Raw and uncensored NCJW production opens eyes in combating sexism, violence

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SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — With courageous acting and a provocative script, a group of Essex County teens brought the issues of slut-shaming and sexual assault to the forefront. Against a multimedia backdrop at the South Orange Performing Arts Center in South Orange, “SLUT The Play,” written by Katie Cappiello, was presented by NCJW/Essex to a sold-out audience on May 17.

Cast members included Columbia High School’s Valerie Houghton, Jordan Muhammad, Madie Reilly, Liana Runcie, Danielle Samake and Sage Territo; Livingston High School’s Ally Beetle, Jill Friedland and Sarah Gordin; Millburn High School’s Julia Gesner, Rachel Gesner and Kate Parker-Lentz; and Mount Saint Dominic Academy’s Nell Marootian.

NCJW/Essex produced “SLUT The Play,” made possible by support from the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey, to be a catalyst to start a dialogue about a culture that encourages girls to be sexual but then degrades them for it.

“The topics of slut-shaming, peer pressure and rape culture aren’t addressed nearly enough,” Paula Green, NCJW/Essex vice president of advocacy, said in a press release. “We wanted to bring these issues to the forefront and offer our community an opportunity to see how these actions play out in real time through the eyes of a 16-year-old girl.”

In a story inspired by real-life experiences of teenage girls, Joey, the central character, has been sexually assaulted by a group of boys she had considered friends. The play, which is based around a police interrogation with her about the assault, hit a nerve with many of the teen actors.

“I initially joined the show because I love theater and acting,” Jill Friedland, a senior at Livingston High School, said in the release, “but being part of it has made me an activist. ‘SLUT The Play’ is so powerful — it has been an eye-opening experience. Performing it as live theater creates an environment where the audience cannot escape the realities of rape culture by simply scrolling past it on social media.”

As the cast worked together throughout the spring, an amazing transformation occurred for many of the actors.

“The play allowed me to discuss things that are seen as taboo with a group of such brave and inspiring people,” Sarah Gordin, also a senior at Livingston High School, said in the release. “As a group, the cast really bonded and became an ensemble as we worked on such important and difficult topics. I always considered myself a feminist, but after the rehearsal process I now consider myself an activist against sexual violence and slut-shaming.”

“‘SLUT The Play’ implicates us all for the roles we play in a society that shames and blames women but it also emboldens us all to play a role in fostering a culture of consent, care and empathy,” NCJW/Essex President Shari Harrison said in the release. Described as a call to action, the play is a reminder that rape culture is not just an issue in some other community, impacting someone else’s daughter, son, sister, brother or friend. Rather, it is happening everywhere and touching the lives of young people, even close to home. The performance was followed by a talkback with the audience to bring these issues to light.

This production was directed by Joey Brenneman, who has extensive experience working with young actors and pushes them to take on their characters wholeheartedly.

“We created a strong and safe community where we could explore these tough issues through conversation and theater,” Brenneman said in the release.

Co-chairpersons Myrna Wertheimer and Tara Heyderman, both of Livingston, commented on the unexpected effects of the production on the cast and the community.

“These young actors have learned that they have a voice when they witness sexism and slut-shaming,” Wertheimer said. Heyderman added, “Hopefully the audience was moved to understand that they should never be bystanders.”

Photos Courtesy of Lisa Blumert