by Michael Mraz · February 28, 2014
[Note from the Editor: This is the first in what we envision as an ongoing series of articles by indie theater practitioners examining pertinent and timely social issues as viewed through the lens of contemporary indie theater. We hope readers will explore these and other contemporary dramas and add to the conversation. This essay is by Michael Mraz--scroll down for his bio.]
Woody Allen’s recent Lifetime Achievement Award at the Golden Globes reawakened decades-old allegations of the sexual abuse of his adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow. An op-ed piece by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times on February 1st renewed Farrow’s accusations in the media. Allen has since responded in his own editorial, again denying any truth to the allegations, blaming the situation on the turbulent split between himself and Dylan’s mother, Mia Farrow. Talking heads have pounced on the situation in the media, and many other people (famous and otherwise) have either rushed to Allen’s defense or to condemn him.
Whether Allen is innocent or not (in my opinion, a very touchy issue to tackle--the rich and famous have shown, time and again, examples in which they abuse their power and position, but also in which they become easy targets for any kind of accusations; many have exploited; many have been exploited), it has once again brought the issue of child abuse rushing to the forefront. Child abuse (physical, mental, and sexual) is an extremely complex issue; one that it is difficult to delve into because of the wide-ranging, strong feelings and opinions that people have about it. However, many artists and playwrights in the Indie Theater Community have attempted to get a grasp on the issue of child abuse, and many of their works can be found on Indie Theater Now. Whether in nightmarish fictional scenarios or accounts from their own lives, these artists have approached this terrible, tragic issue; trying to make sense of it (or work out their feelings from their own experience), much like the rest of us, whenever these stories storm back into the headlines.
One of the more straightforward depictions of abuse in progress is Topher Cusumano's You’re a Good Boy, Abercorn- a dark, haunting nightmare of a systematic abuser of young boys, Bull, and one boy, Abercorn, who may have outlived his usefulness. Despite being a less personal account than some of the other plays I’ll discuss (though still--terrifyingly--based on true events), it packs a pitch-black darkness into a short script and portrays the full range of mental, physical, and sexual abuse. Cusumano dissects the terrible power that most abusers have over children in these situations: Abercorn, who Bull started abusing when a very young boy, is now in his 20s but stuck in a prison of perpetual childhood, for he knows if he doesn't “stay young,” he will no longer be needed or desired by Bull (and the play often alludes to the fates of previous boys who have outlived their usefulness to Bull’s sordid, torture-fantasies).
Cusumano (in Abercorn) also references a very interesting twist in the psychology of many men who abuse young boys: that abusing young men doesn't make them homosexual; and, somehow, the suggestion that they are is dirtier to them than the idea of the truly horrifying acts they are committing. This psychological break is also the basis of the abuser in Bob Brader’s solo show, Spitting in the Face of the Devil, which focuses on Brader's turbulent relationship with his abusive ex-Marine father while growing up. His father was physically and mentally abusive to him and sexually abusive to his male friends while growing up.
Particularly striking about this story is just how little the people around Bob seemed to want to help him or seemed powerless to do so. Many people who crossed Bob’s path who occupied societal roles that would not stand for the abuse of a child (police, his guidance counselor, his grandparents) not only do not seem to believe him, but at times witness the abuse and do nothing. Whereas his mother seems to want to help but, perhaps after years of similar abuse, has lost the strength to truly escape Bob Sr.’s pull.
Throughout many of these plays, this theme of interdependence-gone-terribly-wrong arises again and again. Almost none moreso than in Clint Jeffries’ The Jocker, which explores sexual abuse from a rather unique point of view--that of the “jocker”: an older hobo who keeps a younger hobo--a punk--as a servant and sexual partner. While it explores how this arrangement can actually turn into a loving partnership, it centers on one horrifyingly abusive example. Jocker Biloxi Billy “saved” Nat (his punk) and has “taken care of him” since Nat set off on his own, so Nat not only stays in the abusive relationship but still imbues Billy with traits of honor and kindness. Billy, in turn, uses these feelings and fear of abandonment to keep Nat in his clutches. However, there is always a deep-seated worry evident with Billy that he will be abandoned by Nat and robbed of his power and dominance. Also, as in Spitting in the Face of the Devil, the one character who Nat goes to for help seems reluctant to get involved, even though he knows the extent of Billy’s abusiveness.
Kirk Wood Bromley’s epic spoken-word/poetry piece, Un(en)titled touches the subject of over-mothering and an inability to let go of children (much like the situation that created Abercorn, the perpetual man-child), before taking a harrowing descent into a virtual sexual assault.
The play first delves into the power issues in sex--drawing an uncomfortable amount of attention on how much a parent-child relationship can sometimes make its way into sexual role-playing--and then morphs into an extended abuse by both father and mother (which is actually a rare occurrence in the plays and stories prevalent in the media; most often we see the adult male as the abuser) with all of their children at once, both male and female.The gender roles blur quite often through the sequence, perhaps calling attention to the irrelevancy of gender to abuse, but throughout it leans heavily on the ability of someone who is trusted and knowledgeable to manipulate--usually under the guise of “teaching” the child and the child “pleasing” the adult; again highlighting the interdependence.
Stacy Davidowitz’s Pink is less about “child abuse” the way that we conventionally perceive it, and more about children abusing each other. It follows five 12-year-old girls in Bunk 14 at sleep-away camp as they discuss a plethora of adult issues. Davidowitz creates an interesting picture of the abusive group mentality as these 12-year-olds play-act at what they think it is to be adult. They call each other sluts and lesbians and talk about rape and dry-humping as if they're nothing. It’s oddly, comically over-the-top, while being simultaneously frighteningly authentic. Davidowitz’s characters symbolize the mean-girl mentality that causes so many self-esteem issues with young girls. Their absolute viciousness builds as the play goes on, eventually turning from girls lightly play-acting at “being adult” to true horrific abuse of each other. It raises the question: is this the environment and age that people learn to be abusive to each other as adults? Or has the damage already become irreparable while girls are still in their tween stage?
