The power of theatre lies in its ability to start a conversation. The 2015-2016 Broadway season brought a proliferation of work that challenges audiences to consider the issue of sexual violence against women through varying lenses of multiple playwrights and artists. From the process of one woman finding the strength to leave her abusive husband in Waitress to the different ways in which captives retain their humanity amidst rape and war in Eclipsed, Broadway is finally taking a stand when it comes to the reality of violence against women.
This season’s Blackbird, The Color Purple, The Crucible and Bright Star also boast female protagonists that face victimization by men. At the 2016 Lilly Awards May 23, which honors the work of women in theatre, Waitress director Diane Paulus expressed frustration over the way the media often fails to recognize the issue: “The cover of the Arts and Leisure section two weeks ago was an article entitled ‘The Year Broadway Broke Through,’ in which New York Times theatre critics Ben Brantley and Charles Isherwood and editor Scott Heller discussed how it was a strikingly diverse, unusually urgent season. Sexual and domestic violence must not be urgent issues since in their discussion there was not one mention of this theme that has been an integral part of our Broadway season this year.” But according to the numbers, domestic violence is nothing if not an urgent issues. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence cites that one in three women in the U.S.—and one in four men—have been victims of physical violence by an intimate partner, and one in five women have been raped in their lifetime. “Women’s stories are quick to be brushed under the rug by the media,” Paulus said. “It’s time that we recognize the incredible artists…who are telling these stories in impactful ways.” Fortunately, Broadway is gaining ground on these stories, and the writers and artists behind them tout why they took their work to bold new levels.
When Jessie Nelson, book writer for Waitress, began to explore the relationship between Jenna (played by Jessie Mueller) and her undercutting, abusive husband Earl (played by Nick Cordero) she wanted to make sure audiences were able to understand the journey both characters had taken to get to such a difficult place in their lives. “If you’re really doing your job as a writer, you will try to understand why each character is doing what they’re doing,” she says. “I wanted to understand why Jenna initially loved Earl, when it turned, why she wasn’t able to extricate herself from it and for people to feel compassion for that rather than judgement.” Nelson wanted the same fairness given to Earl. “People need to see who he was when Jenna met him, who he became, why he became that.”
Nelson worked with several psychologists and SAVI (the Mount Sinai Sexual Assault and Violence Intervention Program) to create a realistic backstory in which Earl was a challenging person with a temper—but not previously abusive. She decided that when his own dreams didn’t come to fruition after high school, his quick temper (coupled with a propensity for drinking) turned into a rage when Jenna began to see success with her pies. “[Audiences don’t initially hate him because] he has a public self and a private self,” Nelson says of the fact that many abusers are depicted one-dimensionally. “What he presents is a little doofusy and controlling … and then when you’re alone with him, you see this whole other aspect of him. What SAVI taught me that is so important to our story is that [people like Earl] are so unhappy that they kind of chip away at your confidence because that’s threatening to them. Waitress shows that the strength you need to extricate yourself from that relationship is the very thing that’s been taken away from you by being in the relationship.”
Danai Gurira took a different approach when it came to writing Eclipsed. In contrast to Nelson’s choices with Waitress, she preferred not to focus on the relationship between women and their abusers, but instead on how women survive after assault. She set her play in the Second Liberian Civil War because of how little attention she believes rape receives when connected to war. “War, as a conflict, immediately increases and intensifies sexual violence against women,” she says. “The issue is something that cannot be avoided…It was important to see the loss of innocence in a young girl who has been dispersed by war and abducted.” Gurira purposely chose to take the men out of the narrative to expose the aftermath of the incidents. “I’ve seen experiences where you show the violence, but you don’t see the effect on the women. How do you even take another step after you’ve been violated? To see how a woman does work through that is something I wanted to highlight.”
