After being diagnosed with stage IV cancer, Buddhist playwright, performer, and activist Eve Ensler questioned—as many patients do—how it happened. “Was it tofu? I ate lot of f*cking tofu. Was it failing at marriage, twice? Was it Tab? Oh, my god, I drank so much Tab when I first got sober,” she asks in her latest play, In the Body of the World. She even considered whether her tumor was a kind of “cancer baby” formed from the stories of sexual trauma she had collected over the years in her work as a feminist activist.

Best-known for her 1994 project The Vagina Monologues, which was based on interviews conducted with dozens of women about their sexual experiences and abuse, Ensler returns to the topic of trauma, pain, and the female body in her latest production. The one-woman show, based off her 2013 memoir of the same name, presents the story of Ensler’s cancer diagnosis and treatment during a time when she was working alongside local women and international activists to build City of Joy, a safe haven, therapeutic center, and leadership training organization for female victims of violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Ensler draws connections between the individual female body and the “body of the Earth,” weaving international news stories and contemporary politics into the narrative of her unlikely recovery. All the while, she tells a highly personal tale of illness that takes on her complicated relationship with her family, praises the dedication of her friends and a stalwart therapist, and honors her love for her adopted son.

At the start of the play, Ensler describes her 2007 trip to eastern DRC at the invitation of Dr. Denis Mukwege, a gynecologist world-renowned for his work with tens of thousands of gang-rape victims from the country’s ongoing civil war. Ensler met scores of survivors, many of whom told her of brutal rapes, broken limbs, mutilated genitals, and murdered children. After such nightmares, the women wanted a refuge where they could live and heal, a community built by them and meant to serve them. The idea for City of Joy was born. Ensler began securing funding, and in 2009, under the supervision of Congolese human rights activist Christine “Mama C” Schuler Deschryver, construction began.

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Eve Ensler. Photo by Joan Marcus

Unfortunately, Ensler was diagnosed with cancer soon after, and she feared that she wouldn’t live to see the project’s completion. She corresponded with Mama C daily, and the two women encouraged and supported one another while refusing to acknowledge that Ensler might not live and that the “city” might never come to fruition—benevolent lies that gave them the energy to keep going. Ensler takes viewers through a tour of her many hospitalizations and treatments, but with a dose of humor, moving from her experiences with an extra-sexy colorectal surgeon at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, to her mistreatment at the hands of a callous doctor at Sloan Kettering in New York City. All the while, she manages to bring panache into a painful narrative, linking the traumas of her body and the bodies of her friends in the DRC to the environmental and social destruction playing out on the world stage.

Later on in the show, Ensler presents an episode when she had an extensive surgery to remove her uterus, ovaries, and parts of her rectum, colon, and vagina. She is fitted with two surgical drains and sent home to recover, but the pus-filled bag explodes, sending a putrid spray into her room. By coincidence, this happened on the same day as the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and she becomes obsessed with watching live coverage of the oil spill as it released millions of gallons of toxins into the sea. For her, the two events become entwined, both marked by a spreading poison.

Ensler’s attention to the symbolic moves In the Body of the World toward spiritual invocation as well. In another scene, while recovering from surgery at New York City’s Beth Israel Hospital, Ensler describes spending a week observing a tree outside her window. She tells the audience about her historical distaste for trees, the way they invoked the loneliness and alienation of her undergraduate years in Vermont, and her exuberance about her postgraduate move to New York City because of the city’s sparse foliage. After several days staring down the tree, however, her attitude begins to shift; she meditates on its trunk, its branches, and its leaves, and in doing so, finds a sense of communion between her body and that of the tree. In a psychedelic interlude during her treatment via chemotherapy, flames are projected onto the set as she prays to the bodhisattva Tara, mother of all buddhas, as well as Kali, the Hindu goddess of feminine energy and creativity, urging the two goddesses to purify her through their compassionate fires. This scene, one of the play’s many emotional junctures, takes on weight as the work unfolds and Ensler reveals the extent of the divide between herself and her own negligent, “unreachable” mother.

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Eve Ensler performs In the Body of the World. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Throughout, Ensler heads off critics who might accuse her of somatizing what she’s witnessed, reminding viewers not only of the ways our bodies are tied to external environment but also the ways we internalize ongoing political and social upheaval in the United States. She asks: what is the non-hysterical response to childhood abuse and molestation, the murders of black children by police, 800,000 DREAMers threatened with deportation, the ongoing ruin of our environment, and “America’s orange predator-in-chief?”

“Hysteria is a word designed to make women feel crazy for knowing what they know,” she says, reminding the audience of the term’s etymology from the Greek word hysterika, or uterus. But Ensler suggests that disregard for the traumas of others is the true insanity at hand. In the Body of the World refuses to look away from women’s suffering, and in Ensler’s telling there is some hope to be found in moments of contact—the contact between one woman and another, between friends, between mother and child, and between all beings and the body of the Earth.

Eve Ensler’s In the Body of the World runs Tuesday through Sunday until March 25 at New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street (between Sixth & Seventh Avenues) New York, NY 10019. For single ticket sales, call CityTix at (212) 581-1212; for group ticket sales, call (212) 399-3000 x4132.

Related: Death and Dying: The Great Matter

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