For all the questions that Lily Padilla’s play, “How to Defend Yourself,” asks there is one single answer: “It’s not that hard to not rape someone.”
“How to Defend Yourself” had its Humana Festival opening night on Friday. It’s a play about three women of color, besties Diana (Gabriela Ortega) and Mojdeh (Ariana Mahallati) and solo attendee Nikki (Molly Adea), attending a DIY self-defense class, organized by sorority girl and black belt Brandi (Anna Crivelli) after her sorority sister Suz is violently raped at a fraternity party. Kara (Abby Leigh Huffstetler) serves as her second in command. Both are white. Fraternity brothers, Andy (David Ball) and Eggo (Jonathan Moises Olivares) arrive to assist Brandi. Andy is white. Eggo is Brown. I mention everyone’s race, because just like in real life, race plays a role in this play.
Mojdeh has dragged Diana to the class because Brandi is a member of the sorority she wants her and Diana to join. Mojdeh sees pledging as a way to attain the All-American college experience reflected in movies and TV shows. Diana worries her friend is being seduced by whiteness.
Padilla is so incredibly smart.
They’ve written a play that doesn’t simply address the campus rape culture crisis solely within the silo of toxic masculinity, but are also looking at the way the culture thrives because it’s been insulated by white privilege. And not just white male privilege, but the ways white women are also complicit and even might be daring to ask the extent to which people of color can be too. It’s a play that asks us to look at how sometimes our trauma can warp our sense of reality, can have us grasping at a false sense of safety, can have us transform from innocent bystander to witness to silent third-party perpetrator, can put us in that place, in that aftermath where “I’m sorry” doesn’t mean anything.
And whatever seat you find yourself in the Bingham Theatre, or the life experiences you bring with you, there will likely be at least one character who will validate you, one character who will have you questioning yourself and one character who will have you seeing it’s not so simple. But at no point, no matter how complicated it all is, will it ever be in question that “It’s not that hard to not rape someone.” These words are Diana’s and they’re an important reminder that it is possible to have these complicated, uncomfortable conversations around consent, sex, power, race and desire without wavering on this point. Rape is not what happens because someone likes rough sex. Rape is not what happens because someone drinks too much at a party. Rape is not what happens because you didn’t play close enough attention in self-defense class.
And kudos to the cast, because among all the things millennials are being accused of killing, they’re proving that stage acting isn’t one of them. I’m in gratitude to this entire production for their compulsion toward Truth telling.