By Suma Nagaraj
The South Asian Sisters, a diverse collective of South Asian women playwrights and performers in the Bay Area, proudly presented their ninth edition of Yoni Ki Baat, loosely inspired by Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues, on March 9th and 10, at the Women’s Building in San Francisco. Told from a South Asian cultural perspective, this year’s series of 16 monologues unabashedly addressed taboo topics like the female anatomy and all the associated stigma that come with being a woman. Rich in variety, tone and voice, this evening of stories, by women and of women but for an audience of all, kept much of its promise of delivering belly laughs.
The litany of topics Yoni Ki Baat 2013 covered ranged from menstruation (Bleed, Late), sexuality and its many concerns (A Hobbled Hump, Supreme C, Secondary Yonismus, Get Us Off, Scare, We Stand Nowhere) cultural identity and gender stereotyping (Brown Woman’s Burden, Us & Them), and body and vanity issues (Slashed Away, Disproportion, An Affliction), among others.
While this year’s edition was titled Yoni Ki Laughs, the humor shone through more in the not-so-much-hilarious-as-poignant pieces like Us & Them, about the clash of cultural identities for “FOB” (Fresh Off the Boat, as it were) South Asians on western terra firma, written and performed by Sharmistha Majumdar. This subtle satirical take on the sometimes-insensitive stereotyping that South Asians have to endure also deftly addressed the retaliatory stereotyping of non-South Asians with gentle humor and wit. Radhika Rao’s tragicomic take on intimacy issues in Secondary Yonismus, a plea to a painful affliction that is threatening to tear her marriage apart, was particularly inspired. Blessed with an incredibly expressive face, Rao, in faux-conversation with her vagina, was by turns agog, playful, petulant, conspiratorial and wicked.
Monisha Gangopadhyay’s spirited portrayal of a middle-aged woman with weight issues in A Hobbled Hump (written by Shalini Gogia), of a woman scrambling with performance anxiety that dating a younger man brings with it, had the right mix of self-deprecation and feminine wisdom. Purva Dandona’s heartfelt performance of a brown-skinned woman and the many compromises she (and her parents) have to make because of her skin color in Brown Woman’s Burden was another noteworthy piece.
The standout piece/performance of the evening, however, was Pallavi Somusetty’s in Disproportion. Having written it herself, Disproportion gave Somusetty ample room to exercise her histrionics and improv abilities. Addressing several issues from body image to dealing with familial and societal intrusions on private matters like pregnancy and miscarriage, Somusetty gave a tour-de-force performance as a woman comfortable in her own skin, while convincingly employing a wide range of emotions and interacting with the audience. “Participating in Yoni Ki Baat was life-transforming. I wrote my monologue because I felt alone in my experience at a time when I needed an outlet. Workshopping it and rehearsing it with a supportive cast really helped me to process my pain fully, and performing it helped me to connect with a larger audience so that I could feel less isolated. The theme of humor threw me off at first, because how do you make a miscarriage funny? So that was not my intention when I first started writing, but after I let the chips fall, it turned out that my story was actually quite a bit funny, and now I believe that humor has helped me work through my grief. It felt humbling but at the same time validating to have both women and men come speak to me afterwards about how they felt about my piece, and how they were able to relate. One woman showed me her belly fat, another man cried to my face”, Somusetty says.
Leena Kamat, playwright, actor and organizer, closed the night with a precocious rendering of a 10-year-old’s first contact with a sanitary towel in Let in Bleed!, which became a war-cry of sorts as the evening came to an end. Kamat wrote in to say: “16 women with a range of backgrounds, values, sizes, and colors, all of South Asian descent, came together on stage to a packed and diverse audience – and made them laugh their asses off and think at the same time. That to me is amazing and groundbreaking!”
It’s not only about artistic pursuits for the South Asian Sisters, though – this bunch of yonis, if you will, is all heart. Not only is this rag-tag ensemble of talented women lending its voice to the feminist movement, the group has also raised and donated over $11,500 to organizations that are working against domestic violence like Narika, Maitri, and the Asian Women’s shelter in the Bay Area.
If you’re interested in collaborating with the South Asian Sisters for future stagings, and to know about their upcoming shows and plans, you can contact them here: firstname.lastname@example.org. And yes, do not miss the next edition of Yoni Ki Baat!
Suma Nagaraj is pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of San Francisco, is the blog editor for Works by Women SF, research assistant to Christine Young and a slave to the written word – be it any kind, length, style and format. She is currently working on a book of short stories.
Images courtesy the Yoni Ki Baat team