Stage play adapted to Newark stirs emotions, painful memories

Lifelong friends took advantage of her in the back of a taxi. She reported it, and she paid the price – condemned, shamed and blamed. Society and “SLUT: The Play” call it slut shaming.

Playwright Katie Cappiello based “SLUT” on what teenage girls had shared in one of her creative sessions.

“I learned that about a third of the girls in the group had experienced some form of sexual assault and that was higher than the national average,” Cappiello said.

She wrote the script a few years ago. It has played to sold out audiences, and it sparks what Cappiello intended.

“I want it to achieve an open dialogue. I want people to say, I’m no longer going to throw my hands up or turn a blind eye to what is happening to young people when it comes to sexuality, when it comes to power dynamics,” said Cappiello.

“SLUT” is coming to NJPAC for performances for Newark students Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and for the general public Friday night.

“This is the first all girls of color cast of ‘SLUT,'” Cappiello said.

It’s among several adaptations. Others came after Cappiello met, listened to and incorporated the feedback of the all-Newark cast.

“One was religion. How does Christianity play in to this? These girls were like, ‘My mom goes to church every weekend and there is no way that I would be able to have as open a dialogue,’ you know, and so can we bring that into this? ‘Also, you know what we get called? We get called fast-tail girls. Can you incorporate that?’ I said yes, tell me more about that. What does that mean to you? ‘This is just a word. A way of calling girls easy,'” Cappiello said.

Newark-native, Arts High School graduate and professional actress Al-nisa Petty leads the cast of high school girls, some of whom have never performed in a play before, and certainly not in something as uncensored, raw and frank as “SLUT.”

Longtime director Betsy True says the issue is consent: when can it be withdrawn? It’s prompted real discussion in rehearsals.

“That took a while to unpack, because as the girls talked about it, we realized what is consent? If you say yes and then change your mind, you still said yes. So, the idea that saying no anywhere along the line was a completely new concept for most all of them,” True said.

The first reading of the script and the first rehearsal stirred emotions and brought up memories to what really happened to some of the young actors. Emotions and memories they had buried a long time ago, or so they thought.

“This is the truth of the play, so it just happens sometimes,” Petty said.

Mental health counselors attend rehearsals and collaborate with the producers to help the actors and this week’s young audiences deal with their reactions to the content in “SLUT.”

“Through this rehearsal, and talking, building and forming these relationships and empowering them, they were able to get strength from each other and now are becoming ambassadors to go back into their schools, among their friends, and let them know that, ‘Hey, you can’t talk to me like that,’ or ‘I’m not comfortable with you referring to me as such,’ or ‘what’s wrong with me wearing this if you can wear that,'” said Madine Despeine, director of self help, advocacy and education for the Mental Health Association of Essex and Morris.

“I hope the take-away is that people feel a freedom to talk about these types of things,” Petty said. “I hope that it makes men, both young and old, really think about the ways that they are interacting with women, even on a very basic, day-to-day level.”

“I have a daughter graduating high school and a daughter graduating college and I have been transformed by this experience,” True said.

True calls this version of “SLUT” theater activism.