By Maya Pottiger

She sat on top of the table, one leg crossed over the other. She tossed her long, brown hair over her shoulder and leaned forward.

“I love women,” she said. “And I love vaginas.”

She uncrossed her legs and recrossed them in the other direction. Her black pants slid up enough to show her patterned socks that disappeared into her New Balance sneakers.

“Women pay me to dominate them,” she said, her volume increasing. “To excite them. To make them come.”

“Too fast,” the director said, interrupting the monologue. “Start over.”

And, just like that, the facade melted away. The 30-something lawyer-turned-sex-worker disappeared, and Briana Downs, a senior vocal performance major, lowered her script.

Though Downs is portraying a very experienced woman, she’s a virgin.

“This monologue is hard for me because I’m a virgin,” Downs said. She said her choice to remain a virgin is because she identifies as a Christian and has a passionate relationship with God. “This monologue is hard for me because I’ve never experienced these things.”

Downs isn’t the only actress who can’t directly relate to her character.

Lilia Hinojosa, a senior theatre major, is performing a monologue about a woman who was raped and abused by many men during wartime in her native Eastern European country. Though she cannot personally relate, she said there are truths in all of these stories that the audience can find in their own lives.

“Those are stories that really need to be told,” Hinojosa said. “We don’t often hear about them or see them in that light, and I think that it’s really important. And it’s hard. But it’s needed to be done.”

Before the more sensitive monologues, an emcee will give the audience a trigger warning, inviting people to leave the room and return once the piece is over.

Though Hinojosa cannot entirely relate to her character, she said she has been in some “sticky situations.” She said it can be hard to completely separate herself from her role because she has to learn how to empathize with the character she’s inhabiting.

“So at first that’s really hard to talk about somebody that experiences [sexual abuse] on a greater scale because you see truths of that that have been in your own life,” Hinojosa said. “But for me, I have to use that to bring truth to the character. But at the same time, I have to remind myself that it’s not that same situation.”

Downs, however, has to imagine situations that she’s never been in.

“It’s hard for me to try to act sexy and portray this confident woman when I’m definitely not confident in this field,” she said.

To compensate, Downs said she tries to imagine how she would feel if it was her in that situation.

“I just try to imagine it to the best of my abilities, and I just go for it,” Downs said. “I just can’t think to myself ‘will they think it’s real? will they actually buy it?’ Because, at the core, that’s what acting is.”

Though the stories are difficult to tell, Hinojosa said it’s important for them to be heard.

“I think it’s so empowering for women to have monologues that are about us, by us, from all different types of perspectives — trans women, queer women, lesbian women, straight women,” she said. “I just think it’s kind of rare to see things like that.”

Eve Ensler, who writes the monologues, releases new pieces every year. However, this university’s production performs a few staple pieces year after year because people come back to see them, said director Amber Ebanks.

“We’ve also tried to add more LGBT-inclusive pieces, more pieces that highlight Muslim women or Latinx women or women of different nationalities and ethnicities and races so that the audience sees themselves in the pieces more,” said Ebanks, a senior multiplatform journalism major.

The Vagina Monologues in its entirety consists of more than 30 monologues, said Ebanks, who co-directs with junior English major Sarah Schurman. There are 13 members of this university’s chapter, so not every available monologue gets used. Each year, Ensler releases a new spotlight piece that highlights a certain area where there’s violence, like Rwanda, Bosnia and the Native American community, according to Ebanks.

“I just love that there was a production that could really shine all those women’s voices out there who may have been silent before, but now they aren’t,” Downs said.

The Vagina Monologues will be held April 2 at 2 p.m. in Stamp’s Hoff Theater. Tickets are $5 for students and $7 for non-students with proceeds going to this university’s CARE office. There will be a box for donations of feminine care products.

Featured Photo Credit: Vagina Monologues director Amber Ebanks runs individual rehearsals each week, helping Briana Downs work on her monologue in an empty classroom in the Art and Sociology Building. (Naomi Harris/Blog Reporter)

Maya Pottiger is a senior journalism major and can be reached at mpottige@terpmail.umd.edu. 

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