Saviana Stanescu ‘s Polanski Polanski explores what happens when child abuse goes very public--taking on one of the more famous celebrity child abuse cases. Stanescu’s piece begins as a stream-of-consciousness of Polanski’s “thoughts” during the actual incident with 13-year-old Samantha Geimer (which famously led to the filmmaker voluntarily exiling himself from the US), tying it closely to his film Chinatown, which centers on themes of child abuse and incest, before turning into a trial where Polanski is both the defendant and the prosecutor. It tries to decipher the reasoning of the abuser: the struggle to do what’s right--to not ruin something so pure which such a profound sin--which folds to a deeper, uncontrollable desire.
The feeling of wanting to father, to nurture--once again, to teach--which gives way to the kind of impurity that type of power can breed and foster. Stanescu, particularly in the trial section, steers clear of passing judgment; instead presenting opposing sides of the argument: the justification--that nobody knows what happened in that moment between those two people except them and just how mutual the feelings were--and the societal perception that, no matter what the situation, the age of the girl makes it dead wrong, and there is no justification.
Maria Micheles' Around the Night Park deals directly with that societal perception. Joe, a convicted sex-offender for watching child pornography (it’s never confirmed if there is more to it), is trapped in his station in life; unable to get a job or even use a computer without being under constant scrutiny. However Micheles' play also suggests there is a cause that triggers this psychological break in the abuse: Joe compulsively watches pornography and it seems that it may have something to do with his father’s obsessions with sex and pornography while Joe was a child. Heidi, Joe’s girlfriend, is a busy-body who is always pushing forward so she won’t have to look back. There are things alluded to in her past--an early sexual experience with other children, lewd behavior by strangers--but looming in the periphery is the feeling that something else happened to damage these people so profoundly, and we never quite uncover it. Around the Night Park addresses the idea of these repressed memories and the effectiveness or lack thereof of the therapy used to try to resolve these issues.
David L. Epstein’s Strange Attractions, Suzanne Bachner’s We Call Her Benny , and Antonio Sacre’s My Penis - In and Out of Trouble are a trio of shows that also deal with the deep-seated, sometimes subconscious ramifications of child abuse. Strange Attractions centers on three very different sisters with strained relationships, and the revelation of the source of their tension owes a debt to Polanski’s aforementioned Chinatown. However the unique thing here is that the abuser--their father--is almost never mentioned and there seems to be very little blame or vitriol pointed in his direction. The abuse instead turns into a toxin that destroys the relationship between the sisters; they blame each other more than their father. It also explores the cyclical nature of abuse, as the youngest sister has also been abused by a brother figure.
Strange Attractions questions whether this is a course that people who were raised in this culture of sexual abuse are doomed to be pulled into again and again? Is it possible that there is some damage almost inherited by abuse that makes the victim susceptible to these situations?
Whereas the characters/people in We Call Her Benny and My Penis - In and Out of Trouble have either repressed or not realized that people had taken advantage of them. In Benny, Anna deals with bipolar disorder, which exacerbates her feeling of “otherness,” caused by her mother’s abandonment of her. Her husband, Kevin, who was also adopted, says, “I begged you to leave me. I told you that you were better than me. That I didn’t deserve you. That I’d never deserve you." This feeling that she did not deserve better leads to her being abused as a 12-year-old by friend of the family and she never realized that he was just taking advantage of her.
My Penis - In and Out of Trouble focuses on playwright/performer Antonio Sacre’s s becoming too sexually active, much too young--and how that affected how he viewed his entire sexual life. It’s only later in life, when his penis has gotten him in and out of trouble with many women along the way, did he realized that he was abused on two separate occasions--and that this abuse flashed in front of his eyes in every sexual encounter he had and, much worse for him, affected the way he looked at children (touching on Around the Night Park and Strange Attractions’ theme of the cyclical nature of abuse).
Sacre tried to use his experience in a very triumphant way: he created his show as a cautionary about premature sexuality. However, he recounts a talk he gave at a Boulder High School, recounting his own experience to warn high school students of making mistakes with sex at too young an age. Though he intended to help, his talk at the high school gets taken out of context by the media and he’s publicly persecuted as a dangerous man. This angle of child abuse conversation tends to be dissected much less in the media: when it comes to children, abuse, and sex, we largely hold our trials in the media first and at times this is based on hearsay rather than proof. Recent Danish Best Foreign Film Oscar nominee, The Hunt, also centers on this side of the equation: a kindergarten teacher falsely accused of child abuse who, while triumphing in court, never really recovers in the court of public opinion.
There are so many facets to this issue; it remains a problem everywhere in the world. It is intolerable, publicly denounced, yet it is one of the hardest subjects to talk about openly. It raises many questions about the psyche of both the abuser and the abused. And, for some reason, despite the unwavering societal feeling that any form of child abuse is absolutely wrong, no matter the circumstance, it seems to be a situation in which people feel almost powerless to help the abused.
These playwrights have confronted the Indie Theater community with the issue of child abuse. In some cases (as with Bob Brader’s Spitting in the Face of the Devil and Antonio Sacre’s My Penis - In and Out of Trouble), theater has served as a form of therapy and victory over their abusers for the artist. However the most important victory is that it has brought the conversation to the audience. Maybe it’ll allow us to consistently engage in the discourse, however harrowing and uncomfortable it may be, without allowing it to fade away in between the latest celebrity scandals.