A friend compares history – i.e. what actually happened – to the Big Bang. He’s studied the JFK assassination for decades and says he can put three shooters in position: one in the Book Depository, another in a building next door, and one behind the fence on the Grassy Knoll. He says he can even name them, along with their spotters on walkie-talkies. But much like the Big Bang Theory, he can’t get them to pull the trigger.
Anna Ziegler’s Actually, now in production at the San Diego Rep, raises similar issues about information, communication, and absolute truth. It takes both sides. Depending on where you stand when entering the theater, it builds a strong case for your opponent. And the closer you approach an answer, the more “maybe” and “however” complicate what “actually” happened.
The 90-minute play begins at a Title IX hearing for sexual misconduct at Princeton University. Panels in colleges and universities make a general determination of guilt. Three members of the faculty/staff hear both sides. They base their final decision not on an extended examination, but just a “preponderance of evidence,” or, as Tom Anthony says in the play, “50 percent plus a feather.”
Tom, a freshman, has been accused of raping Amber Cohen, also a freshman. As they stand before the panel, they tell their stories in detail: life histories, sexual experiences, hopes, fears, and what happened. The real panel, in this case, is the audience at the Rep. And they may find, as an actual member of a Title IX panel found out: some of “these cases were not as black-and-white as she had anticipated” (“Whom to Look for in a Title IX Hearing Panel,” Chronicle of Higher Education, January 21, 2018).
Princeton accepted Amber Cohen, she says, because she’s a fair-to-middlin’ squash player. There are so few good ones, she adds. This is the first of maybe 30 statements the play makes that turns a fact into a question: one of the most prestigious schools in the land is desperate for squash players?
Though she claims she “never speaks out,” Amber is talkative — “Usain Bolt-fast.” Toward the end, instead of just following the crowd, which she’s done thus far, she vows not to be “silent anymore.” When she makes generalizations, they prove false. She is passive, naïve, insecure, and, “mousey.” But with Tom, who says she’s “pretty enough,” she’s a giddy extrovert. And during her first two months at Princeton, she’s a budding alcoholic. “We go out every night because everyone goes out every night…if I don’t do this, I might have to think about who I am… and all of that is just too…”
Amber is Jewish. Tom Anthony’s an African-American. The play suggests stereotypes, but then shreds them. When Amber meets Tom she blurts out that he got into Princeton because he’s black. “You know you can’t say that, right?” he asks.
“It’s not micro-aggression or anything,” Amber counters.
No, Tom replies, “it’s like macro-aggression.”
Tom got in because of his grades and high SAT scores. He went to an inner-city school, where he learned to play piano and found an outlet for pent-up feelings. Unlike Amber, whose emotions are easy to read, Tom shields his. Also unlike Amber, whose few sexual experiences have been unforgettable for the wrong reasons, Tom is sexually active. In the first two months at Princeton he has had near nightly encounters. But he doesn’t brag about them.
When they first meet they see stereotypes: he sees a talkative, naïve young Jewish woman; she a hunk who won’t so much as notice her — and just the man she’d love to be seen with walking out of a party hand in hand.
She likes games. He doesn’t. When they meet one night, both quite high if not drunk, she suggests they play “Two Truths and a Lie.” She says Tom should play the game “if you want to sleep with me tonight.”
Actually is about rape, but also The Title IX system which some accuse of making snap judgements. Or, in this case, someone, since Tom and Amber are like a seesaw: assert one thing about them, and its opposite pops up.
One of the many strengths of the San Diego Rep’s production: Emily Shain (Amber) and DeLeon Dallas (Tom) play their characters fluidly. Composed of short scenes and monologues, Actually moves back and forward in time. Amber and Tom rarely relate to each other directly. Instead they make some astonishing leaps from now, the hearing and the possible consequences, to points in the past before their lives have changed forever. Kudos to director Jeseca Prudencio for sleek staging and always keeping focus where it should be.
The design work is of a piece. Anastasia Pautova’s costumes are Princeton-frosh de rigueur. Melanie Chen Cole’s often cacophonous sounds underscore the play’s jagged extremes, as does Chris Rynne’s subtle lighting. Justin Humphries’ minimalist scenic design’s a rectangular arena. The lighting makes it a box set with gray, curtain-like fog on three sides — a most apt visual for a space where absolute morality should fear to tread.
Actually, by Anna Ziegler
San Diego Repertory Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown.
Directed by Jessica Prudencio; cast: Emily Shain, DeLeon Dallas; scenic design, Justin Humphries, costumes, Anastasia Pautova, Chris Rynne, sound, Melanie Chen Cole.
Playing through November 4; Sunday and Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2:00 p.m.