Ula Grace was 11 years old when a 16-year-old girl was raped by two high school football players in the small town of Steubenville, Ohio.
Now, Grace is the same age the victim was during the 2012 crime, and acting in a play that dramatizes the event.
“I hadn’t heard about it until this play,” said Grace about the crime. “It’s interesting to have context now.”
Clarifying sexual violence is the objective of the play “Good Kids,” which Grace’s mom, Krista Strutz, will direct from April 19 through 22 at the San Juan Community Theatre, with 13 actors from Spring Street International School and one from San Juan Island School District.
“It’s all about education,” said Strutz. “If we don’t know what assault is, how do we prevent it?”
The approximately 75-minute play depicts a gang of football players who rapes a classmate, then records the crime and shares the videos on social media. The real-life perpetrators made the same choices, propelling the crime across national headlines, and fueling protests and social media frenzies in a pre-Me Too movement era.
The Me Too movement gained momentum in 2017 when sexual assault victims shared the phrase on social media, displaying the prevalence of harassment and calling for a cultural shift against sexual assault.
The play also explores society’s views on sexual violence, unpacking how a rapist can be both the popular classmate, as well as a stranger in a dark alley, as one student says in the performance.
Strutz noted that even though sexual assault is common, talking about it isn’t. She cited that RAINN, which stands for the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, reports that an American is sexually assaulted every 98 seconds.
Altering ideas, said Strutz, starts with discussion.
“If we’re going to change the culture, we’ll have to talk about uncomfortable issues,” she said.
Those “uncomfortable issues” include the play’s rape, which Strutz said will be discussed, but not acted out. The performance includes mature language and is suggested for an audience of seventh graders or higher, she added. The script was originally written for college-aged actors, while this performance’s players will range from eighth to 12th graders.
The play also unpacks why friends, neighbors and otherwise seemingly “good kids” commit horrible acts, as well as some’s inability to accept that behavior.
“Why is it,” asks a student in the performance, “every time some kid does something totally messed up, everybody’s all like: ‘I don’t get it. He was such a good kid?’”
The motivators for sexual crimes are complicated and deep-rooted, said Kim Bryan, executive director of SAFE San Juans, a local nonprofit dedicated to the prevention and elimination of domestic violence and sexual assault.
“Sexual assault happens on a continuum,” she said. “Starting with disrespect, sexual…jokes, objectification of…bodies…, pornography, and continues on to the actual acts of molestation and rape.”
To help understand issues addressed in the play, SAFE San Juans staff will facilitate a roughly 20-minute panel discussion after each performance that will include representatives from the county sheriff’s department, juvenile courts, family resource center, Stand Up Men and Compass Health. Topics to be explored include binge drinking and hookup culture and their effects on sexual assault.
The play also explores the power of telling your own story, as opposed to gossip fueling an inaccurate narrative, which today is augmented by the ability to quickly spread the news through the internet, as well as individualistic accounts through social media.
“They said all these things about me,” says the victim in the play, “And I was like: that’s not me.”
Just as the victim in the play tries to gain control of her story, sexual assault survivor Kamilah Willingham is also working towards the same. In an event titled “Changing the Script,” Willingham will share her story, which was featured in the 2015 documentary about sexual assault on college campuses called “The Hunting Ground,” at 7 p.m., Sunday, April 15 at the San Juan Community Theatre. The event, in conjunction with Sexual Assault Awareness Month in April, is sponsored by SAFE San Juans, Soroptimists International of Friday Harbor, Spring Street and the community theater.
“It is going to take all of us working together to ‘change the script’ of the rape culture all around us,” said Bryan. “Don’t our children deserve this?”
For more information on the play, visit www.sjctheatre.org.
How To Go:
What: “Good Kids,” by Naomi Iizuka.
When: 7:30 p.m., Thursday-Saturday, April 19-21; 2 p.m., Sunday, April 22.
Where: San Juan Community Theatre’s Gubelman Theatre, 100 Second St., Friday Harbor
Cost: $10 adults, $5 student reserved. Order at www.sjctheatre.org or from the box office from 1-4 p.m., Tuesday-Friday, or 11 a.m.-2 p.m., Saturday at 360-378-3210.