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A Tangled Web of Campus Sexual Assault

Melinda Lopez’s Back the Night at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre


Melinda Lopez’s new play, Back the Night, loosely based on an experience she had as a college student 30 years ago, spares no one and lays bare enough universal themes that everyone, regardless of age or gender, will be squirming at the edge of their seats. Its title a truncated version of the decades-old anti–sexual violence chant “Take back the night,” the play is set on an unnamed Northeastern college campus populated largely by privileged high achievers who are quick-witted, precocious works in progress. Back the Night takes unsqueamish aim at themes of body ownership, the tangled he said/she said web of sexual assault, and so-called rape culture and the irreversible complications faced by a generation consumed by social media. It is playing at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre through February 28.
Unlike the long gestation periods and research needed for many of her previous works, Lopez (GRS’00) says, Back the Night revealed itself to her suddenly and powerfully—a kind of epiphany.

The play’s main characters are a trio of attractive, articulate college seniors, “besties” in millennial lingo: heterosexual premed student Emily, gay English major Cassie, and gay male hipster Sean, whose guileless tenderness is a buffer to the young women’s occasional profanity and acid-tinged verbal sparring. Emily has stepped outside their intimate, sibling-like embrace to partner with Brandon, a fraternity boy with a heart and a conscience who defies the prevailing predatory bro stereotype. Three actors juggle multiple supporting roles as cop, physician, college president, dean of students, print reporter, newscaster, and Emily’s mother, a US senator running for reelection.

Melinda Lopez

Back the Night, a new play by award-winning playwright Melinda Lopez (GRS’00), a CAS adjunct assistant professor, examines sexual assault on a college campus. Photo by Ethan Backer

When Cassie, whose blog tracking reports of campus assaults against women has a modest trickle of followers, shows up in Emily’s dorm room bleeding profusely after being struck by an unidentifiable assailant, her friends are protective, outraged, and intent on retribution. Along with tempers and fears on campus, Cassie’s blog catches fire. But nothing in Back the Night is as pat as it initially seems, and truths—both factual and existential—grow increasingly elusive as the play gains steam.

Lopez is a College of Arts & Sciences adjunct assistant professor of English and the Huntington Theatre Company’s first playwright-in-residence. Her many plays include the multiple-award-winning Huntington production of Sonia Flew, which inaugurated the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts in 2004 and has been staged across the country. Among her other plays are Becoming Cuba (Huntington and North Coast Repertory Theatre), Orchids to Octopi (Underground Railroad Theater, Elliot Norton Award), and Gary (Steppenwolf First Look, Boston Playwrights’ Theatre). Lopez’s acting credits: Our Town, The Rose Tattoo, Persephone, and A Month in the Country with the Huntington and Motherf**ker with the Hat at SpeakEasy Stage Company (Elliot Norton Award for Best Supporting Actress).

BU Today spoke with Lopez about the inspiration for Back the Night, the artistic courage demanded by the subject, and why the play is in many ways a departure for her.

BU Today: Your script notes to directors request the college name be changed to a regional one and references to the US president be updated post-Obama. Why?  

Lopez: I always hoped it would be done on college campuses, imagined it could be done all over the country at colleges, without references to Northeast colleges like Dartmouth. I want it to be done in California and not feel like it is foreign. I want people to feel like it’s happening where they are. And I want it to be done 10 years from now.

What was the seed for the play?

Like most of my work, this play generates from a very personal experience I had in college a million years ago. At the time, I paid no attention to it, but 30 years later I had been revisiting it a lot, putting together whatever it was that happened to me and what it means to me now. Most of my plays involve a lot of gestation and research, reading books about different time periods, that sort of thing. But this play arrived completely and fully formed one morning when I was walking my dog. I literally ran home and sketched out the whole story. Usually the process is more exploratory; I’ll go into a scene not knowing what will happen next. But this arrived in this hard, dangerous little packet. I felt like I knew the heart of it right away.

Did it take you long to write it?

I wrote it very quickly, then spent about a year revising it. I spent a week on the campus of Dartmouth College in May. I went there and had some connections. I met with Safety and Security, and walked through the play—which is not set at Dartmouth.

The play moves along at an almost breathless pace.

I had the sense that the play would move really quickly. My director keeps saying it’s sort of like a movie. It’s very lean—all muscle. And the perspective keeps changing, so our sense of what’s true keeps shifting.

Collins, Horwitz, Jesser, and John Kooi as a reporter in Back the Night.

Jesser (from left), Collins, and Horwitz as college friends whose lives are upturned by a campus assault in Back the Night. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Campus rape has been in the headlines recently, in particular a disturbing Rolling Stone piece, later retracted. Did you have concerns about the play’s timing?

It’s really complicated, because here we are 30 years later, after the second wave of feminism, and we’re still grappling with the same challenges. I had a lot of trepidation writing a play where the truth of the story is up for grabs, and I wondered if it was responsible to ask that question. There was the first version of UVA Rolling Stone’s reporting, and the subsequent unraveling, of a story detailing rape allegations at the University of Virginia last year] and the retraction. And I thought, this is a dangerous time to be asking these questions about how women respond, how we as women can respond in politically active and actionable ways. The play has two characters who take two very different tactics. What does it mean to take a point of view that’s opposed to your community? I had several readings of the play, which always provokes discussion. My fear was that it would provoke hate mail, that people would be angered. That’s okay. I hope that people are also moved and thoughtful about the play. Both characters’ losses are real, and that makes for good drama.

What’s your feeling about how colleges are responding to sexual assault?

I just saw Spotlight, all about the system, and I couldn’t help feeling like we’re starting to get there with assault on campus, after so many years of colleges not addressing the central problem and allowing a culture that perpetuates violence against women. I’m looking at systemic abuse, and frat culture is at the center of that, so how do we look at the system? I hope the play brings up this question. There’s a desperate need for change.

No matter how many rules are in place, isn’t sexual coming of age a messy business for young men as well as young women?

Coming of age sexually is a rite of passage and it’s profoundly dangerous, so I don’t believe it’s possible to sanitize it. But the question is, are we providing an atmosphere that’s conducive to healthy relations for kids? Look at campus culture—frat culture, the way colleges condone or don’t pay attention to the culture of alcohol, sports culture. I think the conversation is important. It’s not realistic that we can keep all our kids safe all the time, but as a parent—my daughter is 15—what am I going to tell her? But the play is not an educational tool. It’s a fictional story that will provoke questions. And that’s what I think the function of theater is.

Back the Night is playing at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, 949 Commonwealth Ave., through February 28; phone: 866-811-4111. Performances are Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $10 to $30,. Purchase tickets here.

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