Vagina Warrior

Jon Imparato

“I have no idea who you are or what you do."

I wonder if she can hear how nervous I am. “Yes, I know… I also know everyone in LA wants to produce the West Coast premiere of your play. I understand you would be taking a big chance on us, on me. I promise you, our new building is magical, and we would be honored to have your show. I need to be upfront about something. We don’t really have a stage or stage lights.”

“Oh, don’t worry about that. I can do this play in a barn.”

I became very excited and said, “Well, we do have a twenty-five-foot barn ceiling with a pretty decent sound system.”

Much to my surprise, she said, “I always trust my gut, and for some reason, this feels right.”

My heart felt shivers. “Eve, I can’t tell you what it would mean to have you in our theater.”

The show was Eve Ensler’s (now known as V) Obie Award-winning, one-woman play, The Vagina Monologues, which had opened off-Broadway two years before. It was now 1998, and everyone had been waiting for this play to hit Los Angeles.

We started talking about dates, and she mentioned the third week in October.

I stood up from my desk and began pacing in my office, stretching the phone cord like a rubber band. I was thinking, Can I really go there?

“Eve, is there any way we can open the following week?”

“Oh, do you have something booked?”

The phone cord snapped back and shocked me as I moved back to my desk chair. “Well, no…actually…the Yankees are in the World Series, and I will be out of my mind and a nervous wreck that week.”

I couldn’t believe I had the unmitigated gall to say this! I couldn’t help myself. Baseball is my other passion in life. One of the ways I feel most connected to the gods is when I walk into a baseball stadium and see an empty field. There is something about all that green grass, those four perfect bases that are snow-white against the dirt. I get such a rush from the anticipation of what will happen when the men take the field. I often must hold back tears.

Eve just laughed when I mentioned the World Series.

This was the first time I heard that laugh. Her laugh seems to rise from someplace deep inside and take her entire body by surprise.

“Are you really telling me those dates don’t work because of the World Series?”

I fumbled a bit. “Yes, but of course, if those are the only dates that work for you, I will make it work. I really want your show more than…."

“No, no, this makes me like you. I like your passion, and you sound a bit insane, and I like that as well. Let me ask you something—couldn’t they win four games in a row, and then we would be fine?”

“Well, actually, in ninety-one years of Major League Baseball, this has only happened seven times. The odds are not good.”

She said with such confidence, “I say we go with the original dates. Don’t you worry; they will win four games in a row. Trust me, it will happen.”

We got off the phone, and I thought, she knows nothing about baseball and how hard a four-game sweep is. I will just have to go on a media blackout and watch the games when I get home.

When the Yankees won two games in a row, I started to think, is this going to happen? Then game three was a close call, but we beat the San Diego Padres five to four. When we won game four, I shouted to the TV, “Eve Ensler, did you make this happen?”

***

When Eve got to town, our CEO planned a lunch for her with a few of our donors. I was nervous about using up the time because she hadn’t even seen the theater yet.

At one point, Eve grabbed my hand and said, “You are so nervous. Don’t be. You have entered Vagina World, and magical things will happen.”

 I had only a slight idea of what she meant. By this point, I was totally in awe of her. I sat nervously and watched her captivate everyone with her charm and illuminating spirit.

A few hours later, Eve followed me in a huge white car from the restaurant to The Village at Ed Gould Plaza, the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center’s new community center.

The car may have been a Cadillac. (I have zero knowledge of cars.) When we both arrived in the parking lot, I had a chance to get a better look at the huge vehicle she was driving. It was pearl white with a ginormous red leather back seat that looked like it could seat six.

“Eve, where did you get this car?”

She laughed that laugh. “Isn’t this bizarre? It’s like driving a boat. This is all the rental company had left. They gave me a big discount.”

When we entered The Village’s courtyard, Eve was taken by the lush landscaping and the vibe of so many people gathered at tables, going in and out of meetings. I gave her a brief tour of the building and was beaming with pride that I had a key role in running this history-making new building. When we walked back into the courtyard, Eve said, “Oh my God, I have entered Gay and Lesbian Happy Land!”

As I escorted her into the theater, up until now just a film screening room, I worried about how bare bones it was.

She looked up at the 25-foot wooden barn ceiling. “Oh, this is beautiful, but you weren’t kidding. This is really a barn. I love the ceiling. Is there any chance you can borrow a follow spot? That might help. Is there any way at least to focus those ‘seventies track lights on the stage?”

“Jeez, Eve, we would need a twenty-five-foot ladder, and there is no catwalk. The ladder would have to rest on one of those thin beams.”

