One of the first new words the daughter of my friend learned at her elementary school was “actually.” In the first week of her school, she repeated “actually this and actually that,” proudly parading this new addition to her vocabulary. This 6-year-old was also testing the magic of the word “actually” her teacher used while talking to her students. She seemed to have discovered this adverb’s power to validate one’s claim and/or opinion by repudiating the authenticity of the opponent’s argument.
Anna Ziegler’s Actually uses this very word as its title to interrogate the political, gender, and racial dynamics revealed during the Title IX investigation and hearing of a sexual misconduct case at a college campus.
Produced by San Diego Repertory Theatre, directed by Jesca Prudencio, and dramaturged by Kimberly King, Actually is a powerful and thought-provoking work that reflects the #MeToo movement and the laws with regard to sexual harassment and misconduct on college campuses. In writing the play, Ziegler was inspired by many of the Title IX cases that her husband, an attorney at New York University, has reviewed.
Set at present Princeton University, Actually portrays two first-year students, Tom (DeLeon Dallas) and Amber (Emily Shain), caught in the turmoil of Title IX, the federal civil rights law which went much further than its original intention of protecting equal access to sports for women. According to the ACLU’s website, “under Title IX, discrimination on the basis of sex can include sexual harassment, rape, and sexual assault. A college or university that receives federal funds may be held legally responsible when it knows about sexual harassment or assault in its programs or activities.”
In addition to portraying the circumstances of the development of their relationship prior to the hearing, Tom and Amber also explain, through direct-address to the audience, Tom’s first piano lesson, his father’s abandonment of his family, the death of Amber’s father and her mother’s second marriage, her first time having sex, and her ongoing feeling of inadequacy.
Dallas portrays Tom as a likable, honest, thoughtful, musically gifted, and sexually active young man. Shain’s Amber is sweet but nervous; Amber’s non-stop talking gives an impression that she might be afraid of silence because it would expose her lack of self-confidence and resentment at her inability to say “no” to others.
In their direct addresses, Dallas and Shain describe the people in their characters’ childhood and adolescence in so lively a manner that the audience feels they know them. Their life-stories allow the audience to better understand their present behavior, decisions, and actions.
Scenic designer Justin Humphres’ stage with an ash-colored hardwood floor and black back and side walls is bare except for two chairs. Dallas and Shain move themselves and chairs about the stage to enact what has happened, including Tom and Amber’s recent interviews at the office of the Vice Provost of Institutional Equity and Diversity at Princeton, their first date at an ice cream parlor, a bar, Tom’s dorm room, and events from their past.
Lighting designer Chris Rynne used effective and powerful side lights with multiple colors to make Dallas and Shain’s temporal and geographical movements compelling throughout the performance.
Costume designer Anastasia Pautova’s choice of the two characters’ outfits underscores how each character sees himself/herself. Tom wears a plaid shirt, pants, a hoodie, and combat boots while Amber wears tight jeans, boots, and layered tops (a camisole with polka dots, a T-shirt with horizontal lines and long, red cardigan). Amber’s outfit in particular demonstrates the character’s sense of awkwardness and inadequacy.
Sound designer Melanie Chen Cole provides, between the short scenes, haunting sounds of the string instruments to emphasize the atmospheres and emotions of the characters.
The play’s narrative underscores the strongest commonality between Tom and Amber: heavy drinking to cope with academic challenges and fears that many first-year students face. Their ability to remember and describe relevant events are compromised by alcohol. As a result, both of them become easy targets of manipulation by their friends, faculty, and administrators who have personal and/or institutional agendas.
During the course of the play, the audience watches Tom and Amber fall into the webs of the institutional, legal, and cultural discourse and procedures. Actually is a contemporary Rashomon story with multiple questions, ambiguities, challenges, and problems that confronts students regardless of their circumstances, physical and mental conditions, and backgrounds.
Actually will be running at the Lyceum Stage of San Diego Repertory Theatre through Nov. 4, 2018. Actually will be staged at GableStage at Biltmore in Coral Gables, Florida, Nov. 24 to Dec. 23, 2018, and at Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, Feb. 16 to March 10, 2019.