Some of the many questions and concerns raised by the recent onslaught of news regarding sexual abuse and harassment are at the forefront of Anna Ziegler’s Actually, which opened last Tuesday at the Manhattan Theatre Club in a production directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz. In the play, theatergoers are taken to the college campus, that oft-assumed and -invoked center of our country’s sexual assault epidemic. The piece has promise, but Ziegler’s questionable racial troping and the limited psychological scope of the characters are the fatal flaws of the production, distracting from instead of deepening fundamental questions about the nature of consent and desire.
At the top of the play, two Princeton freshmen, an African-American man named Tom (Joshua Boone) and a white Jewish woman named Amber (Alexandra Socha), are hanging out together on the quad, lingering outside a raucous party. The two get drunk and end up in bed. Shortly thereafter, Amber files a campus misconduct complaint against Tom, alleging that their encounter was not completely consensual. While they were having sex, she recalls, he started getting rough. She says she interrupted him, jumped out of bed, and said, “Actually…,” but he pulled her back in. Tom denies the charge and is forced to face a disciplinary panel, which will decide, on a preponderance of the evidence, whether Tom or his alleged victim is telling the truth.
The students are the only characters in the play, although they interact very little onstage, spending most of the ninety-minute runtime trading monologue sessions with the audience. The set (by Adam Rigg) is simple, just two chairs set atop a plush carpet. The costumes (by Paloma Young) are realistic, with the actors dressed in college casualwear: jeans and a T-shirt or sweater. As the play progresses, we flip back and forward in time, shifts that are demarcated by changes in the lighting (by Yi Zhao) and the sound (by Jane Shaw). The college quad is dimly lit, and there is dance music playing softly. In the daytime scenes, the lighting is neutral, with little audible background noise; in the moments narrated from the disciplinary hearing, the lighting is harsh and bright, and we hear a faint fluorescent hum.
The most successful junctures of Actually are the ones in which Ziegler delivers on the play’s promise to delve into the ambiguities of sexual violence. In such moments, she pushes her characters to interrogate their own assumptions and uncertainties about what transpired. “If she wasn’t into it at some point…well, then my body, my brain, convinced me she was,” says Tom toward the end, struggling to find the words. “I wasn’t knowingly … I didn’t do anything knowingly … I know that.” “Why would I have asked him to stop?” Amber wonders in turn, uncertainty in her voice. “You were into it at first.… And I really think about this. This zone of wanting something and not wanting it at the same time.” The volume of doubt evoked in these lines — how can we distinguish what’s consensual if we can’t figure out what we want? How do we reckon with the parts of ourselves that have the capacity to do harm? — is provocative and engaging, but Ziegler doesn’t go far enough. She stops short of truly drawing out the characters’ competing, conflicted internal narratives.
Instead, her protagonists spend most of their time rehashing their pasts. The night of the alleged assault, Tom learns his mom has cancer. Then his best friend, Sunil, tries to kiss him for the second time, which makes Tom so angry he smashes Sunil’s violin. These developments leave the audience with the dubious, overplayed assumption that Tom was subsequently driven to sexual aggression to release his emotional demons or prove his masculinity. Amber, meanwhile, is the Jewish girl with a “hot” friend who Tom finds attractive, leaving Amber predictably anxious about proving that she’s just as cool and worthy of desire. We learn, too, about Tom and Amber’s childhoods and their relationships with their parents. By opening with the alleged assault and then rewinding into the past, Ziegler in effect structures the play as an explanation for the events of that night. Though well intended, it’s a narrative concept that reduces the actions of the alleged perpetrator and survivor to their respective misfortunes and personality traits. People don’t rape because they’ve gotten bad news about a sick family member; there are broader social forces that shape men and women into being.