She took my hand again. “Don’t worry, I said I could do the show in a barn, and we will make it work. But you’ve entered Vagina World, and I’m sure you will figure it out. Just let things come your way. I’m going to run a bit of the show now and feel the space.”

Why do I want to sit quietly beside her for days on end and listen while she speaks?

I walked up to my office to make sure I took care of everything in her contract. I couldn’t disappoint her. She wasn’t at all demanding, and that made me want to please her even more.

When I walked into our office, several staff members bombarded me with questions. "Is she here?" "Can I meet her?" "What's she like?"

“She is amazing, but not now. She is running the show. I’m on a mission to find a follow spot and someone who can operate a follow spot.”

One of my staff, Jenna, a hearty, enthusiastic, large, young lesbian, jumped up from her desk. “I’m a licensed follow spot operator. I’m in! I will do it! I’m so in!” Her wife owned a specialty bakery, and I’d already hired her to make a large cake shaped like a vagina for the big VIP closing-night party. I told her to go full-on Judy Chicago.

I found a place in Hollywood where I could rent a follow spot. When I got there, I saw a very old guy with skin that looked so cracked from the sun he looked twice baked. I explained what I needed as quickly as I could. (I talk fast; I’m a New Yorker.)

Wiping his hands on a greasy rag, he said. “Listen, mister, I have this old spot; I hardly ever rent it. It has six mediocre color changes, but you said your throw isn’t that far. Yeah, I think this will work. Let’s haul it into your car.”

“I have a convertible, so we can plop it in. How much will it cost?”

“Ahhhh, just take it and bring it back when you’re done.”

As I peeled away, I realized he never asked me for any information. He was so trusting it was like I was in Mayberry. I was starting to feel the magic.

When I saw Eve, I was so excited to tell her that we had a spot and a wonderful young lesbian follow-spot operator. Eve just smiled and said, “Good.”

“Excuse me, young lady. You could be more impressed.”

“Oh, for God’s sake, just accept where you’ve landed. You, my dear, are in Vagina World.”

I walked into the courtyard thinking, What in the world is happening to me?

As God is my judge, in front of the courtyard was a huge, thirty-foot truck with Stage Lighting written on the side in bright yellow letters.

I remembered that The Center was shooting a video for the opening of The Village. Many generous celebrities were donating their time to support The Center’s new building. I ran up to the truck, tapped on the window frantically, and with record speed, began to explain the situation. All I remember is the guy saying, “Look, kid, I have about an hour to kill; they are way behind. My partner is inside. Can we do it now?”

I jumped onto the footer on the truck. “Are you kidding? Yes…yes. You’re cool with climbing up that high? You will be safe, right?”

“I climb like a monkey, no biggie.”

The Village was only a few months old, and I was still getting familiar with how to turn this screening room into a real theater. I marveled at how effortlessly those two men climbed up that ladder with tons of equipment strapped to their tool belts. I picked up one of their tool belts and almost lost my balance.

When Eve arrived that day, I told her all about the track lighting. I told her I was going to put her on a large black box. We’d already decided that she would sit on a stool with a back and a cushioned seat. Now the audience could see her, even in the mezzanine. “Oh, guess what? We even have all the lights focused on stage right and left to give you sidelights.”

She eked out a smile. “Jon, you see, now you’re getting it.”

With both problems solved, I went back to my office to make sure I had done everything I could to make her comfortable. Her contract had no rider; I just wanted her to feel as welcomed as if she were staying for a year. I had water, coffee, tea, flowers, and fruit in her dressing room. I suddenly noticed something in her contract that I’d forgotten. It asked for her black dress to be steamed because it couldn’t be ironed. It was wrinkled from traveling, but we didn’t even have an iron yet. I walked back downstairs and into the courtyard to look for a steamer and thought Target would be my best bet. I kid you not, there was a woman pushing a large steamer on wheels across the pavement. It was for the celebrities’ wardrobe for the film shoot. Once again, I explained my situation to the woman with the steamer at an even speedier pace.

As I recall, she had the longest black braid that went down her spine and fingernails with various instruments painted on them.

“Here’s the deal,” she said. “The actors haven’t even arrived yet. If you can be quick, take it. I filled it with water, so just leave it plugged in for about five minutes. Don’t get too close to the dress. You need to keep the nozzle about a hand’s distance away. When you’re done, I’m in room 139.”

As I was steaming this black dress, I started to cry. I mumbled to myself, “I don’t want her to leave. Am I falling in love with her? I’m gay. I don’t want her to leave. What the fuck is happening to me?”

The steam rose so quickly it reminded me of Provincetown on a foggy morning. In a matter of seconds, you could be ensconced in fog. Tears were running down my face as I held this simple black dress. “Is she a witch? Did she cast a spell on me?”

