Last night I had the pleasure of attending the University of Maryland At College Park’s production of the Israeli Stage’s provocative one-woman play, or staged reading, Fertile. Written by Yakir Vaknin, and based on the life of his colleague, fellow playwright, Zohar Meidan, it was staged, in an American translation by Natalie Feinstein, by Guy Ben-Aharon, Founder and Artistic Director, of Israeli Stage. The actor was Ramona Alexander, who presented a tour-de-force of multiple characters swirling around the play’s main issue of female fertility and its profound impact, whether present or absent, in the lives of all women.
The translation, and Ms. Alexander’s passionate performance, made the play very accessible to an American audience. The show was originally produced in Boston, where one of my non-profit boards, Keshet, the national Jewish LGBT education and advocacy organization, played a part during one performance. That Keshet was involved was not surprising, since the play can be read in many ways, including providing multiple discourses on sexuality and gender. The actor, by playing the roles of men and women, parent and sibling, girlfriends and boyfriends, over the course of the young woman protagonist’s life, elucidates the way some fundamental aspects of human sexuality impact each individual and her surroundings profoundly.
The play is about an infertile woman. That, in itself, is enough information for many audiences, because particularly in Israel, fertility is taken quite seriously. Whether because of a desire to fulfill the Eleventh Commandment and replenish the Jewish nation, or for religious reasons, or peer pressure, having children in Israel has a very potent resonance throughout most of its subcultures. It’s less pronounced here, but with the arrival of fascists in the White House and the broadcast of Margaret Atwood’s, The Handmaid’s Tale, in April, that may change.
The play, though, delves more deeply. Zohar is shown early on at the gynecologist’s office as a teen where she is being evaluated for having been born without a uterus. She’s congenitally infertile, and must live with that reality from early youth, rather than discovering it as a young woman unable to get pregnant, which is the much more common scenario. Such knowledge impacts all her life, in particular her relationships with her mother and sister, as well as girlfriends who are all getting their periods, while she’s just pretending.
The play doesn’t delve into her condition more deeply, but the most common cause of a girl not having a uterus (and fallopian tubes and ovaries, as we learn later, but having a (partial) vagina), is AIS, or Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome. This is a not uncommon condition, presenting in a spectrum of forms, where a male, XY fetus, with testosterone-producing testicles, does not produce the hormone receptors for the signaling to occur. These infants are raised as girls because of the presence of a vagina (female is the human default mode, and other intrauterine hormones have a role in the lack of the other reproductive organs) and a female gender identity. Their bodies develop fully in a female manner, so it is a shock to patient and family when the lack of menses is discovered to be caused by AIS. They are women with testes and without female reproductive organs, confounding religious Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike, as well as some varieties of lesbian feminists and the willfully ignorant everywhere.
The play did not go into what it is like for a young woman to be told she has a Y chromosome and male genes. The conflicts shown in the play leave that aspect out, and just tackle the issues a young, amenorrhoeic woman would confront, and her conflict at telling her potential partners that she’s barren (an old Biblical term used throughout the play). I related to the story in a particularly mirrored manner, as I was raised as a boy who had her period unbeknownst to herself, her parents and doctor, rather than the girl in the play who didn’t have her period. I had a partial uterus, and she had none. Nature overwhelms us with diversity, and society makes it very difficult to live with it.
This play, then, deals with an intersex woman. She has no problems with her gender identity or expression, but extrapolating a bit she must have had some conflict when told she has a male chromosome and functioning testicles. Intersex persons come in may different types - Caster Semenya, the gold medal sprinter from South Africa, is another example - and transgender is one of the subtypes which today is much better known that the other variations. At the end of the day, however, all intersex persons must deal with the difference between their sex, sexuality, and gender, and that of their peers and the expectations of their societies. Ramona beautifully explored the emotions that engulf such a human being, and her particular condition is ultimately beside the point. Zohar is, in many ways, everywoman, since no one is an ideal woman or man, and no one can compete with the ideal standards of society. This play, while focusing on one woman’s story, tells us some universal truths.