Ziegler’s use of humor also does a great disservice here. The playwright resorts to comedy to resolve some of the most emotionally charged beats, squandering opportunities to let the audience sit with the uncomfortable reality of trauma. Amber, as performed by Alexandra Socha, is also especially lacking in emotional range, a fault that lies at least partially in the script. The character’s distress at the assault emerges only at the end of the play, at which point the transition from her self-deprecating, sarcastic self to her wounded one lands as awkward and jarring. (Given that the action unfolds as a flashback, why don’t we confront this pain earlier on?) Nor is Amber given genuine complexity as a survivor: We hardly see her shame, her fear, her anger, or her self-blame. Instead, we listen as she tells us about a high-school sexual encounter or jokes about how her squash playing got her into Princeton. Aside from one or two vivid gestures, Ziegler and Socha don’t capitalize on their medium’s innate potential for scrutinizing the manifestations of trauma through real-time displays of body language — like, for instance, how willing (or unwilling) Amber might be to take up space in a given room.
Moreover, on a procedural level, Ziegler’s depiction of the disciplinary panels worryingly plays into now-mainstream assumptions about these investigations. Amber’s “hot” friend, Heather, essentially convinces her that she was raped (“[Heather’s] very definite about things, so she’s just like: ‘If he raped you, he raped you, okay?’ And I’m like, ‘Okay!’”), which triggers the investigation — as though women file these complaints casually, when the reality is that they’re often plagued by self-doubt and -blame. There’s no real sense of Amber’s fears about the reporting, what might happen if she’s not believed, or how she feels about confronting her alleged rapist.
Conversely, we definitely get the sense that the panel’s decision is a difficult choice, a toss-up, one that might even destroy Tom’s life. (Early on, he learns that “preponderance of the evidence” means “fifty percent plus a feather,” and, as the play closes, a feather falls onto the stage.) It’s true that disciplinary panels don’t provide alleged perpetrators with the same protections or due process rights they’d have in court, but they are also emotionally draining for survivors and sometimes result in a mere slap on the wrist for those found to have committed harm. President Obama actually put the preponderance of the evidence standard in place in 2011 after determining that schools weren’t adequately enforcing Title IX provisions. But this September, after meeting with students who said they’d been unfairly punished, Trump’s Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, rolled back that decision, a move that horrified women’s rights groups and underlined the current administration’s seeming disregard for survivors. Clearly, the issues raised in the play could not be more relevant, yet Ziegler doesn’t tell a sufficiently complicated or nuanced story about how social power is exerted through disciplinary processes, or what it means to navigate them as a complainant.
Actually’s greatest flaw, though, is Ziegler’s clumsy and crude effort to tell this story through the prism of race. Tom is basically an amalgamation of stereotypical Black traits: His dad left when he was a kid, so he grew up with a single mom; he’s poor; he’s homophobic (“When [Sunil] kisses me I am more shocked and repulsed and freaked out than I’ve ever been in my entire life”); he wants to control women (“Some guys get off on a girl being aggressive, but for me it’s the other way around”); he even likes waffles. Perhaps most disturbingly, given the historical roots of the idea, is that he’s cast as hypersexual, sleeping with a different woman every night and encouraging Sunil to do the same (“These girls are just there for the picking,” he says). Amber, for her part, exudes a kind of well-trodden white innocence: She’s sexually naïve, awkward, and nervous. Her late father was the only one who listened to her. Both characters briefly address the reality of race, but only as a factor external to the assault itself. Amber, for example, wonders whether Tom will get a fair hearing, but not about how his Blackness might have shaped her memories or sense of harm.
In casting a masculine black hypersexuality against a feminine white innocence, Ziegler not only plays into dangerous myths about the nature of sexual violence, she also enables her mostly white viewers to distance themselves from what’s happening onstage. The show becomes “about race” in the most facile sense, while the systemic and institutional forces that continue to drive rape culture remain all but invisible, as does our own complicity in this epidemic. Instead of drawing us closer to the texture of its violence, inspiring us to reckon with our own memories and fantasies and fears, or complicating implicit questions of power and desire, Actually promotes a distance between the viewer and what’s playing out onstage, relying on reductive racial troping and substantial affective shortcomings. In the end, it falls short in addressing its subject — which is, admittedly, a tall order.