Dallas — Let me tell you 'bout the birds and the bees and the flowers and the trees and sexually transmitted disease, or STD. Say, what?
Sex Ed, Cry Havoc Theater Company's latest 70-minute devised play is no romantic Buddy Holly song. Not by a long shot. The young actors in the play also collaborated on the script, and they want truthful, accurate information about human sexuality and their own bodies. What about emotional relations and responsibilities? What's safe sex? What about birth control? What does "consent" really mean? What if I'm gay or trans?
All these concerns are played out with the urgency of adolescents coming to grips with profound physical and emotional changes happening fast in their own bodies. Sex Ed, co-directed by Stephanie Cleghorn-Jasso and Kristen Kelso with sure sensitivity, is a series of scenes moving quickly from question to question, smartly structured to give the audience a sense of youth's pressing sexual need, but also slowing some sequences to allow a budding female relationship to flower. In one excellent and telling slo-mo/stop action scene, we hear a pretty girl and a stunned boy say what happened when she said, "Wait." Strong stuff for a serious subject. The show closes the 2018/2019 season for AT&T Performing Arts Center's Elevator Project bringing smaller Dallas performing arts groups to the downtown Dallas Arts District.
Cry Havoc Theater, founded in 2014 by Mara Richards Bim, is not afraid of issues. Students drawn from North Texas high schools have devised award-winning works about real police shootings (Shots Fired), gun violence (Babel) and the cultural complexities surrounding the very food we eat (From the Table: A Celebration of Food). In April 2018, Cry Havoc received the National Community Impact Award from Theatre for Young Audiences/USA at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. Later this month, the company opens Crossing the Line, a documentary work about border immigration, co-produced with Kitchen Dog Theater.
Here, 14 young men and women equipped with folding chairs move up and down an awkward, tennis court-style playing space in the Winspear Opera House's Hamon Hall. Acoustically challenging, at best, the hall is a big green room/meeting area walled off at one end of the Winspear's s enormous wrap-around glass lobby. The long, narrow "stage" is created by placing two sets of risers opposite each other to accommodate some 60 seats, is neither proscenium nor in-the-round. The actors face one side or the other, or we see them in profile. Sometimes they align their chairs in one long row, alternating back and front. Even so, it is hard to hear actors at the furthest remove. Credit heroic direction and dedicated, well-rehearsed actors that we see what's at stake.
As the title indicates, the play ridicules the shortcomings of sex education instruction in public and private schools. Girls outfitted in plaid jumpers and guys in white shirts and dark slacks file into class, joking about the inanity of the ritual sex ed class. Their bodies are becoming capable of reproducing the next generation, they're seething with hormones and pumped with everything from Internet porn to Atlantic Magazine's surprising 2018 article on ebbing sex encounters among young Americans. So, here's a teacher telling them to ignore all that. Yes, Virginia, you can get a sexually transmitted disease, or an STI, all sorts of ways. Better to practice "abstinence only. " That's it for the day.
That's not "it" for the teenagers we meet. One young woman has questions about female masturbation, and another frets that she's still a virgin at the near-spinsterhood age of 17. Another girl says her mother tells her she will "go to hell" if she has sex before marriage. One strong female voice declares that "Jesus never judged people for loving one another," or for who they chose to love.
Following one particularly specific penis/vagina delineation of the sexual universe, a young gay man shouts from the back of the classroom: "That's not how I have sex with my boyfriend!" He continues to condemn the narrowness of the so-called educational session, by condemning the perpetrators who "teach shame" to lesbian, gay and trans youth, and incite violence against anybody who doesn't have a kosher place to put it. Great stuff, especially during gay pride month, with its winning "love is love" mantra.
In a dramatic dance sequence designed by movement directors Jeffrey Colangelo and Ashley H. White, a mother and daughter pull against each other, sway together until the daughter slides to the floor in silent submission. In another, the young women speak freely of their menstrual cycle and the blood that brings forth another being. Am I wicked for getting pregnant? Am I a monster for wanting an abortion? They learn something together that the old, feared male doctor who administered their first physical never taught them.
We see these teenagers out of school, too. Guys gather at one end of the space, drinking dad's booze, talking big shot porn about "what girls want," while later admitting to each other that their own bodies are not exactly the "six-pack" and chiseled profile they imagine as real chick bait. Gals experiment with pot somebody brought to the sleepover, and dance with each other and talk about who's cool and who's the most gorgeous hunk on the screen.
They gather together in a circle at one point, dressed in their casual shorts and jeans, playing spin the bottle, that old leveling game of chance. Couples drift off, and we hear the sweet, shy talk of old for a few moments. We also see a petting session get out of hand, and all manner of issues spin off from this swirling bottle.
The work closes on a note of camaraderie. These young people are inheriting the future, and they want to be part of how we address such fundamental cultural and educational issues as healthy sexual relationships, birth control and LGBTQ inclusion in our discussion. More #MeToo, less taboo.
Hear, hear. Lead the way.