“The boy I thought was my boyfriend pushed me to the ground. He took my clothes off, and I lay there with no body to speak of, just a flat board of skin and girl bones.”
– Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist
Without looking it up, how many people automatically know the name Rainey Bethea? Were this in-person rather than on the Internet, I’m willing to bet that not many hands would have gone up.
In short, he was a Black man convicted of raping a White woman in 1936 Kentucky. His execution was a public event, not all that different from a town picnic. So festive was the event that the drunken executioners screwed up Bethea’s death and forced him to suffer – much to the horror of the all-White crowd. It was such a debacle that it became the last public execution in the United States.
This was our country at its worst. But has it really gotten any better? Putting aside the fact that we’re currently being presided over by an unhinged many accused of numerous sexual assaults and racist practices over several decades, can we really say that those actions are any less the norm? The only thing worse than the increased prevalence of racism and misogyny is when those fighting them are at odd with one another. Ideally, we’d be in a post Emmitt Till world, living out Huey P. Newton’s vision of intersectionality between the Black and women’s movements (as well as the LGBTQ movement Newton mentions). Instead, we’re more likely to see asinine tweets like this:
This is the snake pit into which Anna Ziegler dove head-first for her incendiary new play, Actually. It’s a play about the most hot-button topic in the era of “Call-out Culture”. It’s a tale of power and privilege in a post-Weinstein/Black Lives Matter world. It’s a play that refuses to reduce its two characters to easy-to-describe hashtags, but remembers that they are living, breathing human beings with lives that began before the incident in question.
It’s also really damn good.
To say Tom is a player would be as redundant as saying Amber is a wallflower. The former has been working his charms on women since his early-teens, but the latter could count the number of times she’s been kissed on one hand. This privileged White girl and overachieving Black boy are the last two you’d expect to ever spend the night together. But that’s exactly what they did.
It’s what specifically happened that night that’s up for debate. Not only do the two have their own interpretations of what happened, everyone around them has their own two cents to through in. By the time everyone has had their say, there are several versions of the event, but only one version of the truth.
For shows like this, I take note of the fact that I’m often one of the few Black faces in the crowd, if not the only one. This particular night, amidst the sea of wrinkled White faces in this Berkeley theatre, I saw only one other: a Black woman who sat almost dead-center in the audience. Sitting a few rows back, I couldn’t help but look over at the sista as she laughed, gasped, and held her breath over the course of the show. I didn’t dare ask her what she thought of the show, but I was curious as to what someone who fits the description of both character – Black and female – thought about it. It’s the sort of perspective I don’t have first-hand.
There’s a reason I used Mamet’s overrated piece as the title of this review. Both it and Ziegler’s show have a great deal in common: written by White-American Jews; two-character pieces taking place on prestigious university campuses; one character from a posh upbringing, the other not; both fancying themselves a thorough examinations of political correctness vs. oversensitivity. But whereas Mamet’s poorly-aged play ultimately sides with its privileged White male protagonist, Ziegler’s play is about two characters who hate having others define them and their (lack of) happiness. Mamet may be desperately chasing the zeitgeist with his upcoming play inspired by the Harvey Weinstein scandal, but Ziegler’s play (written in 2016) feels especially timely in light of the Operation: Varsity Blues scandal, the Kavanaugh confirmation, and the recent documentaries about R. Kelly and Michael Jackson.
I won’t lie: I went into this play with my defenses up. Whenever someone White tries to get inside the mind of a Black character, I’m ready to expect it to go terribly wrong (9.5/10 times I’m right). But Ziegler wisely side-steps the obvious traps of trying to recreate vernacular or the like (except for Amber). Instead, we’re left with two characters who are similar, except for the explicit ways in which they are not.
Actually feels not only like a counter to Mamet’s play, but also a reaction to the Aziz Ansari incident. It’s about how “obvious” cues get misinterpreted with disastrous consequences, and how not speaking up when you had the opportunity comes back to haunt you when you’re under a barrage of questions. It’s a story about two marginalized people finding themselves on opposite sites of an unfair system so used to telling both of them that they’re wrong. Whereas Transfers drove me to a blind rage with its condescension, Actually made me uncomfortable for all the right reasons.
This may be the first show I’ve seen at Harry’s Upstage at the Aurora. It doesn’t really allow for the “flexibility” of Aurora’s mainstage, but this isn’t a play that requires much of a stage, let alone complex blocking. And director Tracy Ward (whom I believe I’ve met once, but can’t recall the context) makes the best of her minimal cast on Giulio Perrone’s equally minimalist set. At the top of the show, it’s all white with a smaller “cut-out” portion protruding from its upstage counterpart. The only sign of Jim Cave’s lights are a blue “sky” scrim gently falling onto the stage. As the story progresses, the “cut out” moves back-and-forth from in and out of its larger piece as multi-colored lights illuminate the outline. Suggesting a lot with so little, it’s great work.
Ward’s two cast members certainly aren’t bad, though Ella Dershowitz fairs a little better as Amber. Dershowitz is first seen awkwardly twisting her arms and legs like the world’s most nervous yoga practitioner and later has a great many moments when she’s on the verge of tears. The whole time, it’s easy for us to put ourselves in the headspace of Amber. Michael Curry – last seen in Cal Shake’s black odyssey and Ubuntu’s Topdog/Underdog certainly isn’t bad, but a few moments of his delivery sounded very “first-time actor”. Perhaps that was his way of tapping into the mind of nervous uni student, but it didn’t always work.
Actually succeeds by not trying to “poke the bear”, so to speak, and court controversy for the sake of controversy – that would wear out its welcome rather quickly. Rather, it tries to be as complex as the topic its covering without pandering to easily-quotable talking points. It’s not an easy task at all, but this may be as close as we can get to fulfilling that need.
Actually is scheduled to run until the 5th of May at Harry’s Upstage of the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley.
The show runs 1 ½ hours with no intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.