Saycon Sengbloh, who played Helena (or Wife Number One), saw women work through their traumatic experiences in an unexpected way: humor. In her research for developing her character, Sengbloh was taken by the comicality and uplifting attitudes of women in horrific situations. “I was watching some footage on YouTube of women who were sex workers, and they were living in these little rooms to which the guy who handled them had a key,” she recalls. “It was really crazy, and the things women would say were hilarious! People laugh to keep from crying. In the most dire situations, they’re cracking jokes about sexual things—even about death. I think it’s a part of human nature.”
In Waitress, Eclipsed and The Color Purple, a man never physically assaults a woman onstage; instead, the writers allude to the violence. Gurira points out that this is not a choice made to keep audiences comfortable. “I’m not going to curb the horror,” she says of writing the sensitive issue into live performance. “I’m going to tell it in a way that keeps the focus where I want it to be, and that’s why I kept it on the women and their experiences, how they coped and how they navigated it.” For Gurira, certain moments in the show are difficult to watch. “It’s very crucial to me to see…those moments where they’re having what one could consider a normal human experience, and then this man comes along [offstage] and yanks this girl away. He exercises another moment of sexual violence upon her just as she’s trying to find her own footing. The discomfort of watching them wash themselves afterwards every time is something that I wanted to be vivid and devastating to an audience.”
“In Waitress we see him almost hit her, and that’s the moment she shares with him that she’s actually pregnant,” says Nelson of Earl and Jenna. “We were constantly looking for ways to have him give her a compliment, and then in the very next breath undercut her, so she was always destabilized when she was with him.” Nelson recalls a moment when she realized that everyone brings their own experiences to Jenna and Earl’s relationship and the need for discussion. “One guy said to me, ‘Earl was one good AA meeting away from being a great guy.’ I thought, ‘You just watched him almost hit her!’ The minute he raises his hand, I think, ‘Get out!’”
Danielle Brooks, The Color Purple’s Sofia, appreciates Mister (the abusive master to Cynthia Erivo’s Celie) as the rare abuser to realize the cruelty of his actions. “This man was so abusive, but he does find a way to shift his thinking and to be different,” she says. “That’s what I love about theatre—it’s supposed to change us and make us want to be different. That’s what we’re doing in The Color Purple, making people look inside them and say, ‘What do I need to fix? What’s ugly? What can I help someone else fix?’”
The contraversality of the issue of sexual violence is one that the Broadway community is happy to see explored onstage. “People are finally having an opportunity to have a voice,” says Sengbloh of the theme being prevalent last season. “It’s time for people to listen. Everything can’t be fluff all the time.”
“There’s never a bad time to talk about violence against women and address it,” says Isaiah Johnson, who portrays Mister. “Whenever society as a whole is in an economic recession, I think we gravitate toward art that is a little bit more fantastical or fictional. Because we’re no longer in an economic recession, people are a little bit more accepting of stories of high drama and conflict. … Thankfully, women have more of a platform to talk about issues that are important to them.”
“Stories about the empowerment of women are really meaningful right now in the culture,” says Nelson. “There’s a woman running for president, [Waitress] is the first all-female team to do a Broadway show, we have people like Lena Dunham creating their own shows… so it doesn’t surprise me that it is being looked at thematically.”
“We have more female playwright presence in the theatre industry right now,” says Johnson. “Often we see women as the damsel in distress or women that are not in positions of power. Eventually, we’ll begin to move away from them being in positions of domestic violence or having to overcome diversity at the hands of a man. I think we’ll begin to see female characters that are like Elizabeth in If/Then, wrestling with her own life purpose. Plus, for women who have suffered issues of domestic abuse, that’s not the scope of their entire life. It’s a momentary thing that is incredibly life altering, but it’s not their entire existence. It’s definitely not the extent of their value, and that will hopefully be explored more as well.”
Iris Wiener is an entertainment journalist. Her work appears on Playbill.com and in TheaterMania, Long Island Woman and Long Island Herald, among other publications. Follow her on Twitter at @Iris_Wiener or visit her at IrisWiener.com.