ARKADELPHIA — It started with a class prompt in the fall of 2016: Find a news article or feature, and create a scene for a play.
Magee-Lee Preston, 21, a Buzzfeed aficionado, had stumbled upon the statement that “Emily Doe” made in court against her convicted aggressor, Brock Turner, on the news organization’s website. Turner — a Stanford University student, who was found in January 2015 on top of an unconscious woman behind a trash bin outside a fraternity party — received six months of county jail time and probation after he was found guilty of three counts of sexual assault.
“I was reading it, and I saw all these images in my head of what was going on,” the Henderson State University junior studying theater said. “It was so powerful. I was honestly hooked.”
Preston transformed the one scene into her final project for the playwriting class. That turned into a second-stage production, one directed last spring by former Henderson student Zachery Ingersoll, who now attends the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Then it was turned into a mainstage production last fall, directed by Claudia Beach, Henderson’s director of theatre.
She entered it into the regional Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival that same semester. And in January, it was performed as an Arkansas Coalition Against Sexual Assault fundraiser at Ron Robinson Theater in Little Rock.
“I thought it was really cool because every single step of this process, I always think, ‘Oh yeah, it’s done. Great experience. Cool. Done with it,’” Preston said. “And there’s a running joke that it’s the show that never dies.”
The play came on the precipice of The New York Times story that uncovered accounts of sexual harassment by Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, said Monie Johnson, the director of the state coalition. It also preceded the #MeToo movement, a social campaign that helped bring to light the prevalence of sexual assault, she said.
Johnson said one in four or five women — and one in 33 men — are sexually assaulted on a college campus. In Arkansas, state legislators interested in learning more about the prevalence on state colleges and universities recently heard from a University of Arkansas, Fayetteville associate professor on her survey of the flagship school.
“So, you have a lot of people out there that have had the experience, and now that people are believing and listening, they’re more likely to talk about it, and they want to make a change,” Johnson said. “They don’t want other people to go through the shame and the feelings that they’ve had. They want other people to get help, to know that they’ll be supported.”
She continued: “You know, there’s been a lot of social changes to happen in the history of our country, and those movements have impacted a lot of different groups of people. And I really feel like we’re there right now.”
Preston, of The Colony, Texas, said the Buzzfeed article had an impact on her. The news organization posted the victim’s statement in full, after a list of questions she had been peppered with during the trial. How much did you drink? What were you wearing? Are you sure you did that?
“It made my heart hurt for her because she had to go through this, and that was when I saw the image of her sitting down in this courtroom and the lawyer is circling her with questions and not even being able to comprehend the last question when they ask her another one,” Preston said. “It was truly like they weren’t even interested in hearing what she had to say. I felt this urge to amplify her voice.”
Those in the playwriting class, including Ingersoll, knew Preston’s play was “something that was special and something that was important,” Ingersoll said. Before the end of the semester, he had asked Preston to direct a second-stage performance — student-directed, student-designed and student-produced — of her play in spring 2017, they said.
It helped that he already knew Preston and could work with her, he said, adding the play could be put on with little expense. But, the 22-year-old said, Preston’s play was also something new and was “incredibly relevant.”
“It was a conversation I was wanting to participate in,” he said. “I think that I’m sort of an empathetic person, and it’s a problem that I see. I was raised by a single mother, and women’s issues are important to me. As a gay man, we can’t solve issues in the queer community until we address misogyny, so I feel like I personally have a stake on the platform. It’s important for all of us.”
The pair worked through numerous versions of the play before it premiered as staged readings, they said. The readings and the performances were workshopped, where the two heard from the audience on what worked and what didn’t.
“We also got to talk about the issue, which is ultimately the goal,” he said.
About the same time, theatre department faculty members at Henderson were discussing which plays to direct for the next year’s season, said Beach, the theatre director. The discussion is a bit of a jigsaw puzzle, where faculty members decide who’s directing in which slot, how many students are in each focus that need experience and what kinds of plays are needed, she said.
Beach made the pitch to her two peers.
“I just thought it was a message that particularly college students but the rest of the community also needed to hear in a way that kind of shakes your way of thinking without — you don’t feel like you’re being preached to or accused of being a horrible person,” the professor said. “It was not 100 percent everybody buy-in from the beginning. There were some that were not as confident as the script as I was. But eventually, I went out and there we went.”
The final product is a 90-page, one-act play with the two main characters: Emily Doe and Brock Turner. Preston includes chorus members — actors who may play different characters. Of the chorus members, two are staunch supporters of Turner, two are of Emily Doe and one is said to want to know all facts before reaching a decision. The group is used as a way to show different aspects of what a rape victim encounters, including victim-blaming and family support, Preston said.
It came after much research, including court testimony and interviews with sexual assault victims, she said.
The play starts with the rape. It doesn’t hold back on details of the medical exam that rape victims go through, nor does it steer away from the court testimony.
“I think when she first began, she was focused a bit more on just the unfairness of the treatment of Emily Doe and how the courts ended up giving Brock Turner such a light sentence,” Beach said of Preston. “So when she started, it was sort of horror over how Emily Doe was treated. As she continued working on the play, I think that’s when she started getting more interested in the effects of this on Emily Doe and/or the rape victim. Essentially, it grew from a story about victimization into a story about survival.”
The mainstage production was “very positively” received, Beach said, adding the play won a director’s choice award from the regional Kennedy Center competition.
They had invited the university’s Title IX coordinator and Johnson, the director of the state coalition, for feedback sessions for the main-stage productions as well.
Johnson said the first time she saw the play, she had a preconceived idea that she would have many things to correct because of normalized societal reactions to sexual assault. She took a notebook, scribbling down notes of what she was prepared to look for, she said, but a third of the way into the play, she put her notebook aside.
“I think through the whole play, I just became more and more intrigued that they had covered it so accurately,” she said. “So my reaction the first time was just surprise, I guess, that it was covered so well.”
And after the fall season, the coalition’s board president Brett Powell — also the vice president of finance and administration at Henderson — recommended using the play as a fundraiser for the group, which is limited to strict uses of federal funding, Johnson said. The Henderson group presented the play once again — this time at Ron Robinson in Little Rock — for about 85 people, she said.
“It touched a lot of people,” she said. “There’s something about reading about something, and then actually seeing it happen that can take your brain there.”
The January play has been the latest opportunity for Preston’s play. But, as of late, Preston has been on a quest to find the real Emily Doe.
“My play is all about consent, and I want to get her consent on if she’s OK with this,” she said. “And if she’s not, then this was a cool experience, and I got this awesome play, and she gets to keep this forever. If she likes it and is OK with me going forward with it, then I want to enter it into competitions and would love it to play other places.”
Print Headline: Assault case a potent stage draw