eliza berkon is a features writer and musician based in washington d.c. 

Theater J’s New Play ‘Actually’ Throws Audiences Into The Murky Waters Of College Sexual Assault

“We’re living in this moment where a lot of men are re-evaluating the ways that they might have been involved in or committed sexual assault,” says Jaysen Wright.

In Theater J’s production of Actually, Wright plays Tom, a seemingly bro-y but acutely sensitive freshman perilously trying to find his way at Princeton. There he meets Amber, a hyper-chatty student who also has no clue how to make it through her freshman year without excessive amounts of alcohol and navel-gazing. Running through November 18 at Arena Stage (due to a renovation at Theater J), the play paints a disturbing portrait of contemporary college life—including a culture that, however unwittingly, enables sexual assault.

The play by Anna Ziegler—which debuted last year at theaters in Massachusetts and Los Angeles, followed by a run in New York City—is in every way written for the moment. The script is brainy and millennial-oriented, full of references to pop culture and provocative descriptions of sexual activity. And its timing, given recent events, seems prophetic.

During the rehearsal period, the nation was captivated by the confirmation hearings of then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, accused of sexual assault in intense testimony from Christine Blasey Ford. The real-life backdrop of a he-said, she-said story unfolding before them provided a “spark” igniting the rehearsal space, says Actually director Johanna Gruenhut.

“The responsibility that the actors feel to present two sides of a story where both people are telling their version of truth became very important,” Gruenhut says.

Over the course of the play, Tom and Amber revisit their own hearing. As a result of the Obama-era crackdown on campus sexual assault through the enforcement of Title IX, college campuses have developed procedures for handling claims of sexual assault, a process that critics say sacrifices due process in an effort to protect accusers. As the Trump administration moves to revise the rules in real time, the audience at Actually on opening night last week watched a hearing play out that certainly felt authentic and timely.

“We are all very aware of the moment that we’re in, and the moment that we’ve been in for the last couple of years, with a real influx of folks sharing their stories, of the #MeToo movement, of a real push to have survivors listened to and believed in a way that they haven’t always been,” says Sylvia Kates, 29, who plays Amber. “But the thing that I think is the most universal and timely and always important thing about this play is that it is dealing with a gray area; it is dealing with consent.”

But the play is not solely focused on a what-happened-that-night scenario. Both characters openly battle with their own neuroses and mutual desire for acceptance throughout the show. With nothing but two wooden desks on a platform topped with a school blackboard (on which the word “Actually” faintly appears), Tom and Amber break the fourth wall to share their past experiences and internal narratives with the audience, including the struggle to survive as brand-new college students.

“It rings true to me, and I think it rings true to a lot of people who I’ve talked to about their college experiences,” says Wright, 31, noting that students in their first year of college are only a few months out of their childhood. “There’s a lot of insecurity; there’s a lot of rushing to fit in. And there’s a lot of self-medicating.”

Ziegler seems highly aware of the many reasons college students drink, including fear. In the show, Amber says she drinks not only because of a social expectation or to escape a heavy course load, but also to avoid thinking about who she really is. In 2015, nearly 38 percent of college students reported engaging in binge drinking (defined by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism as consuming approximately five drinks for men and four for women in a two-hour time frame) in the prior month.

In addition to the tough-to-talk-about topics of binge drinking and sexual assault, Actually also puts race and inequality front and center.

Tom is a young African-American man who frequently mentions the obstacles he has faced (in scenes both comical and heart-wrenching) because of his skin color. Amber, who is white and Jewish, makes several awkward comments about the race of her fellow student, eliciting palpable discomfort from the audience.

Wright says that black men are viewed as “dangerous weapons,” especially in the context of the events surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement.

“In the rehearsal room, we talk about all these things. I talk about how nervous I was about portraying a young black man who’s accused of sexual assault,” Wright says. “I was just like, ‘Is this the time, is this the moment to be having this conversation? To be wading into the really muddy issues of consent?’ But it feels like that’s what great theater’s supposed to do—it’s supposed to make us question and clarify what we believe.”

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