In Theater J’s “Actually,” playwright Anna Ziegler takes on issues of consent between two Princeton freshmen — Amber and Tom — navigating missed signals and mixed messages rampant on college campuses between young women and men today and the aftermath of accusations. The two-hander feels ripped from the headlines.
No stranger to Theater J, two of Ziegler’s earlier works — “Photograph 51,” a pointed study of research chemist Rosalind Franklin’s overlooked contributions to understanding DNA, and “Another Way Home,” a Jewish family dramedy about a runaway teen and the meaning of life — made Always interested in writing, she wanted to be a poet, but as a senior at Yale she found herself in Arthur Kopit’s playwriting workshop, where he saw drama in her poetry. Between 2004 and 2007, she lived in the Washington area and taught English and creative writing at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School.
Ziegler, 38, spoke to WJW from New York, where she lives with her husband and young children, the week of the Senate hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
What brought you to “Actually” and what is it about?
About four years ago I had the impetus to write “Actually” because my husband is a lawyer at NYU where he oversees sexual misconduct hearings. So I’d been hearing a lot about these hearings at home. Based on his description of these cases, I was struck by how often I felt for both people in the room, both parties. It was really moving to hear him talk about how often he was drawn to both people.
I had been interested in writing a two-person play, a two-hander. “Actually” came about organically: It seemed like the right way to go about writing about that topic was to take two people and get to know them as personally and thoroughly as we can in such a way that it would make it awfully hard to judge them — or at least dislike them. I wanted to keep them both sympathetic.
Was it a conscious decision that you made Amber, the female character, Jewish? Did she need to be Jewish in your eyes?
There was certainly an effort to find ways in which both of these people were marginalized or that they think of themselves as marginalized — the male character, Tom, is African American. Amber’s Jewishness seems like it adds another layer — I don’t want to say of victimhood — but the effort was to make both of them real people. It would make it difficult to choose between either of them because they both are members of marginalized groups.
When you wrote this, we were seeing an explosion in reported sexual assault incidents and accusations on college campuses. Conversations about consent were in the air.
It was in the atmosphere, though I have to say, I feel like the real explosion happened after I wrote the play. It was obviously a hot topic in the news when I wrote the play, but it has just gotten increasingly hotter. I didn’t think of it as a particularly relevant play when I was writing it. Yet it ended up entering our culture at a moment when the topic has gotten even more heated.
What are your thoughts now in light of the Supreme Court Senate confirmation hearing, which shone a spotlight on issues of drinking and sexual assault that occurred at parties in Montgomery County private schools?
[Long pause] This is certainly going to be an interesting time for this play to be put on in Washington, D.C. I am really struck by how much pain both those people [Christine Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh] were in and I hope part of the power of the play comes from the notion that this is something that neither person is ever really going to get over. We have seen in the news in recent weeks countless stories of women recounting [events] that happened to them 20, 30 years ago that are still so alive in them today.
You taught in a private Montgomery County high school. Did you ever hear about your students partying, drinking and carrying on in similar fashion to the events detailed in the Kavanaugh hearings?
I think that’s pretty prevalent everywhere. My guess is that the students at JDS participate in that sort of thing a little less than average high school students, but that’s just a guess. That sort of behavior is what the average typical teenager does. And it depends on exactly what kind of behavior we’re talking about. If we’re just talking about drinking, drinking to excess, yeah, that’s very common. For instance, I don’t think Jewish kids in private schools in New York City, which is the milieu where I grew up, drank any less than kids in other private schools.
“Actually” by Anna Ziegler, runs through Nov. 18, produced by Theater J at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater Arlene and Robert Kogod Cradle, 1101 6th St. SW, Washington; $30-$69; call 202-777-3210 or visit theaterj.org.