Days later, when I told her about steaming her dress, Eve said, “Oh, honey, I’m a good witch, not a bad witch. It took you this long to figure it out.”

We both laughed and didn’t realize there would soon be another funny Wizard of Oz joke coming our way.

On closing night, it happened. I made the largest faux pas of my life. If I live to be a hundred, I will never make another faux pas like this.

I was on stage giving my curtain speech to welcome everyone and introduce Eve. I was beside myself, thinking, this is the next to last time I will get to introduce her.

“Ladies and the few gentlemen, I’m so proud to bring to you the Obie Award-winning, clitically acclaimed production of…."

There were maybe two beats as two hundred people burst out laughing, clapping, and cheering. The laughter rose to those twenty-five-foot ceilings like hundreds of lost balloons. In another second, the audience could see that my comment was not intentional; it had flown out of my mouth. It was not “me” trying to be witty at all.

Eve yelled from the wings, “May I always be referred to as the clitically acclaimed Eve Ensler!” To this day, she makes me tell that story.

The next day was Sunday, and after the matinee, she was leaving. I woke up feeling so sad. My heart felt like I was about to lose a new friend to fame and fortune. Honest to God, her leaving felt like a death. I was already grieving her absence.

After another glorious, sold-out show, I walked Eve to her car to help load her luggage. We sat in her car, which we now referred to as the Love Boat, and talked.

“Oh, Jon, I had these pins made that say Vagina Friendly. They’re part of my movement for V-Day (an annual event spotlighting violence against women). I just got them, and you are one of the most vagina-friendly men I know.” Then she pinned me. “Now, go be a vagina warrior.” Yes, pinned me. I felt like a schoolgirl...like Gidget.

The Santa Ana winds had kicked up like nothing I had ever seen before or since. The trees were doing a Twyla Tharp ballet before our eyes. Huge gusts of straw flew by the car every few minutes. We both yelled, “Auntie Em, Auntie Em.” The sky went dark, horror-movie dark, and then the sun would come out again. The winds even shook the Love Boat.

I told her everything I was feeling. I had no censor. I just needed to pour my heart out as quickly as I could. The sand in the hourglass was going down. She would soon be on her way back to my hometown. She grabbed my hand.

“All that’s happening is our souls have collided. We will be friends for life. You will create something special for your community. Do everything you can to build Gay and Lesbian Happy Land. I must figure out how to let go of the play. Someone wants to buy it, and that means I can’t perform it as a solo piece anymore.”

We talked about the play’s global impact and what it would mean to release her baby, her child, into this world. She knew what she had to do. The Vagina Monologues was the impetus for a global movement.

***

Many years later, I spent two weeks in Beijing, China, teaching acting and Theater 101. Many young women activists had read my bio. They didn’t care about the work I had done. All they wanted to know was, did I really know Eve Ensler?

“What is she like?” “Do you still talk to her?” They told me about their college productions of the play and what it meant to them.

A beautiful young woman named Daiyu with short-cropped hair that looked like she cut it herself wore a royal blue, floppy felt hat that had at least twenty pins all over it. Most of them were in Mandarin, but I recognized a few lesbian symbols, a pink triangle and one that said Girl Power. She seemed quite concerned and dragged me to an empty corridor on her campus.

She spoke decent English and said, “Jon, do you think Eve will be mad at me if she found out what I did to her play?”

“I don’t think so, but what did you do?”

“Well, I interviewed my relatives and wrote my own version about Chinese women whose lives span seventy years. What do you think? I love Eve so much. I never got permission.”

I flashed on sitting in the Love Boat with Eve, talking about letting the world create their own versions of The Vagina Monologues. Not until this moment did I really get it.

Daiyu tugged on my jacket sleeve. “Jon, what do you think?”

My mind left the Love Boat and returned to her.

“Oh no, I think she would love that. I really do. I will even tell her about it.”

She jumped up and hugged me so hard.

“Oh, you will? Thank you, thank you!”

As she walked to her class, I caught a glimpse of a pin on the side of her floppy hat. The pin said Vagina Friendly.


About the Author

Jon Imparato began his writing career with “Irrevocably Yours,” a fifteen-minute monologue performed live for the Pacific Dance Ensemble. Jon began working at the LGBT Center with homeless youth for ten years. For twenty-four years, Jon has served as the artistic director of the award-winning Lily Tomlin/Jane Wagner Cultural Arts at the Los Angeles LGBT Center. He was a recipient of the LA Stage Alliance Lifetime Achievement Award and has written comedy sketches with and for Lily Tomlin. The first essay from his book The Good Inside the Grief, You Had Me at Afghanistan was published in December at Wrath-Bearing Tree.