Racial tensions run high on Princeton’s prestigious campus in Actually
When I was accepted to Princeton, a family friend I’d perhaps met once took it upon himself to send me a message. He urged me not to go, despite my dreams, due to the school’s less-than-stellar history with minority students and Jewish students in particular. Believing that the events he referred to were in the distant past, I disregarded his note and matriculated, and I fell madly in love with my school and the brilliant people populating it. That didn’t mean, however, that the journey was completely smooth.
Take an elite college full of self-reflective, high-achieving teenagers under pressure to succeed, mix in insecurities, alcohol, hormones, and class tensions, and you have a recipe for angst and bad decisions. It was with that background that I was eager to see Anna Ziegler’s Actually, a production by the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company in association with Obsidian Theatre Company, now playing at the Greenwin Theatre at the Meridian Arts Centre in North York.
In Actually, Amber (Claire Renaud), a Jewish freshman at Princeton, has a crush on fellow student Tom (Tony Ofori), who is Black, and the first in his family to go to college. After a tame first date, things escalate between the two of them, culminating in a drunken hookup where consent becomes murky. Mentioning this to a teammate, Amber is convinced to file a Title IX claim of sexual misconduct, where she says she tried to get up during the encounter, saying “Actually…” in protest. Tom, blindsided, insists she was “into it” and did nothing of the kind. Handled as an internal matter rather than a criminal one in the bizarre fiefdom that is a college campus, it goes to pseudo-trial in front of three impartial university employees, run by an administration hard-pressed to appropriately handle the delicate situation.
And a delicate balance it is. Told mostly in flashback and intercut monologues, the joy of Ziegler’s complex and intelligent script is that it continually shifts the balance of our sympathies. It develops two extremely well-rounded characters and refuses to choose a hero and a villain. Instead, they are flawed, floundering to find identity and desperately sad; they are witty and artistic and talented. They are deeply affected by circumstance, gender, race, and class, all things that change the power relationship between them.
Amber’s father is dead; Tom’s left the family. Both have mothers putting enormous pressure on them for perfection. Amber feels like nobody ever sees her, wondering if she even exists; Tom feels like he is constantly visible, all the time. Also, as Amber puts it, both suffer the generational trauma of always wondering if their people will be rounded up and killed in the near future. The choice of a collaboration between the Harold Green and Obsidian theatres here is a brilliant one, and gives us a hard-hitting but sensitive rendition that keeps us focused on the humanity of the story rather than the score.
Both Renaud and Ofori are stellar in their roles. The language they have to deal with is smart and bright and quick and occasionally convoluted, and they nail every line and every back and forth. They have an uneasy but genuine chemistry, making you desperately wish circumstances were different for them, and that they had more scenes together when they were fully interacting. Ofori towers over Renaud, who seems to get even smaller as she tries to protect and explain herself, but then it’s Ofori turning in on himself, broadcasting vulnerability, as Renaud strides across the stage. Their layered and nuanced performances are riveting.
Sean Mulcahy’s beautiful set mostly evokes an ancient Greek theatre with only vague hints of a college campus, furthering the message that both participants are trying to speak their truth while simultaneously being put on stage and expected to act a certain role. Costume designer Alex Amini has both wear subtle shades of orange, slightly off of Princeton’s official colour, with an outer layer covering what’s underneath.
Actually critiques the emptiness of hookup culture without being moralizing, speaking to “that mortifying ordeal of wanting to be known,” and potentially loved, in a society that increasingly prizes transactional anonymity. It’s like a punch to the psychic gut from a glove filled with feathers. Surprisingly, it is also very funny, leading to the fascinating experience of hearing bursts of laughter come from clearly different sections of the room at different points. It is a must-see show for right now.
Fittingly, Princeton released a statement on Title IX the day Actually opened in Toronto. A joint committee has met for months after student protests demanded the university change some of its policies. Changes are coming, including a working group on “restorative justice practices.” This is an important and current discussion happening everywhere, and Actually is a vital part of it. Like the young adults we see here finding their way, we can only hope for self-reflection and improvement moving forward.
- Actually plays at the Greenwin Theatre, Meridian Arts Centre (5040 Yonge St.) until September 29th, 2019.
- Show times are Monday-Thursday and Saturday at 8:00 pm, Sunday at 2:00 pm and 7:00 pm, and Wednesday at 1:00 pm.
- Tickets are $15-78.50 and can be purchased online, by calling 1-855-985-2787, or at the Theatre Box Office.
- Running time is approximately 90 minutes without intermission.
Photo of Claire Renaud and Tony Ofori by Joanna Akyol