Gay African-American Acting Legend Harry Waters Jr.’s Courageous Staging of MN Jewish Theatre’s “Actually” Exposes Formalized Privacy Intrusion


By John Townsend February 22, 2019

Categories: Arts & CultureFeatured - Home PageOur Scene

Photo courtesy of Sarah Whiting Photographic.

Photo courtesy of Sarah Whiting Photographic.

Playwright Anna Ziegler has boldly and brilliantly entered the arena where university panels coerce young students, still in their formative years, to make incriminating statements, often based on erotophobic and misandrist biases of academic interrogators rather than actuality, against fellow students. It will likely take its place as one of the emblematic plays of our time in the way that classics like Death of a Salesman and The Heidi Chronicles were of theirs.

Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company certainly picked the right man to direct with Harry Waters Jr., who created the role of Belize in the first production of Angels In America and was the star of Penumbra Theatre’s first full-fledged gay play, Stage Directions. Indeed, he was an inspired choice to direct what may be the thorniest play of our time. He’s an actor who has gone where others couldn’t or wouldn’t. And as a director he demonstrates the same quality.

Actually portrays the awkward interactions between two undergraduates who have yet to learn how to read the reality of the unspoken. Therefore, they fall prey to the reductivist legalism of an academic panel whose task it is, not to get at the actual truth of a situation involving the two, but to persecute them even if the charges are distorted or even downright false. Though some will see the panel as favoring Amber, the female student, it actually does its own traumatizing psychic assault on her just as much as it does Tom, the male student. We’re impelled to consider that the trauma inflicted by the panel is far more traumatizing on both than the incident itself and its investigative meddling done in the name of social justice.

Two characters convey the perverse elements of a Kangaroo Court set up against a student where he seems to be guilty until proved innocence. However, innocence is something that this court implicitly and ultimately disallows. They have a script that is to be adhered to by any means necessary. Both students are more than just shamed by that set up, they are seriously damaged  emotionally and quite possibly, professionally. The fact that they’re young college kids of limited experience in the world at large is irrelevant to bureaucratic dictates. As in the Stasi of communist East Germany during the Cold War other students are used to snitch and inform on others.

It’s not typical to speak of design elements near the beginning section of a review, but in this case it serves the spirit of the play so uncannily and hauntingly. Michael Hoover’s set opaquely emanates a touch of the ominous and the neoclassical. Representations of tall, grey, hard appearing pillars coldly overlook the human anguish and cruelty portrayed below. One may be reminded of the drab harshness of Soviet architecture or certain American government architectural examples built after World War II: a kind of postmodernist mutation of Actually’s actual Ivy League setting where the architecture often predates these eras and styles. It’s some of the accomplished Hoover’s best work.

Photo courtesy of Sarah Whiting Photographic.

Photo courtesy of Sarah Whiting Photographic.

Amber (Miriam Schwartz) is white, Jewish and insecure. Tom (JuCoby Johnson) is black and confident. Both performances by these gifted young actors are visceral and absolutely devastating. They probe recesses of the human heart and psyche so deeply that it sometimes feels like we’re going into a sacred private inner realm that no one but the character her—or himself should ever go. At points things said feel like a supplication to God.

Ziegler ingeniously offers the race component in a way that transcends identity politics orthodoxy. Tom can surely be described as an outsider in the Princeton University setting. Like everyone of any race or gender, he is flawed. But Tom has predominantly solid vales and is fundamentally a youth of solid character. Therefore, it’s the content of that character which Johnson exquisitely reveals. He makes Tom a contemporary Everyman.

Adding a tidal wave to the situation is that Tom has gay male friend of color who inflicts something extremely vindictive and inexcusable toward him (and I don’t mean making a mere pass. It’s something truly reprehensible). So as not to reveal what happens, it boils down to what frankly is an issue of covetousness that many of us who are gay or bisexual often fail to self-examine. One might think a gay man would be the very first to speak out against privacy invasion in the name of coerced sexual allegations. Unfortunately and despicably, that’s not the case. This gay male feeds into it.

