During the Nov. 11 and 12 performances at the MSU Auditorium’s Arena Theatre, MSU Department of Theatre students addressed a variety of complex social issues in the “Sexual Politics Series.”
The production explored how art and theatre serve as outlets for issues of discrimination, empowerment and abuse in addition to creating space for thought-provoking dialogue. Through a full-length show of monologues, dialogues, poetry and personal narrative, the student performers deliver messages of what consent, acceptance and oppression mean.
As part of the department’s 2018-19 “Breaking Down Borders” season, the show set forth to answer the question: “How does theatre respond to the issues that currently define us?”
Some of the issues addressed in the show’s various scenes included MSU politics surrounding sexual assault and the Nassar sentencings as well as themes of stalking, consent, coming out, gender and race.
Described by Assistant Director Philip Effiong as “bare-bones,” the show consisted of few props and minimalist costumes. These choices were intentional, made to keep the actors and their storylines the focus of the performance.
“For the most part, it’s kind of experimental because it hasn’t been done before, so we have to tread carefully and see the responses,” Effiong said. “The enthusiasm is the motivation we need to move farther, to be bolder, to be more forthright and to address these issues without sugar-coating them because they’re that serious.”
The goal of the performances was to dive into discomfort and to not fear discussing sensitive topics. Director Alexis Black said the future of the project is unknown, but she’s hopeful similar dialogues will continue on and off stage.
“I want this to go somewhere else; I don’t know where that can be ... A huge part of my research is to empower marginalized groups, women, all genders. That’s a big part of my work and is something I’m passionate about,” Black said. “Just continuing to get our voices heard and speak louder and louder and keep expanding our message.”
Level to the ground, Arena Theatre’s stage served as a blank canvas for the performers to tell stories. As if they were in a glass fishbowl, the actors put themselves on full display to portray complex characters and storylines.
The scripts did not hold back from playing out emotionally-charged situations. In response to this, a safe space was made available for audience members to use at any point during the show.
The opening and closing scenes of the performance were centered around students at MSU learning about misconduct surrounding sexual abuse on campus and the survivors of ex-MSU doctor Larry Nassar. MSU students represented the heart of the show. They found it important to voice their own experiences, repeat the names of the survivors out loud and quote bits of their testimonies from the Nassar sentencings.
The rest of the scenes ranged from humorous satire depicting hypermasculine gender roles to the struggles and rewards of coming out. Characters discussed objectification and the complexity of sexuality and attraction while keeping in character and moving with a plot.
A metaphor made popular by the YouTube video “Tea Consent” was acted out live on stage, making the audience chuckle while exemplifying the importance of consent in emotional and physical interactions.
Choreographed by Black to exemplify non-consent through dance, cast member Kevin Mazur took the scene and incorporated pieces of the “Tea Consent” script to create his message.
“I was able to sit down and watch the moving sequence, and I would find moments that I saw them doing very intense non-consent motions and movements and I sort of blended that into a consensual dance style,” Mazur said.
Acting and art and humanities major Camille Thomas spoke on the process and unique challenges this show presented for the student performers.
“For me, that was one of the most difficult parts. Usually when we’re in a department production, we’re in one role and that’s the role we’re in for the whole show,” Thomas said. “We talked about the plays and the themes that were in it and what we wanted to bring out.”
Thomas wrote a piece called “Time’s Up,” which was performed by the whole ensemble.
A question-and-answer session followed the performance, where the cast and directors sat on stage and allowed audience members to give feedback. The common theme of audience conversation compounded the efforts the performance made to address social issues relevant to MSU students.
One member of the audience said the show surpassed their expectations, but they wished it could have reached a wider range of people and that more students at MSU could have access to spaces for dialogue about uncomfortable topics.