Aurora Theatre’s ‘Actually’ stuns in detail-focused narrative questioning consent

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There are two sides to every story. In playwright Anna Ziegler’s “Actually,” those two sides are laid out in detail for the audience. At Aurora Theatre, the production is compelling and all consuming, as two separate stories emerge into one — only to continue to clash in the end.

Directed by Tracy Ward, “Actually” follows two college students, a white woman named Amber (Ella Dershowitz) and a Black man named Tom (Michael A. Curry), who go home together after a drunken night at a party. Details of their sexual encounter become fuzzy, especially for Amber, who isn’t sure if what happened was consensual or not. Amber tells a friend, which eventually spirals into a formal accusation of rape and a hearing in front of the school board. The characters speak directly to the audience as they explain not only the night of the encounter and the hearing but also the pivotal moments of the years leading up to that one precise occurrence. Accusations of sexual assaults are complicated, often coming down to a “he said, she said.” What is so striking about this play is how Ziegler turns this idea on its head by providing years worth of information regarding these characters’ lives, leading up to how they view and speak about the encounter they had. And, further, their stories are full of details that make the situation even murkier than it already is.

Within minutes, the audience learns that Amber’s parents met and fell for each other on the first day of college, and her dad was her mom’s college professor. This detail gives a small insight into how Amber must view power dynamics — that is to say, in a skewed way. Meanwhile, Tom experienced something akin to sexual misconduct before. In high school, he kissed a young teacher in what he communicates as a consensual scenario. She was fired, but Tom had to deal with the consequences. Initially, this makes Tom look worse, but then he tells the audience about his mother’s reaction, which was not anger at her son but a call against racism. With race clearly at play between Amber and Tom — a Black man accused of rape by a white woman is a familiar narrative with a predictable outcome — this detail only makes things murkier.

And the actors’ performances only heighten the blurriness of the situation and strengthen the compelling nature of the parallel narratives. With only two characters and a storyline led by what is essentially two interweaving monologues, the actors’ firm grasp on their roles is vital. Dershowitz and Curry both excel in this, radiating the distinct personalities of their respective characters. And their characters are quite different from each other. Amber is nervous and often overly analytical, while Tom is sure of himself without being cocky.

Amber and Tom are so different that their personalities often clash. The dynamic of them being worlds apart is further emphasized by the structure of their storylines — a lighthearted passage by Amber is likely followed by a darker, more serious passage by Tom and vice versa. But their personalities also need to mesh. And the moments in which they do mesh are what make the tension between them so much more intricate.

There are two sides to every story and what becomes clear in “Actually” is that any two sides are far from straightforward. Amber and Tom’s encounter comes down to much more than just what happened that night. Each detail simultaneously makes each side more complex while making the central question — whether or not their encounter was consensual — harder and harder to answer. In the end, though, when more questions are raised than answers provided, the viewers won’t be left unsatisfied — they’ll be too busy caught up in the never-ending intricacy of the details.

“Actually” will be playing at Aurora Theatre in Berkeley through April 5.

Contact Nikki Munoz at [email protected].