Popular thought and culture go hand in hand. As consumers of culture—be it anything from abstract expressionism to pop music to this op-ed—we are confronted with stories, conflicts, and questions that we might not have considered otherwise. Because it is consumed in a shared physical space, theater is an apt medium for starting conversation about the topics raised to its audience.
Writers have the power to choose the experiences and ideas that are presented to us, their audience. We enter into a contract—maybe even a relationship—with them. We trust them to guide us, to make our lives better, through the service of entertainment or insight.
Unfortunately, writers who craft protagonists that perpetrate sexual violence do not always promote thoughtful discussion or tasteful entertainment. Especially when, in anonymity, they exclude themselves from conversation and attribution.
Latenite, a theater group on campus, produces new and original works by student writers. The scenes are usually absurd—this semester the first piece was called “A Poop’s Story”—and often endearing. Students can submit works anonymously, so any aspiring writer can have his or her work presented.
Before the show began, the presidents of Latenite told the audience that there would be an open discussion the following day about sensitive topics presented in this semester’s production. Additionally, trigger warnings ran below two of the pieces listed in the program. One, titled “High Society,” whose authors were credited as Giancarlo Pontevecchio and Vittorio Buonaventura, had the following written below its cast list:
* * Contains graphic descriptions of violence, highly offensive language, suicidal themes. * *
Trigger warnings are typically attached to pieces that discuss topics and depict scenes or events that might upset a reader or audience member. Many articles about sexual violence, including Anna Bahr’s moving and important Blue and White article about sexual assault at Columbia, are preceded by one, and rightfully so. They serve to warn people who might be uncomfortable as a result, and to prepare those who choose to read or watch the piece.
But a trigger warning and a retrospective talkback is not an excuse to treat serious topics insensitively.
After an hour and a half of short comedies, the lights came up on the final piece, which began with two men arguing about whether people can “turn retarded,” and developed into an argument about which man was responsible for the deaths of 39 Cambodian women who had been shipped overseas in boxes to be sold as sex workers. The women had suffocated to death because one of the men had forgotten to put air holes in the containers.
As promised, the play contained “graphic descriptions of violence”—one of the men spoke about seeing bodies of dead women whose fingernails were worn off from scratching the boxes in an effort to escape. The other leading man walked around the perimeter of the stage and lectured individual audience members about why he won’t regret or reconsider working as a sex trafficker. He needs to support his wife who likes expensive clothes, his daughter’s dance lessons, and his sick mother. It’s a cruel, cruel, world, he tells us. And he’ll keep working, except next week he will make sure the women live to be sold.
The show ends with the “more sensitive” of the two men alone, distraught and considering a gun he has placed on the table. The lights go out to the song “Feeling Good.”
A decision to write a particular story is a decision to not write any other story. It is a judgment call that asserts consumers should be watching these people rather than those unseen, unwritten people. For one reason or another, this story is worth an audience’s time. Not every play has a moral, and not every play demands one. But it’s hard to know the takeaway from a play if the author does not suggest that audience members should come to a different conclusion than the ones the characters do.
The play does not condone the men’s behavior, nor does it suggest redemption. It doesn’t suggest anything, really—it merely presents a situation. A situation in which two people consider their immoral actions differently: One person reinforces his previously-held beliefs, and the other considers suicide. But by using sex trafficking as the entire premise of a story without confronting crucial themes that it brings up, the play did not do justice to the serious issues it depicted. In fact, it reinforces rather than challenges the male chauvinism that exists on this campus as well as around the world.
Stories about “bad people” can be interesting, but only if audiences are guided towards perspectives beyond the ones we are meant to discount. There was a woman in the play, a waitress whom both men treated harshly and whose voice was not given any real attention. The authors had an opportunity to present a contrasting perspective to the two protagonists and chose to not do so. Again, audiences were prompted to consider the stories of the oppressors and to ignore the oppressed.
As far as the Columbia directory is concerned, the people credited as writers of the play, Giancarlo Pontevecchio and Vittorio Buonaventura, do not exist. One might expect that if the writers really wanted to contribute to a conversation about sexual violence, they would at least have had the decency to own up to their plot.
People are drawn to theater for many reasons—I love theater because it forces the audience into a relationship with the characters in front of them, urging viewers to connect to the action and characters presented.
This play established a relationship between the characters and audience, but it was not a thought-provoking one. It made me and other audience members uncomfortable, and suggested that the authors either did not fully understand the content that they forced on their audience, or that they did not care how it would be received.
One of the most productive conversations on this campus this year has been about sexual violence, a reality that has elicited more widespread urgency and awareness than in the past. And it is a conversation that should continue, but only if it is hosted by organizations that know how to generate constructive discussion.
I have trouble understanding why an organization that receives more submissions than it presents decided that this story was an appropriate one to tell.
If only I could ask the authors why they wrote it.
The author is a Columbia College junior majoring in American Studies. She is the director of the Black Theatre Ensemble’s and Columbia Musical Theater Society’s joint production of Passing Strange this semester.
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