, connecting up to a breast pump for another. The show itself begins with a series of “No’s” and ends with an affirmative string of “Yes’s” played on a set of toy buttons.
Tense Vagina is framed by two monologues obliquely reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Like Part One of Woolf’s novel, “The Window,” Juli oscillates between the mundane and the profound, and the jagged, gendered emotional registers of hope and its impossibility. There’s also a literal ‘light’ ‘house’ on stage— a group of table lamps hang suspended above an upstage doll’s house. Akin to Mrs. Ramsay’s motherly promise to her son James, later quashed by Mr. Ramsay, Juli opens with a hopeful monologue in a hyperbolic over-emphatic mom voice, promising a day unlike any other when everyone will be together, nothing will go wrong, with no naps needed, that ultimately devolves into “I have a headache” and repeated sonic “No’s.” Hers is a funnier riff on the disparities between Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay’s gendered visions of the world and the possibility of arriving at that elusive beacon of diverse desires.
Already sympathetic to the particularity of Juli’s story— I had just written a piece about buying a vibrator as per the instructions of a physical therapist while my new baby slept. I, too, was far from ‘back to normal’ several months after his birth and I wondered how many of the mostly women in the audience shared related experiences. As I wrote, it’s the rare conversation that ventures into the silence surrounding all of the strange aspects of postpartum recovery and the illusion, for many, of the six-week, go-forth-and-fornicate appointment. I wanted to see Juli because of the spot-on resonances with my own experience, and the promise of another work importantly speaking— and singing— into these silent spaces.
If I’m being totally honest, I was also oddly reluctant to sit through what I feared might be another woman’s confessional vagina-gazing. I cringed in irritation throughout Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues and the inane riffs on “what would your vagina wear?” And, as someone who had also co-paid to be professionally fingered, I didn’t want to be preached at about pelvic floor health. I admit that even when I published my own piece on the subject, I struggled with sharing it widely because of some internalized self-censorship and shame. As a feminist ciswoman, I still have a hard time fully respecting the space I took to tell my story.
And while Juli does veer into direct testimonial (“Imagine me lying naked from the waist down…”), leads us in group kegels, and reenacts administering her first ‘self-stretch protocol,’ the gravitational center of the piece is not really her, or anyone else’s vagina, but the invisible, ceaseless labors of motherhood, including the work it takes to raise kids and the often overlooked physical efforts to recover from having them. Kegels, she tells us, offer an apt analogy for gender inequality– for women there’s no way to see if you’re doing it correctly (if at all) whereas for men, the penis visibly lifts ever so slightly. Men’s– dad’s– efforts are more externally acknowledged (as evidenced by the maddening phrase “daddy daycare”) while a mother’s are presumed innate (there’s no such thing as “mommy daycare” – it’s just called being a mom).
Even when performing, Juli mothers. No more than 15 minutes into the show, she pulls out 3 large boxes filled with real kiddie snacks: “I’ve got pirate booty, I’ve got my booty, I’ve got your booty.” We’re all her kids and while she relays glimpses of her story, she’s also feeding, cleaning, and comforting us. She nuzzled the woman next to me to her breast, spit-cleaned a few audience member’s faces, buttoned-up shirts, surprise tickled, and tied shoes. In an off-script moment she asks one of the handful of men in the audience if he’s done eating his sandwich and now able to participate in the show, “I’m working hard up here but you can have a sandwich” she quips. The retro-domestic set foregrounds the looming question of women’s labor, and how much has yet to truly change since the 50s. Matte-pastel painted vintage kitchen tools hang over our heads and a pink Barbie-esque karaoke machine sits on the floor upstage (Pamela Moulton).
Juli has a lovely singing voice, and there were a few amazing physical moments when a sound accompanied with a simple repeat gesture initially seems like one thing until she subtly morphs it into something else. Repeated intonations of “Push” convert into “Push It” and into “Push Shit” which evoke birth, then sex, and then the sing-songy “Push It” of a physical trainer’s voice. What seems like the start of an intimate act is interrupted by therapeutic exercise. Other sonic shifts, like one beginning with an offer of “oatmeal” subtly slides into “hold me.” An overt offering to her child slips into a profound request for her own comfort. The labors of caretaking, self-care, and the possibility of her own pleasure are inseparably intertwined.
In another of the many short bits that comprise the show, Juli riffs on the recognizable repeat cry for “Mama”: a cacophony of non-stop ma-ma-ma-ma-ma’s alters to the tune of a machine gun and then into a rendition of “The Music Box Dancer” (the audience gamely joined in the singing). Later, Juli puts on an apron with a mermaid tail and sings from The Little Mermaid song “Part of Your World,” likening her postpartum condition to that of a sea-bound creature who only desires to walk on land, or in Juli’s case, not pee her pants when she coughs, have a second to herself, and maybe enjoy sex again. “A happy mother” she tells us “is a happy vagina.”
By the end, Juli’s “light house” is surrounded by a garden of dildos that she gleefully tends, the unexpected healing devices, along with her admirable commitment to self-care that ultimately leads her to the promised land of bladder control and regular intercourse. We began with the fantasy of a perfect journey, abruptly ending in a series of no’s. And, perhaps a bit too neatly, she swaps out her mermaid apron for one that’s lit-up around a smiley-face, ending with a bunch of yes’s. But no one, especially not me, will begrudge a relentlessly hard-working mama who gets hers (after all, we’ve been satiated with snacks and snuggled). Her joy, as well as our own as her witnesses, is well earned. Yes, yes, yes, yeah!