By LAURA HEDLI
Last year, the military prosecuted approximately 300 cases of sexual assault or impropriety, but that's nothing: Roughly 3,000 cases were reported, and it's estimated that 26,000 instances of unwanted sexual conduct actually occurred.
"If you don’t know anybody in the military, do you really care about that?" asks playwright Charles Fuller. "We really don’t want to look at the fact that people are being mistreated. Or if we do look, we don’t look long."
That's partially why Fuller wrote One Night, which is now at the Cherry Lane Theatre in a co-production with Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. The play follows an ex-servicewoman named Alicia who's forced into a seedy motel room after a fire consumes the homeless shelter where she lives with a troubled fellow veteran named Horace. In the midst of her present crisis, she's also haunted by flashbacks of what happened when she served: After being sexually assaulted by three fellow servicemen, she pressed charges against them, only to have her case mishandled by her commanding officer.
Fuller knows this is not an easy story for an audience to hear, but that's his point. "The play was written in my heart of hearts because somebody had to say something about this in a way that would make us understand [the problem] easier than we do when it's simply statistics."
When Fuller first heard about the mounting nightmare of sexual assault in the military, he was astounded. This was a different army than the one he knew when he served in Korea. "When you serve with somebody, that’s your buddy, that’s your comrade," he says. "You look to that person to save your life if your life is in jeopardy. How dare you think that you can rape them? How dare you think you can mistreat them in the matter in which these women and men have been mistreated since they’ve been in the military? That’s horrifying. To me that goes against all the values and rules of what soldiering and what being in the military is supposed to be about"
Fuller, who won the Pulitzer in 1982 for A Soldier's Play, about the murder of a black officer at a Louisiana army camp, has been working on One Night since 2008. He's not only been reading all he could find and interviewing homeless women and veterans, but also internalizing the story of a family friend with PTSD who was sexually assaulted while serving in Iraq.
He's not interested, however, in delivering a blunt lesson. In the weeks before opening, Fuller concentrated on making sure his characters were morally complex, and he paid particular attention to Horace, who isn't as selfless as he initially seems. "Putting this together like a puzzle---in that piece by piece you get more and more of the puzzle until finally you understand what the story is all about---was part of what I tried to do as a writer," he says. "But telling the story and [making sure] that people understand it took some doing. Which is just to understand what the army is like right now, what it's like to serve with women."
Angelina Fiordellisi, founder and artistic director at the Cherry Lane Theatre, was so struck by these issues that she commissioned Fuller to finish the play in 2010. She was surprised that she knew so little about what was happening to our veterans, and she wanted to share a woman's story.
"I am so infuriated by how women who have been raped are treated, not only in the military, but in the world at large," she explains. "It’s [treated like]something that we have to learn to expect and not resist, not report it. And so that, coupled with the illuminating that Charles does about the veterans, touches on the much greater issue that women are not respected."
Obviously, a single play can't cover every aspect of such a complex problem. Thousands of male soldiers are assaulted every year, for instance, adding another layer to the conversation. Meanwhile, Congress is debating legislation that will shape how future incidents are addressed by the courts. In the midst of these events, however, Fuller's play can at least add a human face to the crisis.
"I think that’s one of the jobs that writers have, which is to bring to your attention things that you need to look at or need to understand better than you do," Fuller says. "We can’t change how you think. We can’t overturn anything, but we can make you pay attention. And if that’s all I can do, and if that’s done successfully, I’m happy."
Laura Hedli is a writer based in New York City
Photo by Sandra Coudert