Newark Teens Star in Acclaimed Drama About Sexual Assault, Bullying and Rape Culture at NJPAC

The New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) has partnered with The Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey, the Mental Health Association of Essex County and Newark Public Schools to bring a performance of a groundbreaking drama to more than 1,500 Newark high school students — and to open up an essential dialogue about sexual assault and rape culture at schools and homes throughout the city.

Al-nisa Petty in rehearsal for Slut The Play. Photo: Yasmeen Fahmy

Katie Cappiello’s critically-acclaimed work, SLUT: The Play, was inspired by the real experiences of young women with whom she worked to create the piece. The resulting drama boldly explores issues of sexuality and sexual assault in the lives of contemporary high school students, in their own frank, uncensored language. Since its first performance in New York City in 2013, the piece has reached sold-out audiences across the US, and around the globe.

Now, for a series of performances at NJPAC, Cappiello has for the first time revised the play, to reflect the lives, language and concerns of young women of color.

“When NJPAC asked to produce SLUT: The Play, I was thrilled they wanted to bring this much-needed conversation to Newark. When it became clear this would be the first all-girl-of-color cast, I saw it as my responsibility to go back to the script and recreate the piece in a way that felt authentic to the brave, powerful young actors taking on the piece,” says Cappiello.

“Yes, sexual shaming and violence touches every community, but they manifest differently in every community. Having the opportunity to spend time with girls in Newark, along with social workers, counselors and educators, and talk openly about their personal experiences with gender expectations, assault, racism, religion, family, and friendship, I was able to rewrite SLUT: The Play to capture the nuances and complexities of these issues from their perspective,” she says.

This alternate script of SLUT: The Play will have its debut at NJPAC’s Victoria Theater April 25 through April 27, during three performances mounted exclusively for Newark high school students, plus one performance open to the public.

Student performances will be offered at 10 a.m. April 25, and 12:30 p.m. April 26 and April 27. The public performance will be held at 7 p.m. April 27; tickets, $8.50, are available at the NJPAC box office, or at www.njpac.org/events/detail/slut.

Each show will end with an audience “talk-back” opportunity, at which the students can interact with a panel including the cast, the director and counselors from the Mental Health Association of Essex County.

In addition, NJPAC and the Mental Health Association of Essex County offered professional development events to Newark Public Schools guidance counselors and social workers around the issues of sexual assault and slut-shaming. Before attending the performances of SLUT: The Play, student audiences will attend assemblies at their schools, offering students resources and information for approaching any similar situations in their own lives. A teacher’s resource guide will also be available to the participating high schools.

The performance, the post-performance panels and the professional development offerings are all supported by The Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey.

“The Healthcare Foundation has been working throughout our 21 year history to raise awareness and lower the incidence of sexual abuse and assault,” says Marsha Atkind, CEO and Executive Director of The Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey.

“We feel strongly that this groundbreaking project — customized for the Newark community — will make a real difference in the lives of the students, families, and teachers it touches. Bravo to NJPAC and its partners for embarking on such important work.”

NJPAC, which prides itself on serving as a locus of artistic performance and civic discussion in its community, is offering both the performances and professional development opportunities in order to facilitate a dialogue around sexual assault — one that the recent #MeToo movement has shown is vitally important to women of all ages.

“This work of art is a remarkable and timely opportunity to use both theater and the real life experience of our teenagers to dig into an awful reality that affects more girls than one might imagine,” says John Schreiber, President and CEO of NJPAC.

“I believe the piece has the opportunity to transform the lives of its teenage actors, and have an exponentially positive effect on the students and community members who will experience it.”

As part of the project, counselors from the Mental Health Association of Essex County not only worked with Newark Public School guidance counselors and social workers, they also attended every rehearsal of the play to support the young cast, made up of Newark high school students ranging in age from 15 to 18, plus one Newark-native adult actress.

Mental Health Association counselors will also be onsite at the Victoria Theater during performances, to assist any audience members who are affected by the incidents depicted in the play, which offers a raw look at teen sexuality and rape culture. Student audiences will be advised that they are free to seek counseling in the lobby during the performance itself, as well as afterward.

“The purpose of this play is to empower young ladies and young men to make changes in their communities, to make changes in how they view sex and sexuality, and to empower them to make decisions that feel good for them,” says Barbara Brownsword, a veteran counselor at the Mental Health Association of Essex County, who presented the professional development workshops to Newark Public School teachers and has attended the rehearsals.

“The language of the play might be raw or rough to our ears, but this is a reality to teens — they use this language, they speak these words. This is how they speak to each other, these are their experiences, it’s not foreign to them,” she says.

“This is truly activist theater work,” says Betsy True, NJPAC’s Senior Director of Arts Education, who is directing the performance. “This play is an education about the power of social media, the power of consent, the power of being engaged when you see something that is not right. We deal with all that through this play,” she says.

“At NJPAC, we orient our programs to amplify student voice,” adds Alison Scott-Williams, Vice President of Arts Education.

“This piece not only brings awareness to a problem that our young women experience, but it allows them to give voice to the problem, and begins to open the door to solutions,” Scott-Williams says.

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