Audience Review: Zoe Hall ‘20
I came to the Barber Theatre on November 17th to witness the production of Back the Night.
The play opened with Cassie screaming, covered in blood. I sat in my seat, immediately knowing that a powerful performance was about to take place. Back the Night shined light on the complex, disturbing, and unsettling prevalence of sexual assault, specifically on college campuses. The work makes audience members think about the culture we live in today — one that upholds misogyny and is blinded by the structures that refuse to recognize and believe survivors.
Written by Melinda Lopez, the story follows two friends, Cassie and Em, through their experiences of sexual assault, sexual violence, and the ways in which they process trauma. Cassie, played by Niara Webb ‘20, gets assaulted by members of a frat on a college campus. She goes through the process of going to the hospital, talking to the police and administrators on campus, in an attempt to find some justice and identify the perpetrator(s). We later find out that Em, played by Meg Houck ‘20, has also been assaulted by members of the same frat. In addition to these two friends, Em’s mother, the Senator, speaks out about her sexual assault while in college as well.
These three women navigate and process their sexual assaults in different ways. I found this intertwining narrative an integral part within the play. This vantage point enables the viewer to grapple with the questions survivors may ask themselves: whether or not women should be scared; whether facts and feelings are in opposition. I found the play’s display of various ways individuals experience, process, and come to understand sexual assault very important. I think the play’s ambiguity in Cassie’s sexual assault is mirrored in the lack of conclusions survivors find themselves in when coming to understand their own assault. Importantly, Back the Night represented different manifestations of sexual assault and ways of processing each.
The rhetoric used in conversations about survivors is another central theme of Back the Night. The notions that women need to be smart, they need to be scared, they shouldn’t walk alone at night, they shouldn’t dress provocatively. These phrases assume that if these guidelines are not met, an individual deserves to be assaulted. This rhetoric is apparent in the language used regarding survivors.
Everyone should be against women getting raped, right? As Brandon, Em’s frat boyfriend says, “It’s not right. Any brother, right? It’s not cool. Violence against women, right?” We have to remember how powerful language is. Brandon makes these statements to Em, but at another point in the script he also insinuates that Cassie deserved to get assaulted. The language he uses when talking to the other members of his fraternity like “pussy-ass third-grade temper tantrum” and “grow a pair” uphold ideas of toxic masculinity and the role of men as dominant and women as weak and submissive. The culture on college campuses, and specifically the representation of frats in this play, perpetuate the dangerous ways people think about sexual assault survivors and perpetrators.
The production of Back the Night on Davidson’s campus was a call to all of us on campus to recognize what is at stake when institutions disregard sexual assault. The director, Sharon Green, worded it well in her director’s note when she wrote, “It allows us, for a moment, to see the world in a different way, and if we are lucky we take what we collectively witnessed back into our everyday world outside the theatre to make it a better place.”
The power of performance is immense. I left this play feeling unsettled. I hope everyone who had the privilege of attending this play left unsettled. Unsettled by sexual assault. Unsettled by violence. Unsettled by misogyny. Unsettled in a way that provokes every audience member to reflect upon our culture that we live in. And to, by any means necessary, stimulate change.
Zoe Hall ‘20 is a Sociology Major and Dance Minor from Annapolis, MD. She can be reached for comment at email@example.com
Artist’s Reflection: Niara Webb ‘20
Each fall, the tea olive bushes, which serve as a quasi-barrier between “up” and “down the hill,” bloom in brilliantly fragranced petals. They’re impossible to ignore, blanketing the brick paths in front of Belk and along the parking spots next to Martin Court. They’re beautiful and delicate and I hate them. The fall semester ought to be one of renewal and reunion as people arrive to campus with their slates wiped clean from the previous semesters, rejoicing in the opportunity to commune with old friends and revel in new faces. The fresh scent of this bloom is emblematic of the early fall on our campus—yet, to me, their saccharine odor clouds my senses with the memory of my first few weeks at Davidson.
I never reported what happened to me. I was in a new environment with no real friendships and I was sure no one would believe or understand. I barely understood what had happened, beyond my inability to shake the feeling that my body was no longer my own.
Until I was cast in Back the Night, I had yet to be forced to reconcile my inability to openly process trauma within greater narratives of survivorship on our campus. The crux of the play’s action is not centered around violence, but rather the way its aftermath is processed differently by those affected. Coping with trauma and survivorship are lifelong processes with no single method for healing. In the play, Em refuses to acknowledge the violence she experienced for what it was, while Cassie is only able to cope by taking direct, public action against the people she believes have hurt her and Em.
There is no right or wrong way to cope with trauma. In a small community like Davidson’s, it can often feel as though there is no place private enough to be completely vulnerable. As a survivor, working directly with a text that explored those challenges offered a sort of healing-by-proxy.
What does the proximity of Back the Night’s content to the campus context within which we live mean for students? Meg Houck’s character, Em, says of the play’s fictional campus, “it’s like boredom came here to die of old age,” arguing that students seeking weekend fun have no choice but to go to fraternity parties. Melinda Lopez wrote the show to be set on “a campus much like your own,” and Em’s sentiment is evocative of feelings many Davidson students share—F isn’t great, but at least we’re not as bad as state schools, right?
Conversations with friends from other schools make it easy to romanticize party culture on our own campus. Nobody has to name five brothers to get into an apartment at F. Generally, we recognize the people dancing around us at court parties. It’s easy to think we’re different, safer, and more inclusive, but the truth is that our social spaces are no less impervious to the power structures which perpetuate a culture desensitized to sexual objectification and violence than any other school’s.
A hallmark of survivorship is seeking to regain self-control that was stolen during traumatic experiences; survivors do not owe anyone their story. Everyone owes it to the integrity of our community to hold ourselves accountable for the ways we are all, to varying degrees, complicit in the allowance of sexual violence on campus. We need to believe survivors when they choose to be vulnerable with us and honor their choice to not to share.
More than anything else, Back the Night is a lesson in how to show empathy for the diversity of expression of trauma throughout the healing process for ourselves and others.