Theater Review: “Back the Night” — A Strong Play about Sexual Assault on Campus
No one I know is neutral about this kind of material and I was pleased to watch a play that did not shrink from its many complexities and challenges.
Back the Night by Melinda Lopez. Directed by Daniela Varon. Staged by the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, 949 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, MA, through February 28.
By Helen Epstein
The backdrop is a pleasing collage of shapes evoking academe: a dormitory building; a clock tower; the pediment of a fraternity house featuring three Greek letters: Alpha, Delta, Theta. At center stage a dorm bed, chair, and desk are the only props, as Em, a senior, sits at her computer, her face lit up by the glow of the screen. Bells chime the late hour at an exclusive private college campus, garnished with autumn leaves.
Then, Em’s room-mate and their best friend burst in, the room-mate holding a handkerchief to her bloody head. Cassie is a passionate anti-violence blogger, who keeps a close eye on the town’s police records and documents sexual assaults on campus. Sean, their gay male friend who is concerned with his own safety in the dorms, informs Em that this time Cassie herself has been assaulted.
This scenario has become distressingly more frequent both at colleges and throughout American society in recent months: the aftermath showcases the varied reactions of friends; the victim’s decision to report or not to report; the questioning of the complainant; the contingencies of social context; the various responses of interlocutors – sympathy, doubt, denial; the way personal agendas and institutional priorities intersect with personal agendas; the question of how sexual violence complicates visions of women’s rights and desires.
Playwright Melinda Lopez is intrepid in her determination to dramatize this disturbing phenomenon and the morass of issues that swirl around it. She does so in 20 short, strong scenes.
Lopez is a veteran actor as well as an award-winning playwright, author of a large body of work and theater professor at Wellesley and Boston University. She is drawing on memories of her own student days when she participated in early “Take Back the Night” marches, as well as on current news stories about sexual violence on campus – the recent alleged University of Virginia sexual assault, the report and then a retraction by Rolling Stone. News stories of other incidents of sexual assault across the country reverberate in our minds as we watch the drama unfold. In addition to the four undergrad characters in the cast (two heterosexuals; two gay), there are eight “grown-ups” (played by two actors) including the campus Cop, President, Doctor and Dean. They each bring their own perspectives and agendas to the narrative, providing welcome maturity and contrast to the undergrads.
No one I know is neutral about this kind of material and I was pleased to watch a play that did not shrink from its many complexities and challenges. Perhaps because the playwright is writing from a dual perspective (the memory of her student years and her current status as “an old guard feminist” and mother of a teenage daughter), the script felt grounded in real life with credible characters who speak simple, contemporary lines: “He called ‘Hey slut! Hey cunt! And I turned,” Cassie tells the Cop. “He didn’t rape me.”
“Assault is a crime; you are victim,” he replies though he (and we) know that victimhood is not something that either feisty Cassie or sexually adventuresome Em are looking to embrace. Cassie has taken on a personal crusade against the college’s fraternities; Em sees herself as a liberated woman, even if she’s called a “frat rat.”
Daniela Varon, a New York-based director and teacher whose work I have followed for years, told me over lunch that the chance to workshop Back the Night was thrilling for her. Varon had helped organize the first Take Back the Night march at Dartmouth in the late 1970s, when the college was in its first years of co-education. She met Lopez when both were acting in Kristin Linklater’s Company of Women. The director became familiar with Lopez’s plays Sonia Flew and Becoming Cuba and, she says, with the dramatist’s avoidance of political correctness.
Back the Night isn’t a politically correct play; the jocky frat boy is not a villain; neither Em nor Cassie are saints. Everyone is a cynic: “Let me be real frank,” the Dean tells the student, explaining her decision to support her by organizing a campus event, “in a week, no one is going to give a shit.” I found the drama of students living in a sexually liberated but very wired world new and interesting.
The production moves very quickly; 90 minutes go by in a flash. The play is exciting but the cast in this production is uneven; the stand-outs were Amanda Collins as Cassie, Stephanie Clayman as the older women, and John Kooi as the older men.
I hope this is not the end of the line for Back the Night. I look forward to seeing it again with a stronger cast at a major theater.
Helen Epstein is the author of Joe Papp: An American Life and other books about the performing arts available at www.plunkettlake.press.