What “Actually” Happened in that Dorm Room? TheaterWorks New Production Explores the Complexities of College Life

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Photo by Lanny Nagler

By Karen Isaacs

The college environment has changed drastically from when many of us attended. Now freshman orientation includes much more than bonding activities and academic expectations. A major part of freshman orientation on many campus is about Title IX – sexual activity, consent, the school’s policies and the penalties that may result from violation of these.

Actually now at TheaterWorks (currently in residence at the Hartford Atheneum) though Sunday, June 23, is about those penalties and consequences.

Two freshman at Princeton, Tom or Thomas Anthony and Amber have a sexual encounter after heavy drinking at various campus parties. What seems routine soon spirals out of control, when Amber returns to her dorm and says to her roommate that “Thomas Anthony practically raped me.”  Soon she is being questioned by the resident advisor who urges her to file an official complaint.

So what did happen? Playwright Anna Ziegler lets us hear from both Tom and Amber about not just that night, but the series of events and flirtations leading up to it. While they substantially agree about what went before, they have distinctly different memories about all that happened after Amber went up to Tom’s room.

To refresh your memory on the background of this play, Title IX was part of the Education Act of 1972, signed by President Nixon; Title IX banned discrimination on the basis of sex at any educational institution receiving federal funds, which included federally funded financial aid. It was used to increase opportunities and funding for women’s athletics.

But IX also defined discrimination on the basis of sex to include harassment, assault and rape. In the intervening years the policies and procedures changed. Since 2011, colleges have been instructed to use the standard of “preponderance of the evidence” which some refer to as “50 percent and a feather” to determine if a violation occurred. The procedures and processes for handling this do not include courts of law and often lawyers for either party. Under the present administration, there has been an effort to give colleges more flexibility in determining the standard by which these cases will be judged.

Ziegler provides us with two very different characters. Amber is a middle-class, Jewish student who seems very insecure and at times seeking attention. She professes during the course of the play of a number of brief involvements with boys but often expresses doubts or regrets about them. She mentions her friend, Rachel, as someone prettier, more attractive, more popular and more confident than her.

Amber can also be clumsily obtuse in a typical teenage way. At some point in her conversations with Tom, she equates her being a so-so squash player as an advantage for her admission on the same level of his race and economic status. (Given the recent scandal on sports and college admissions, this line had added resonance.)  Later she talks about how the Jews and the Blacks are alike since both had groups trying to kill them.

Thomas Anthony is an African-American student from a lower economic status; his father left and his mother struggled to support the family. He recognizes the enormous opportunity he has, but like many freshman, is somewhat overwhelmed by it. What  he does enthusiastically join are the nightly parties that often lead to sexual encounters with willing and attractive female students. But he also feels out-of-place among these affluent students and has just one friend.

So when Thomas Anthony is called into the office of the Vice Provost of Institutional Equity and Diversity, he thinks it is because he refused to join the Black Student Union. But he quickly finds out that Amber has filed a complaint that he raped her.

The play crisscrosses in time. Each recounts the events multiple times. The stories change some in the telling and we are never quite sure who they are speaking to. Sometimes it is clear that Thomas Anthony is speaking to the vice provost or his one friend, sometimes it is clear Amber is talking to the resident advisor. Other times it is clear that they are both talking to the three member panel who is hearing the case and will render a decision. Often it feels as if they are talking to us, the audience, as either friends or a therapist as they try to make sense of all that has gone on.

Thomas Anthony feels the deck stacked against him: he has no one to bring with him, while Amber brings a lawyer; the three people on the panel include a male staff member from the Dean of Students office, a woman art professor who appears to be Hispanic, and a black woman from the women’s studies department.

The determination of the panel and whatever penalties are handed out are never revealed to us. The stage goes dark as the two are once again playing out their meeting on that fateful night.

There’s no backdrop and the stage is bare except for some steps/risers. Amith A. Chandrashaker does an excellent job with the lighting.

Ronald Emile as Tom and Arielle Siegel as Amber are both excellent. Each finds all the parts of the characters they play. Emile combines Tom’s youthful enthusiasm for sex with a clear understanding of his attractiveness but also his isolation and fears while Siegel gives us an Amber who is both uncertain and very convinced that her version is correct.

Director Taneisha Duggan has handled all the aspects of this seemingly simple but very complicated and confusing story with great skill. She helps the cast illuminate the characters and the ambiguity of the situation.

On the way home, my nearly 18-year-old granddaughter and I had an interesting conversation about the topics expressed and the characters. I won’t share our conclusions because this is a play you should see with an open mind. Let’s just say that I was somewhat surprised on our agreement on multiple points.

For tickets visit Theatreworks Hartford..

This content is courtesy of Shore Publications and zip06.com

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