Opinion | Op-eds

Unproductive discussion of sensitive topics in Latenite

  • Luke Henderson / Senior Staff Photographer
    trigger warning | Latenite's pieces, such as this one from December, typically feature comedic situations and light topics.

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.

To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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J posted on

Maybe the point was to make people uncomfortable. To confront them with the complexity of these issues and the fact that these people *actually exist* and that there isn't a simple bow of a moral that you can put on top. It seems like you just want to see simple, easy theatre.

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Anonymous posted on

I don't think that's what she's saying. I think she's saying that if you incorporate dangerous and potentially hurtful subject matter, its your responsibility as an artist to make a statement about that material. It can't just be used as an arbitrary framing device to play out a drama that could exist within any context. I didn't see the play, so I can't say whether these artists were saying anything interesting or provoking about sex trafficking. But Katie isn't saying that this kind of material can't be addressed, just that if it is addressed, it has to be for a damm good reason, and the artist needs to make an intelligent commentary on said material.

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Anonymous posted on

Do you not trust yourself as an audience member to make an informed decision based on what you just watched? I think we are all smart enough to do that. Or do you prefer to be told what moral to think upon?

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Anonymous posted on

By depicting something doesn't necessarily mean a piece is reinforcing it. This is the same argument that critics were making about Wolf of Wall Street.

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anon posted on

but failing to present it with further material that might shed light on the behavior in any meaningful or empathetic insight might make it the exact same as any other movie that *does* reinforce the status quo. what makes TWOWS subversive to you, unlike the other movies out there?

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Anonymous posted on

This has a complete misreading of the play and especially of the female character. I'm not sure if the author actually saw the play completely through or if she spent time critically thinking about the play before sitting down to write her opinion.

The play did contain themes that were very troubling and I did leave the anthology feeling deeply disturbed but not in a way that I felt that the piece itself was poorly done, which was well produced in all facets -acting, directing, etc. Both characters that ere sex traffickers, the troubled one and the more unapologetic one gave the reader two perspectives on the issue handling it in a way that did not give the audience a moral lesson on a topic that NEEDS to be discussed. Instead the characters gave the OPPORTUNITY to discuss these topics as a moral guideline. Nothing was spoon-fed to the audience, which is perhaps why the deepness of the piece flew over the author's head.

I also think that the female character, which was portrayed very well, gave a straight perspective about morality that not only gave agency to the women who died in the play but gave a moral outlook to the play. It told the character to do good even though he can't be forgiven for his terrible bad in his life. She also wasn't "abused" in the play because she had a good relationship with the contemplative character.

This op-ed upsets me because its missing a critical reading of the art and is instead focusing on an agenda that the author wants to push. Hopefully the message of this post isn't lost because it's anonymous.

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Concerned posted on

I don't know why this would be an opinion when the piece was clearly written by men who don't have a perspective on these issues

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Anonymous posted on

Everyone at Columbia has some kind of perspective on this issue. Man or woman. Even if men wrote this, like the pen names suggest, they too are allowed perspectives on the matter. As a woman with a "perspective" on the matter, I thought their perspectives were brilliant.

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Anonymous posted on

one of the least progressive things I have ever seen written on this website

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Anonymous posted on

The female character had a RIDICULOUS accent and didn't contribute really anything to the emotional or thematic narrative to the story. She was schematic, and did little but whine and nag—not really a positive portrayal of a woman in a misogynistic play.

Also can we stop calling this play "art?" If this is "art," then what is actual, meaningful, high-quality theatre?

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Anonymous posted on

The female character had a RIDICULOUS accent and didn't contribute really anything to the emotional or thematic narrative to the story. She was schematic, and did little but whine and nag—not really a positive portrayal of a woman in a misogynistic play.

Also can we stop calling this play "art?" If this is "art," then what is actual, meaningful, high-quality theatre?

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Anonymous posted on

I guess in my opinion, this article is as unproductive as she claims the play is.

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Anonymous posted on

The Spectator editorial board is so out of touch it's amazing.

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Anonymous posted on

This isn't by the spectator editorial board...?

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Anonymous posted on

you're not very bright are you

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lol posted on

classic columbia getting its knickers in a twist over something useless

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Anonymous posted on

I think this play was likely the best thing I've seen at latenite. It feels a bit wrong to say I enjoyed it since it was so dark—and since it did lead me to very dark places in my imagination—but it did so in such a magnificent way. It was incredible. Thank you writers, and thank you latenite, for taking me there. Does it actually matter who wrote it? Not one bit. I hope latenite continues to explore themes like this one did.

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Eric Ingram posted on

I'm sorry that the "female character," Gretchen, was not given a name in this article.

I am very proud of High Society and am also proud, as director, that some members of the community have engaged with the play, and found it to be a thought-provoking work of art - particularly thanks to the magnificent acting performances of all four onstage.

Critical discussion is important. High Society is a work of art because it is able to be criticized. I'm glad this op-ed has enabled a productive discussion [in the comments section.]

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Anonymous posted on

You're the director of this play, and you're calling it "a thought-provoking work of art" -- that's pretty self-centered of you. You should also probably see more theatre. Real theatre.

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Anonymous posted on

"some members of the community...found it to be a thought-provoking work of art."

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Anonymous posted on

I hope that the author takes the time to read the comment section and reflect on the discussion that has emerged in order to form her own opinions. I didn't see the play but it looks like you missed a lot. Articles like these are dangerous because they push agendas without critically analyzing that which they are critiquing.

I would like to hear her perspective on what is being said about her writing.

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Anonymous posted on

This honestly reads like what an article parodying columbia spec would read like. It seems like the author is way, way too sensitive. Now, we cannot even acknowledge that bad things exist in the world out of fear that we might offend someone?

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Anonymous posted on

The writers are cowards -- if they're going to write something and present it to the community, especially a piece that does deal with difficult themes, then hiding behind pseudonyms is lazy and cowardly. They have no balls, and were probably afraid people are going to react negatively to them. Real theatre makers make a statement and stand behind it. They don't wimp out and go halfway. Shame.

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Anonymous posted on

So that makes the art bad?... lol

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Anonymous posted on

So that makes the art bad?... lol. What's your name?

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Jenny Singer, '15 posted on

LOLOLOL people who commented on an article criticizing anonymity anonymously. Grow some boobs and join us at the critical table when you're ready to respond to an opinion piece without a cowering behind the internet. If just "making people uncomfortable" was the goal of theater all of my family's Chanukkah parties would be Pulitzer Prize winning plays. By deciding to write an anonymous play that comes off as purely incendiary subject yourself to editorial criticism. Sensitive topics belong on the stage, insensitive writers belong in intro-level writing classes. CACOURIS FAN CLUB PRESIDENT SINGER OUT.

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Blow me posted on

Did you see the play...

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