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Just days after sexual abuse allegations against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein enflamed media in early October 2017, actress Alyssa Milano posted on Twitter: “Suggested by a friend: If all the women who have ever been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, then we give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”
According to the website of Vogue magazine, Milano’s tweet spurred “tens of thousands” of people to respond, including such celebrities as Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Lawrence and Uma Thurman, and the viral #MeToo movement was born.
All of which made then-38-year-old, Brooklyn-born playwright Anna Ziegler seem like the oracular Pythia from ancient Greek mythology. Ziegler’s prescient play “Actually,” which runs Dec. 12-15 at City Repertory Theatre in Palm Coast, had debuted in May 2017 at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts.
“Actually” tells the tale of two Ivy League freshmen – a young black man and a young white woman — who become mired in a he said/she said, was-it-date-rape scenario. As annaziegler.net says in its plot synopsis: The couple “spend a night together that alters the course of their lives. They agree on the drinking, they agree on the attraction, but consent is foggy, and if unspoken, can it be called consent? . . . ‘Actually’ investigates gender and race politics, our crippling desire to fit in, and the three sides to every story.”
Director Beau Wade says he was “constantly reinventing the synopsis in my head” as he watched his actors in the two-person play – Brent Jordan as Tom and Nikki Lynn as Amber – work through rehearsals.
“The surface-level synopsis doesn’t really get to what the show really is,” says Wade, a City Rep veteran actor who directed the troupe’s “Hand to God” last spring and Positively Florida Theater Company’s “The Humans” in Ormand Beach in November. “It’s about Tom and Amber and what filters they bring to the situation. It’s really about perspective and how one person’s reality can be different from another person’s reality even when they share the exact same moment together. It’s about finding the truth inside of ourselves and how that reflects on other people’s truths, and the real truth, I guess — the actual reality of what happened.”
If “Actually” can be seen as a prophetic “#MeToo” piece, it’s also more than that, Wade says: “It has relevancy not only to this moment in time, but also to the human experience. At times we all find ourselves where what we think happened is at odds with what another person says happened. And there is no lawful adjudication over that. It’s just our morality and what we think is OK and what we think is OK for somebody else.”
Jordan, a veteran area actor who has starred in City Rep’s “Hand to God” and “The Rocky Horror Show,” and who will play Romeo in the troupe’s upcoming “Romeo and Juliet,” says his Tom character “has swagger and he appears to be very confident. But I don’t think Tom would describe himself that way.”
Lynn, an Orlando resident who is performing in only her second play after years of backstage work, sums up her Amber character: “In a sentence, she’s a hot mess. But she’s real and she’s trying her best.”
Search the reviews and articles about “Actually” online, and you likely won’t see the “L” word – “love” – mentioned at all.
However, Wade says, “This is actually a love story despite the contentious nature of the writing. If the characters do not care for each other, for the relationship that was or could be or could have been in a different way, then the audience will have a harder time. The question I want answered isn’t who did what and why, and was it wrong or was it right. It’s more so what is in the future for the two of them. Will they make it? Will they be OK on their own or together or just in general from this experience?”
And there’s the race thing. American history is fraught with tragic stories of black men’s interactions with white females and the “justice”–and more accurately, the terrorism–meted out for such “transgressions,” both before and after Emmett Till, the 14-year-old black boy who was lynched in 1955 in Mississippi for allegedly flirting with a white woman.
Beyond interracial dating, the contemporary Black Lives Matter activist movement has also gone beyond a viral hashtag and has brought media attention to the continued injustices perpetrated against African Americans by police and the American justice system.
“Amber is not always the most sensitive to things Tom may have had to face as a black person,” Lynn says. “There are some lines that allude to that and sometimes they are funny and sometimes they are like ‘Amber, you can’t say that!’ She has a big mouth and she doesn’t know how to close it. She’s either vomiting or word vomiting.”
For Jordan, the play hits closer to home.
“Of course, being a black man, whenever I’m in an interracial dating situation, which has been all of my previous girlfriends, there’s always a thought of like ‘Hey, I am black – surprise,’ ” he says with a laugh. “It’s like, ‘Hey, maybe we just want to talk about that because things can happen.’ I grew up knowing that something always could happen. I’ve always been aware in making sure that I’m not in that type of situation where anything could be misconstrued.”
Search the reviews and articles about “Actually” online, or read the sketchy synopses, and you may get the impression that “Actually” is a #MeToo “whodunit”: Who is guilty? The aggressive Tom, who feeds his animal lust at the expense of an unwilling partner? Or the falsely accusing Amber who, in trying to avoid slut-shaming herself for giving in to animal desire, sets out to convince herself and everyone that she’s really a Prudence?
But director and cast say “Actually” goes beyond that dynamic.
As Wade notes: “At intermission I think people will be thinking about ‘Was it consensual? Did he rape her? Did he not rape her? Did she lead him on?’ or any of those questions. Thinking the play is going to answer those questions for us is part of its brilliance. It’s asking all these questions but it doesn’t necessarily get to the resolution of it. It’s left up for every one’s own interpretation, to allow their truth into the truth of the play.”
“We got so heated about this the other night (during rehearsals),” Lynn says. “Anyone who watches the play, obviously they’re going to be like ‘Oh, whodunit, whose fault is it?’ Everyone’s going to be curious. But by the end of the play the hope is you are no longer caring about who was right or who was wrong. You just want to know what’s going to happen to these two people. Are they together? Are they happy? Are their lives ruined? Because that’s the story that’s being told.”
At various points in the play, each character speaks to the audience “as if they are a close friend,” Jordan says. “There are pieces where you will see that both sides could be culpable in this situation, or not. There’s a very nice push and pull as you are watching it. Hopefully by the end of it, as Nikki said, people are just wondering ‘Are they okay?’ ”
Wade says he and the cast will hold “talk back” sessions with audience members after each performance if patrons indicate an interest.
–Rick de Yampert for FlaglerLive
“Actually,” by Anna Ziegler, directed by Beau Wade, starring Nikki Lynn and Brent Jordan, at City Repertory Theatre, 7:30 p.m. Thursday Dec. 12, Friday Dec. 13 and Saturday Dec. 14, plus 3 p.m. Sunday Dec. 15. Performances are at CRT’s venue in City Market Place, 160 Cypress Point Parkway, Suite B207, Palm Coast. Tickets are $25 adults, $15 students. For more information or tickets, call the CRT box office at 386-585-9415 or book tickets easily here.