Author, actress and activist Eve Ensler has dedicated her life and work to women’s issues around the world. She’s spent years visiting war zones and developed a special connection with victims of rape and torture in the Democratic Republic of Congo when she was invited there in 2007.
“I think what really struck me about the Congo," Ensler recalled, "was the kind of synergistic cauldron of colonialism, capitalism, racism, insane misogyny. You know that all of those violences kind of being enacted on the bodies of women.”
She worked with local activists in the DRC to create a women’s leadership community and sanctuary for survivors of gender violence in Bukavu called City of Joy.
“And it's almost impossible building something in the middle of a war zone. You don't have roads, you don’t have electricity. You don’t have … it was just... it was madness!" she said.
In the midst of that chaos, her own life got upended. "I got diagnosed with stage III-IV uterine cancer. The alchemy of it all was just: you know, change or die,” she said with a rueful laugh.
Medicine to memoir
Ensler turned the months of harrowing treatment -- and years of painful memories -- into a book: In the Body of the World: A Memoir of Cancer and Connection.
Tony Award-winning director Diane Paulus read the book, and wanted to collaborate with her on turning it into a one-woman show.
“It was signature Eve," Paulus said of the memoir. "Philosophy, politics, feminism, all told through humor and her point of view, which she does not shy away from. But it was so deeply personal.”
So, Paulus arranged to meet Ensler in her Manhattan loft, and they began an intense process to translate it into a play.
In the Body of the World toggles between the harrowing journey Ensler took to fight the cancer, her own painful family history, and her connection to women and nature in the outside world. Ensler says her own experiences with rape and abuse caused her to mentally disconnect from her body.
Watch a scene from In the Body of the World, as Eve Ensler talks about the support of friends during her cancer treatment (Courtesy Manhattan Theatre Club)
“I think my whole life, not only have I been trying to get back into my body, but I've been really working to find ways to support women coming back into their bodies," she said. "And cancer did the trick, as well as building a City of Joy because those two things together … you know, we were building a place where women could come back into their bodies.”
The show, which just opened off-Broadway, has received glowing reviews. But it’s a tough performance schedule for a 64-year-old cancer survivor, so Ensler doesn’t plan to tour the play, like she did with her signature work, The Vagina Monologues.
A play that launched a movement
Ensler wrote The Vagina Monologues in 1994 as a celebration of vaginas and femininity. She says the purpose of the changed, becoming a movement to stop violence against women. Twenty years ago this February 14, the first V-Day was held: productions of the play in professional theaters, colleges and even living rooms, raised millions of dollars toward women’s causes.
“I'm so emotional right now, coming up on the 20th anniversary," Ensler said. "You know, when I think 20 years ago, how hard it was to say the word vagina, you know, how crazy everybody thought it was. And then to see how women – amazing women – across the world, across this country took this play brought it into their communities, were brave enough to put it on.”
For the 20th anniversary, 3,000 performances are scheduled.