Presented as part of the Next Rep Black Box Festival
Written by Zayd Dohrn
Directed by Bridget Kathleen O’Leary
Trigger warnings: sexual assault, nudity, sexual situations, adult language, suicide, depression, politics, implied violence
Review by Noelani Kamelamela
(Watertown, MA) This is the 30th season of New Repertory Theatre and the first show in the 2nd annual Next Rep Black Box Festival. Despite all of the trigger warnings I would highly recommend Muckrakers for adults, particularly those folks interested in exploring the moral issues that are attached to the digital age regarding transparency versus privacy. Here are the trigger warnings that New Rep provides: nudity, sexual situations and adult language. I add onto that these trigger warnings: implied violence, suicide, depression and politics. Also, I add on a big, honking trigger warning for people who have been sexually assaulted: you might experience some unpleasant flashbacks.
I don’t add on the trigger warnings lightly. Many people may be unprepared for how committed New Rep is to a realistic discussion of modern whistleblowing in the digital era. There is a commitment to the truth here that reveals the total messiness of humanity and how little control we, as individuals, have over personal and work-related information once our data touches anything internet-enabled. At around 90 minutes with no intermission in a tiny black box theatre with an audience that looms over the view of a tiny apartment, the entire set-up is meant to dwarf the play. The audience gets to hear and see everything with realistic lighting and sound. Audience members really get to experience EVERYTHING whether they want to or not. I spent a lot of the time wishing I could unsee or unhear most of the show.
Nowadays, one can completely ruin someone’s life with a mis-sent email or a simple phone call since many devices can be internet enabled. Even with the best of intentions or protection in the form of encryption and data segregation, once a device is connected whether its a computer or a server or a phone, the data from that device can always be mined: recent hacks have proven that an email sent in the 1990s or a picture taken less than five years ago can come back to haunt you even after the original file has been destroyed.
Into this digital new era, a whistleblowing male journalist who brought to light some very important military secrets spends the night at a female organizer’s place after giving a lecture. The play initially masquerades as one of those fuzzy 2am exchanges, where everything is poorly thought out and a little bit sloppy. Miscommunication, misdirection, substance abuse and sleepiness contribute to the haze. Meanwhile, our two bickering muckrakers rap about individual freedoms and collective responsibility and wax lyrical about real safety and real privacy and real security and how quaint all of those ideas are, analog, and unsophisticated. Uncomfortable questions about constant vigilance and being truly committed to an open or private life crop up.
Interspersed is some psychosexual drama, and I’ll explain the trigger warning about rape here. Watching a man aggressively hit on a woman half his age who is clearly not interested in sex with him especially when the come-ons keep going post initial rejection for nearly an hour or longer, made me feel like I was spending an eternity watching THAT GUY hit on my niece at church. It’s an all too common trope, a pervasive myth and something that happens in real life to a lot of women (not all of them young or beautiful), that all men deserve whatever they want from any woman.
Manipulation is rape, not romance. What’s brilliant about Zayd Dohrn’s writing and New Rep’s interpretation is that coercion is portrayed as it happens in the real world. Coercing someone into sexual activity is not sexy: its creepy, sad and pathetic. Grinding someone’s willpower down through wheedling and whining is not fundamentally different from offering drugs or drink and even that is really just a hop, skip and a jump away from physical violence. When one person believes that they deserve something and use any and all means to get it, the interaction is no longer about sex or manliness; its about control. It’s a crime.
Right now, the American government still has laws on the books which erase freedoms many citizens don’t know they ever had, such as the freedom to browse the internet unwatched or have their personal phone calls untapped. None of this was ever agreed to by a larger vote of the public and the more people who learn about it, the larger the backlash as well as the backlash against the backlash and the backlash against the backlash against the backlash. Rape and the erosion of personal freedoms are both terrible crimes that flourish in the US today with the assistance of indifference or confusion, but they are not equal. These widespread injustices are juxtaposed and prevalent in this work to draw attention to how terrible and ubiquitous these crimes are, but not to equate them.
The stamina and commitment of Lewis D. Wheeler and Esme Allen are impressive. Raking muck while aware of some of the dire consequences, they dig at each other and share pieces of themselves on their own terms, navigating each other as best they can. The production makes large statements about current affairs, and leaves only horrifying questions in its wake.
After Muckrakers closes in February, the Festival will continue again in March, showcasing the works of three female playwrights in the second annual Next Rep Black Box Festival.