Steubenville, Ohio made headlines in 2012 when a high school girl was raped by a group of boys after she passed out following a night of partying. The assault was captured on cell phones and shared on social media, forcing the town and the country into a conversation about sexual violence against female students.
That night, what lead up to it and its aftermath are the subject of the play ‘Good Kids’ being performed through Sunday by University of Pittsburgh students at the Stephen Foster Memorial.
During a recent rehearsal, Pitt senior Briana Wagner plays the victim, Chloe. On stage, she watches herself being repeatedly assaulted.
“The first time I saw that video, I didn’t even know what I was seeing. It was like the day after the party, and I was like ‘why did somebody send me this pornographic video of all these guys and this naked girl?’ And then I realized that that girl, that girl was me. And I wanted to just disappear.”
Off stage, Wagner said it's Chloe's normality that makes her so relatable.
“She’s an independent young woman and she’s trying to figure out herself," Wagner said. "She wants to be rebellious and wants to try it all. She wants to grow up too fast, but she’s too naive to do so. She’s just like every other teenager.”
Zachary Romah, a senior and former high school football player himself, is cast as Connor, the quarterback who participates in the rape. Romah said Connor doesn’t accept that he’s culpable.
“I truly believe that he thinks that they all went out, that they all had a bit too much to drink and a girl came on to him, and then he was at the wrong place at the wrong time and his friends did some stupid stuff, and he just kind of went along for the ride, and he shouldn’t have.”
Pulling back from the character’s perspective, Romah said the play is actually about rethinking how students view sexual assault, "how serious we look at this issue and how other people, and other women even, look at this issue and the way that we treat girls and the way that we treat the victims.”
Romah’s self analysis was one of the play’s initial goals; it forces the actors to confront their actions in similar situations, visiting lecturer and play co-director Kimberly Griffin said.
“It’s encouraging a lot of them to think about their own life here on campus and the decisions they see being made, or are a party to a part of, differently," said Griffin. “And I think that’s what you kind of always want to be the case with theater. Sometimes it happens, and often it doesn’t.”
The play’s author, Naomi Iizuka, said it isn’t just about the students, or even Steubenville. She wanted to hold up a mirror in which the audience sees their own reaction to hearing about sexual assault. She said that’s why she decided to call it ‘Good Kids.’
“You hear parents, you hear coaches, you hear commentators wonder how it is that these good kids could be involved in something so devastating," said Iizuka. "So that phrase and what it conceals and what it doesn’t say, the image and maybe what’s underneath the image that’s hidden, was very much on my mind.”
The student actors said they want the audience to walk out with a number of takeaways: to reach victims of assault; to bring greater awareness of the issue; to refrain from making judgments. Iizuka wanted viewers to recognize their own part in the problem.
“What are we teaching our children about what consent looks like and what a sexual encounter looks like? And how you treat another human being? I want the audience actually to walk away thinking ‘Is there a way that I am unconsciously contributing to a climate in which this happens?’”
She said doing that will make it harder to chalk it up to the misdeeds of a few good kids.
Good Kids runs through Nov. 22 at the Stephen Foster Memorial in Oakland. It's open to the public. Good Kids is a part of the Big Ten New Play Initiative.