Bringing consent center stage

“Actually” initiates conversations about sexual assault and offers the audience a new perspective.

Becca Most

The night is young for Tom and Amber, two freshmen who find themselves at a Princeton University party. They share a flask of tequila and make flirty banter on the dance floor.

But after they head back to Tom’s dorm room, things get a little fuzzy.

“Actually” tells the story of two students, a white Jewish woman and an African-American man, who relive this night to a panel of judges tasked with determining whether or not sexual assault took place.

Performed at the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company and written by Anna Ziegler, the play addresses the topic of consent head-on while also humanizing those involved.

“I think the issue of consent is such a big thing that we’ve just not been versed in [talking] about,” said JuCoby Johnson, a University of Minnesota BFA alum who plays Tom, the student accused of sexual assault. 

Johnson said the way people talk to young men and young women about sex differs significantly, which can make sex difficult to talk about.

“We’re all sort of in a spot where we’re trying to figure that out and find the best way to move forward,” he said. “And the first step is talking about it.” 

Director Harry Waters Jr. hopes “Actually” will spark dialogue about consent through the medium of theater in a way other art forms haven’t been able to.  

“It’s a way for us to have these conversations without feeling like we’re giving a lecture,” he said. “And to actually hear [discussion about consent], especially theatrically, from two young people who are of similar ages to you and of similar experiences — it rings in a different kind of way.”

Having attended Princeton himself, Waters acknowledges the ethnic and racial biases that are present in the underlying fabric of the show. 

Although some students may take the opportunities they have now for granted, Waters said the “institutional memory” of discrimination is still apparent, only amplified by the social pressure and anxiety students face when entering college for the first time.

Johnson said the play is reminiscent of his time at the University, too.

In “Actually,” Tom and Amber struggle with balancing schoolwork and social obligations, turning to alcohol as a way to connect with their peers.

“I think that pressure to drink, that pressure to be well liked, that pressure to want people to like you is so real,” Johnson said. “And it really adds to [the anxiety of] that first couple of months or first couple of years. It leads people to behave in ways that they’d probably find regrettable or in ways that they would never plan to behave.”

Something “Actually” does well is humanize both the accuser and the accused.

Instead of offering judgement or pointing fingers, the play provides background not only on the chronology of Amber and Tom’s relationship, but on the social environment both characters were raised in. In doing so, the cast allows the audience to come to their own conclusions; the ending is left somewhat ambiguous.

“The idea that there’s a story behind each person is something that made me uncomfortable [while directing this play], but also made me human,” Waters said at a question and answer session following a performance last Thursday. “And I think this is something we can miss — a backstory. People don’t just come from this moment that they’re in, everything leads to everything else.”

What: “Actually”

When: Now through March 10

Where: Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, 1978 Ford Pkwy., St. Paul

Cost: $12 student rush ticket, $23-38 depending on the day