Saturday, October 13, 2018

Actually (‘Live’ at San Diego Repertory Theatre, October-November 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I were offered tickets to the latest play at the San Diego Repertory Theatre, Actually, written by Anna Ziegler and directed by Jesca Prudencio, and we went. The Rep lucked out by producing this play when they did because its subject is sex between drunken college students and the repercussions therefrom, specifically the “hearing” Princeton University puts on between the woman student and the male student she’s accusing of raping her in his dorm room after a big party in which both got smashed on keg beer and stronger alcoholic beverages from a flask she was carrying around to be cool. The Rep outfitted their lobby with an art exhibit consisting of works mostly by college students revolving around the whole idea of sexual consent and how it applies to people in real-world situations — though most of the paintings were pretty grim and just reinforced the play’s depiction of a world in which sex is seen not as liberating, but as a ritual men enforce on women and women have to deal with in some way. It’s also a grim depiction of the extra-legal processes by which universities enforce codes of sexual conduct between students in ways that are far looser, more punitive and less due-process oriented than official legal proceedings. For one thing, there are no judges or juries, just one or more “impartial investigators” who combine the function of police, prosecutors and judges in the real legal system. For another, the standard of proof required to find a student guilty of sexual assault is a mere “preponderance of evidence” — i.e., “more likely than not” — which the male student being accused in the play describes as a feather landing on one side of an otherwise equally balanced and heavily weighted scale. (The last thing that happens in the play, at least in the Rep’s production of it — I haven’t read Ziegler’s script so I don’t know if she specified this ending — is a feather floats down from the rafters to the stage.) Actually is a two-character play in which white freshman Amber Cohen (Emily Shain) and Black freshman Thomas Anthony (DeLeon Dallas) are summoned to a college disciplinary board because Amber told her friend Heather that Thomas raped her after a drunken frat party, and Heather told the residential assistant (RA) of her dorm, who in turn reported the incident to campus authorities, who according to university policy convened a three-person fact-finding committee to hear from both Amber and Thomas and decide whether he did indeed force himself on her against her will. The play’s title comes from the fact that at one point, during a sexual encounter that both parties agree at least began consensually, Amber said, “Actually … ,” which could have been meant as a signal for Thomas to back off and not be so rough with her or as a sign that she wanted the sex to stop even though she didn’t actually say “No.”

The play is obviously timely — Ziegler wrote it in 2017 at the beginnings of the “#MeToo” movement and its basic situation of two people arguing before a group of unseen officials about a sexual experience between them that may or may not have been a sexual assault — couldn’t help but remind audience members (this one, anyway) of the recent Senate Judiciary Committee hearing between Supreme Court nominee (and now Justice) Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, who said that 36 years ago, when he was 17 and she was 15, he attempted to rape her at a drunken party — especially when Amber complains in a monologue addressed directly to the audience (Ziegler sometimes has the characters re-enacting whatever happened on the night of the party, sometimes has them talking to the panel, and sometimes has them talking to us directly about the experience, and she manages the transitions a lot more seamlessly than other playwrights who’ve used this device) that the people on the supposedly “impartial” panel seemed to have made up their minds already as to what happened and their actual testimony was just a pro forma exercise they had to go through to check off the box that that part of their process had been completed. In other respects the situations are clearly different — notably in that Thomas is being held to account for his actions (whatever they were) soon after the fact instead of 3 ½ decades later. What I found strongest about Actually is the play’s calculated ambiguity — Ziegler doesn’t spell out for us what she thinks happened but leaves us to try to figure out for ourselves whether what happened to Anna constituted consensual sex gone wrong or out-and-out rape. If there’s one thing I didn’t like about the Rep’s challenging production of Actually it’s that they ended it conventionally, with the actors taking bows on stage and the audience applauding and going home, because if ever a show demanded the chance for a post-performance audience discussion, this is it! Indeed, if I were producing the show I’d be tempted to hand the audience ballots at the beginning inviting them to vote on whether Anna was raped or not, and it would be interesting to count the ballots after each performance and see how each audience skewed on the play’s central issue.

Actually seems particularly strong to me in dramatizing what I call “consent” — in quotes. As I’ve watched the #MeToo movement unfold I’ve been struck by the difference between consent and “consent” — between sex between two people who both genuinely want the experience for the pleasures (physical, emotional, or both) it provides and situations in which one person psychologically forces the other to have sex and the other person “consents” because at that moment it’s easier to say yes and go through with it than to say no and try to fight the other person off. (I think that the sexual encounter between Donald Trump and Stephanie “Stormy Daniels” Clifford, as she described it on 60 Minutes, is an example of what I call in-quotes “consent” — as a socially and sexually experienced woman, she realized she’d made a mistake she shouldn’t have, letting a sexually exploitative man get her alone with him in a hotel room with the lure of a role on a TV show, and she felt in that moment she’d have an easier time getting out of the situation by going through with it, having sex with him and getting it over with, than she would have by trying to escape from the room.) I know I’ve pressured other men to have sex with me when they technically “consented” but they really didn’t want to, and I’ve been in situations on the other end of that dynamic as well. (One of the perspectives being Gay gives you on this experience is to be on both ends of the power dynamic that among straight people usually traps men on the dominant side and women on the submissive.) Actually also reinforces my belief that a lot of the revelations of “#MeToo” complainants are coming from women rerunning the memory tapes of previous experiences in a new and harsher, more revealing light: things they might have accepted as “par for the course” in male-female relations when they happened, they remember now and realize, “Hey! I was sexually assaulted! That wasn’t just innocent horseplay; that was attempted rape!” (That’s what I think the dynamic between Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford was: I’m sure her account of the incident is dead-on accurate to the best of her recollection; I also think that Kavanaugh experienced it at the time as “no big deal,” just him and his friends indulging themselves on a piece of anonymous meat, laughing all the while because they thought of themselves as part of the “elite” and therefore they would never be held to account for anything they did, and he was stunned at this woman coming from that far back in his past throwing his high-school hijinks back at him and calling them “attempted rape.”)

The play’s climax (a bad word choice) occurs when Amber recalls that at one point she left Thomas’s bed and he pulled her back in — which certainly shifts the scales away from consent and towards rape — which he at first insists did not happen and then he retreats into “I was drunk … I don’t remember.” The Rep’s production of Actually is excellent, especially in the casting — Emily Shane is not especially attractive but is personable and cute, as the role requires, and DeLeon Dallas has a kind of heavy-set hunkiness that’s also not conventionally attractive but one would see why a naïve young white girl whose only previous experiences of sex had not been especially pleasant would be drawn to him — especially since even in the post-Obama era there’s still a “forbidden fruit” aura around Black men and there are lingering traces of the stereotype of Black men as uncontrollable sex maniacs who will stick their oversized cocks into anything that will get them off. There’s a major significance, I think, in that out of all the male sexual predators who’ve been exposed in recent years, the one who’s been punished most severely — not only disgraced and fired but actually imprisoned — is Bill Cosby; I’m not denying the justice of the case against him but I do think there’s an element of racism in how he was treated more harshly, I think, than a white man accused of the same conduct would have been. Actually runs through November 4 at the Lyceum Space Theatre in Horton Plaza downtown, and it’s oddly sharing the theatre with a quite different and far campier show, The Addams Family, in the Lyceum Stage — and the merch table for The Addams Family sits oddly side by side with all those dire artworks being exhibited in connection with Actually!