Ziegler has shrewdly written an indictment of the authoritarianism that has come to grip academic policies on sexual misconduct. By extension, it also pertains to other institutions of business, religion, and government that are following similar strangulating approaches. This groundbreaking playwright also signals that there is indeed a cry of outrage among women about misandry polluting such policies.

Photo courtesy of Sarah Whiting Photographic.

Photo courtesy of Sarah Whiting Photographic.

Aside from fleshing out these combustible concerns so intricately, Ziegler is remarkable in the structure of her two-character play. Actually is heavily comprised of monologues with interactions between the actors. This format is unextraordinary in itself, but the upshot of so many pieces that go this route, as satisfying as they may be, is that the monologues can seem not fully unified with a central theme or psychological arc. They may lead to a very effective conclusion, but they don’t culminate toward something sharper. Actually, however does exactly that. Like a good thriller, you may find yourself on the edge of your seat.

Moreover, the playwright astounds with the facility through which her two characters convey multiplex views and actions of the persons weaving or caught in the web of a corrupt investigation. This is where Ziegler’s mastery and Waters’s penetrating direction lead us to a see a jolting play that rates with the greats.

Note: Celebrated lesbian writer, Camille Paglia, who once made the cover of The Advocate, has written quite thoughtfully on this subject in her recent book, Free Women, Free Men.

Through Mar. 10
Highland Park Community Center, 1978 Ford Parkway, St. Paul

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Actually is "a pitch-perfect production"

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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Miriam Schwartz and JuCoby Johnson   Photo by Sarah Whiting

Miriam Schwartz and JuCoby Johnson
Photo by Sarah Whiting

Anna Ziegler'sActuallyis completely of the moment. It arrived just two years ago, with co-world premieres at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles and Williamstown Theatre Festival followed by productions at Manhattan Theatre Club and numerous regional companies. It is currently being produced at Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company in St. Paul. As political and Hollywood careers face ruin from claims of sexual violation, college athletic directors are under investigation for permissive standards regarding sexual predation by coaches or players, and the Catholic church is deluged with charges of turning a blind eye to decades of sexual misconduct, Ziegler has turned her lens back to two individuals with very specific backgrounds, young adults whose adolescent sexual experiences have led them to the night they found themselves in bed together, leading to one precise question: Was it consensual?

In 2012 Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company presented Ziegler's excellent play Photograph 51, the fact-based story of British scientist Rosalind Franklin, whose major contribution to a Nobel Prize-winning scientific breakthrough in the 1950s is given short shrift by her male colleagues. That play portrays Franklin as being a victim of male chauvinism, with little room to question, even if she may have had a prickly personality. In Actually, Ziegler created two fictional characters, but gives every detail of their personality, their background, and their current concerns, down to their speech patterns and gestures, such that we feel as if the two are as authentic as if they were plucked from today's headlines.

Thomas Anthony (JuCoby Johnson) is an urban African-American freshman at Princeton, the first in his family to attend college. Amber Cohen (Miriam Schwartz) is Jewish, middle class, and also a Princeton freshman. Early on we see them together on a date, with Amber making it patently clear that sleeping with him before the night is through is on her mind. We see that Tom is on board with that idea. Fast forward a bit, and Tom is being called in to speak with the administrator in charge of Princeton's student conduct proceedings, and is shocked to learn that Amber has lodged a complaint. No small complaint: she alleges that he raped her.

Tom and Amber then narrate their separate stories, everything that led them to this juncture. Tom talks articulately about his childhood friends, the elite school he tested into where all his male friends were white, his absent father and his doting mother, his love for classical music, his roommate ("Princeton was so thoughtful, they gave me a black roommate") with whom he has nothing in common, his new best friend at school (those friendships formed the first weeks of living away from all you have ever known can last a lifetime), his earliest experiences having sex, and the fast life he has been living these first two months of college. He talks about the extra burden of being an African-American male, knowing he will be judged differently because of his race.

