February 25, 2020

Play’s rape case not as simple as black and white

In Anna Ziegler’s two-person play “Actually,” Amber Cohen (Samantha Ressler) is a Jewish freshman at Princeton University who is smitten with an African-American classmate, Tom (Jerry MacKinnon). She’s insecure yet winsome, while he’s charismatic and a bit of a player. On their first date, both drink to excess, Amber takes off her shirt in a bar and then willingly joins Tom in his bed.

But at some point during their rendezvous, Amber appears to have second thoughts, even though she never actually tells Tom to stop. Through a series of ensuing events, she comes to believe he raped her.

A school inquiry follows. Under the federal Title IX law, officials can prosecute Tom if a preponderance of the evidence suggests he is at fault.

In “Actually,” the characters move backward and forward in time and often directly address the audience, whose sympathies change from scene to scene.

“The play explores what constitutes consent, but I deliberately keep things foggy,” Ziegler, 37, said during an interview at the Geffen Playhouse, where “Actually” will have its world premiere on May 10. “My plays ask more questions than provide answers. So I’m making a very strong effort not to take sides.”

The play resonates at a time when sexual misconduct on college campuses has gained wider attention in the media. Consider the public outrage that ensued when former Stanford University student Brock Turner served only three months in jail after his sexual assault conviction in 2015.

Ziegler was thoughtful and soft-spoken in conversation, where the award-winning playwright was almost talmudic as she pondered her characters’ complex motivations.

She said she got the idea for “Actually” several years ago, when her husband, Will Miller, an attorney, began overseeing sexual misconduct cases at New York University. Miller also was on a team that was responsible for rewriting NYU’s sexual misconduct policies under Title IX.

“It’s a very tricky balance,” Ziegler said of the law. “We’re trying to make sure that women who have been assaulted are able to come forward and are not rebuffed when they do. And we’re also trying to keep the system fair all around.

“But in ‘Actually,’ what really happens is a matter of interpretation,” she added. “And both the characters are flawed.”

Amber’s Jewish background has imbued her with the paranoia that she could be rounded up and killed at any moment. Even so, she flippantly tells Tom that he must have been accepted to Princeton because he is African-American. If her comment seems racist, Ziegler insists that Amber is, rather, a bit naive.

“She never intentionally tries to offend anyone, or to be malicious,” the playwright said. “She’s just unfiltered, so she says what she thinks are facts and doesn’t think about how that’s going to land on someone.”

Tom, meanwhile, recalls being stared at as the only Black student on the dance floor at all the bar and bat mitzvahs he attended in the eighth grade. “I don’t think he’s saying anything about casual racism among Jews so much as casual racism among white people,” Ziegler said.

“I really wanted to get to the heart of what our unconscious biases are, because here we have a case where a Black man has been accused of rape by a white woman, which is charged in many ways,” Ziegler added. “But I think our hearts go out to both of the characters: the Black man who may be unfairly accused and the woman who may or may not feel empowered enough to speak about being raped. And I sort of pit them against each other, which I thought could be powerful in a play.”

The director of “Actually,” Tyne Rafaeli, praised Ziegler for her insight. “Anna has a unique ability to reflect the complexity and the contradictions of human psychology and the human heart,” Rafaeli wrote in an email. “Her commitment and fascination with the gray — with always seeing the other side of any given human impulse — leads to eye-opening, bitingly funny and poignant insights into the human psyche.”

Ziegler grew up in a Reform Jewish home in Brooklyn, just a few blocks from where she now lives with Miller and their two young sons. After graduating from Yale and NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, she taught English at a Jewish day school in Rockville, Md., where she befriended a Muslim colleague, whose students constantly peppered her with pointed questions about Islam.

That inspired Ziegler to write one of her early plays, “Dov and Ali,” about the fractious relationship between an Orthodox Jewish teacher and his Muslim student. A subsequent play, “Another Way Home,” revolves around a Jewish family whose son goes missing at summer camp. Ziegler interviewed members of her own family to write “The Spivaks,” which examines the complicated relationship of American Jews and Israel. And her drama “Photograph 51,” which starred Nicole Kidman in London in 2015, spotlights the true story of Rosalind Franklin, a British Jew and DNA scientist. Ziegler said she was drawn to Franklin’s story, in part, because of the sexism and anti-Semitism the scientist encountered in the 1950s.

Of why she often writes Jewish characters, Ziegler said, “It’s a way for me to explore what I feel about Judaism and the complicated relationship I have to it — sort of desperately wanting to be part of a community but not wanting to be a minority. There’s a tension there.”

Did Ziegler have trepidations, while writing “Actually,” about creating an African-American character who is likable but distinctly flawed? “Absolutely I did, and I still do,” she said. “It was just the fear that I wouldn’t get it quite right. But I’ve workshopped the play now with a number of Black actors who’ve been very helpful. My sense is that no one has felt that I created a caricature or have gone too far astray.

“We’re living in a moment where there’s lots of talk about cultural appropriation and about what a writer or artist should be encouraged to create,” Ziegler added. “I feel pretty strongly that we have to have the freedom to try … to see our way into other people’s experiences. We won’t learn anything about the world around us if we don’t try.”

“Actually” will premiere at the Geffen Playhouse. For tickets and information about the play, visit http://www.geffenplayhouse.org.