While TheaterWorks’ Hartford home is under construction, its summer plays are taking the stage at the Wadsworth Atheneum. Actually tells the story of two college students grappling with a haunting question—what happened that night after the party? It’s a question that’s resonating with fresh intensity in the #MeToo era.
In the play, two freshman at Princeton have a thing for each other. Amber is white. Tom is black. The show opens with the two of them trying to have conversation over the sounds of your typical college party. Then, within minutes you’re jolted into their reality—the word rape comes out of Amber’s mouth and Tom’s name follows. And then there’s the word—"actually." Did he actually rape her? Was consent actually given? What actually happened?
Actress Arielle Siegel plays Amber.
"The thing that I lock in from Amber’s story is kind of the dismissive energy I’ve gotten from men, both in sexual situations and not," Siegel said. "So her inability to be heard when she really wants to be, that’s what I kind of really like invest into my performance of her."
Siegel says her character mirrors her as a progressive, Jewish liberal, and is a character that feels familiar to many of the audiences, that have tended to be older and white. She says Amber also reminds her of a version of herself that she can "recognize and empathize with."
"Just to re-earth those weird insecurities of being an 18-year-old girl and not wanting to piss off this hot guy has been an interesting battle," Siegel said.
Ronald Emile's character Tom is trying to find a sense of belonging as a Black student on the elite campus where he's often mistaken, stereotypically, for an athlete.
"To be representing a man who is accused of rape but thinks he’s innocent is kind of where the dynamic changes because most of the men who we’re finding are being accused of this right now, they’re just straight up guilty, they did it," Emile said. "Every night I look at this audience and I’m like, alright, how do I get this audience to believe me?"
Actually is intimate. At times, the air gets thin. And at other times, it’s filled with laughter. There’s no elaborate set or props, just two bodies, simple lighting and a giant yet subtle feather hanging in the background.
The show’s director Taneisha Duggan has some thoughts about that feather.
"The ideas that justice is balanced with the exception as a feather—is a BS thesis," Duggan said. "If you’re a person born into a colored body, you know that justice isn’t balanced. You know that you’re always on the side of injustice." Emile said he felt the sting of that injustice while trying to digest When They See Us, Ava Duvernay’s Netflix series about the Central Park 5, a group of black boys falsely convicted for a raping a white woman in 1989. He said there were nights where he didn’t want to be on stage as his character. Still, he had to show up. "It’s my responsibility to do so," Emile said. "To be a symbol and to be a voice for the countless people who look like me, who’ve been through this who didn’t have a voice. Who haven’t had an opportunity to speak up and be heard."
Duggan said that she’s been challenged by audience members who said it felt unnecessary for Tom to be black. It wasn’t Duggan’s choice, the play’s author Anna Zeigler wrote it that way. But Duggan said if Tom was white then the play would have mirrored the Brett Kavanaugh--Christine Blasey-Ford story.
In the play, the college holds a hearing that echoes drama of Kavanaugh’s confirmation. And there’s a decision that’s made. But Duggan says in this case, the dynamics of race can’t be ignored.
"I hope that seeing this play at least opens up a conversation non-melanated people, for white people to begin to understand that our children are children, too," Duggan said. "That our boys make mistake children do, that they can be minors, that they’re not born out of their bodies as adult men and that that same kind of privilege and openness afforded to young white boys is never afforded to ours."
It’s a tall order for a play that already asks questions about relationships, consent, sex, and power dynamics. The show runs through Sunday at the Wadsworth.