Amber speaks a mile a minute, veering into sidebars and decoupaging her narrative with excessive detail, as she describes childhood, her family, her insecurity about her appearance, the loss of her virginity (thankfully) before heading off to college, her off-the-rails drinking since arriving at Princeton, her college best friend, who is by all accounts "hot," therefore reinstating all of Amber's insecurities about herself. She and Tom each tell their version of noticing each other, their first encounter, and what led to the opening scene. They go beyond, both describing how they perceived what happened that night back in Tom's dorm room, what they wanted to say but didn't, and what they thought the other was thinking. They guide us through the hearing at which they both appear, where a determination will be made that will have profound experience on them both, likely to stay with them their entire lives.

Ziegler made a powerful dramatic choice by only presenting these two characters. Thankfully, she does not have her actors switch off, playing the parts of parents, teachers, childhood friends, college classmates, or university faculty. We come to know all of those people, but only as Tom and Amber perceive them, only by way of their unavoidably skewed perceptions. This leaves us with these two appealing eighteen-year olds, both exceedingly bright, promising as all get-out, who have stumbled into an arena of ethical uncertainty and ambivalent decision making, calling on them to discern between their own needs and feelings, and what is actually going on in the room, none of which their time on the squash team, at piano lessons, or at SAT prep sessions have prepared them for.

The play runs about 100 minutes without a break, and director Harry Waters Jr, maintains the rising tension as we learn more about the night in question and the day leading up to it. Through his sensitive handling of difficult material, we become invested in both Thomas and Amber's lives, and what at first seems like a clear case of right and wrong becomes ever murkier—just like real life.

I can't imagine two actors better matched. Miriam Schwartz, who is on a roll after knockout performances this season in Artistry's Awake and Sing! and Gremlin Theatre's The Father, disappears into her portrayal of Amber. She is totally authentic as the voice of a confused young woman with high aspirations but low self-regard. Her nature is summed up by her repeated tension between wanting something and not wanting it at the same time, and she expresses agonizing ambivalence over the forces unleashed by the claim she has lodged.

JuCoby Johnson is Ms. Schwartz' match every step of the way, expressing Tom's ease with himself, beneath which lies a sea of uncertainties about how he fits into this Ivy League world. When he describes arriving at Princeton alone at the start of school, no parent to drive him there, no one to take him shopping for that sticky stuff you use to put up posters without messing up the walls - he conveys both the pride and resentment that propel his course.

The deceptively simple set designed by Michael Hoover is made up of solid geometric blocks, graced with projected vines, to suggest the durable structure which encase evanescent notions of right and wrong. Michael Wangen's lighting design seamlessly shifts focus between Amber and Tom, and between the openness of collegiate life and the private realms of their attempts to understand themselves and all that is happening to them.

The word "actually" has a significant and chilling part to play in the course of events. It may determine the entire outcome, ironic as neither party can say with certainty what actually happened, only what they experienced. The uncertainty Ziegler has injected into her play challenges the audience and lifts Actually to a high level of dramatic achievement. Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company is to be thanked for bringing this powerful play to a Twin Cities stage, and congratulated on a pitch-perfect production, elevated by two sterling actors at the top of their game.

Actually continues through March 10, 2019 at the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company at the Highland Park Community Center, 1978 Ford Parkway, Saint Paul, Minnesota. Tickets: $23.00 - $38.00. For tickets call 651-647-4315 or go to

Playwright: Anna Ziegler; Director: Harry Waters, Jr.; Scenic Design: Michael Hoover; Costume Design: Lisa Imbryk; Lighting Design: Michael Wangen; Sound Design: C. Andrew Mayer; Production Stage manager: Samson Perry; Rehearsal Stage Manager: Katie Sondrol.

Cast: JuCoby Johnson (Thomas Anthony), Schwartz (Amber Cohen).

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