In The Fallen, an unflinchingly honest and intelligently crafted new play by Yasmine Beverly Rana, the atrocities of the Bosnian War provide the basis for a plot that weaves together the lives of six different survivors. Under the direction of Terry Schreiber, the talented cast of T. Schreiber Studio actors offer a disturbing look at instigators and victims of trauma, specifically the Bosnian Serb’s mass rape campaign against women. The three female actors in the cast – Molly Gyllenhaal, Kelly Swartz and Ananda Bena-Weber – give courageous and fantastic performances. I sat down with Ananda, herself no stranger to bringing strong women to life (previous regional theater roles include Juliet and Medea) for a chat about her experience working on The Fallen, the play’s cultural relevance, feminism, why we still call rape “the r word” and how live theater can still change and save the world.
LBD: Who is the woman you portray in THE FALLEN?
Ananda: My character is Sabine and she is the presence of Yasmine, who was working as a therapist/counselor for women having traumatic experiences from the war. Sabine is a Bosnian Muslim, more upper-middle class, living in Sarajevo. From what I understand and read, the rapes took place in the villages but in the city, because it was so chaotic, they didn’t round people up. Sabine didn’t get raped but worked where they set up these hospitals in the dilapidated buildings and basements to perform abortions on the women.
LBD: Your character Sabine uses the word “strange” to describe what is happening.
Ananda: Yes, it’s beautifully written. She basically says to Andre, I don’t understand. I understood the other types of violence but I don’t understand this rape thing. We go back in time and discover he didn’t understand what it was either. I think because it is so primitive and so below the level of reason and happening on this really primordial, lions-fighting-over-meat sort of level and brutal, it is weird to think of that being organized. How can someone organize a thing that is so visceral?
LBD: Rape goes back to the beginning of time and here we are in 2013 with some politicians and others who simply don’t understand it or the effects of it –
Ananda: Wasn’t there one guy saying, I think the vagina has some kind of –
LBD: – lockdown. A lockdown!
Ananda: Yeah. That was classic –
LBD: – and televised in 2013.
Ananda: Mind blowing.
LBD: It causes an outcry within small circles with activist types and political pundits but most people let it go. They don’t want to talk about it. The R word, for many, is a very scary word. Did you have an intention for how you wanted audiences to react to this piece and how it handles rape?
Ananda: Well, what Terry wants for the play is for Yasmine’s work to get exposed and not only this play but her whole body of work, which focuses on women’s experience in the war. It is so important.
Ananda: And in dealing with rape, I was thinking this is kind of like The Vagina Monologues because now you can say “vagina,” thank you Eve Ensler.
LBD: “My Vagina Got Dressed,” I performed that at Cornell.
LBD: At the time it was so edgy!
Ananda: Well, now it’s so natural and I love that. This is like that. Rape is that subject. Now we are shaky and I will say this — I had that experience and for me, personally, it’s very important because this is about Bosnia but it’s about stuff that happens all the time. When I was in the Special Victims Unit reading the description of things happening to women with pipes…it is here. That’s the question for me every time we do this performance is how to somehow have resonance with whoever is in the audience, that we are here together. Whether you’ve been victims or done something or had a loved one experience it, this is happening now and it’s very sensitive. It hurts both parties. You can see these men are affected.
LBD: Absolutely. It is humanized. The play humanizes perpetrators.
Ananda: Yeah. Well, because they are. Especially in totalitarian situations, they really are.
LBD: In a way, they are victims, too. That is one of the many layers, facets and intelligent handlings of this production and I agree, it is the Bosnian and the woman a couple of blocks away who is going to get raped on a Saturday night after a party. Are people willing to come and sit and feel these things? The show runs an hour and 42 minutes with no intermission —
Ananda: Oh, I know. It’s more strenuous for the audience then it is for us.
LBD: I honestly felt myself challenged.
Ananda: Even the ones with the most difficult roles. My role, I don’t really have to go through what Molly Gyllenhaal does. The people who really have the most strenuous job are in the audience watching the story and really taking it in.
LBD: It is a fascinating, bold statement to make as a playwright, company and theater to say, We trust you can handle this and go there with us and you’re going to be OK. It’s going to change you the better, change your awareness, deepen your empathy.
LBD: It is also a piece about power, isn’t it?
Ananda: Well, what is so powerful is that Sabine appears nude in the opening scene while she interrogates the soldier. She has all the power, so it sets the stage. Yasmine is so brilliant in doing this because it removes all the shame and what people say is weak. The power is in the femininity and vulnerability.
LBD: Is that in the script or was it a directorial decision?
Ananda: Oh no, it was in the script.
LBD: You did a brilliant job. The way you were so relaxed up there and confident. How was that as an actor? Have you ever appeared naked?
Ananda: I’ve posed for artists before but no, not like this. I’m a ballet dancer and in pretty good shape but from a feminist perspective, I will say this, I look at airbrushed images of girls, 17, all the time. They are over-sexualized and I find them to be horrible. I walk by the newsstand and cry –
LBD: Me too. Breaks my heart.
Ananda: I had no idea this would happen but I realized that I am not an airbrushed person – that I am a European woman, I have cellulite on my legs, I have a mole, I have pimples – and I began wondering, Are people going to think “Eww, that’s weird” about my actual body? I’m in pretty good shape but I’m thinking voluptuous women and older women, what they must go though is awful. They shouldn’t have to go through it. I decided I am done with it right now and even if I get fat or my titties go sagging, that I am just not going to do it. I am not going to do that to myself. How we are supposed to feel, what we are supposed to do, this compulsory low self esteem about our bodies.
LBD: Exactly. It’s like we’re supposed to hate ourselves and then spend thousands of dollars to fix it.
Ananda: The thing is, there is something going on with a lot of young women, there’s something going on with this compulsory low self esteem for young women, feeling like they have to have sex before they’re ready.
LBD: Kind of pressured into it by the culture?
Ananda: Yes and I think some young boys are taught to use the fact that the woman has low self-esteem to get in there. Courtship is going down and they don’t have flirtation, since they are doing these things before they are ready and not having satisfying lovemaking. Both sides are suffering. In the experience of feeling myself not being airbrushed, all of that became present.
LBD: I was inspired watching you because of the courage it takes and choices we have on a daily basis, whether to buy into the culture, the magazine stands or not.
Ananda: It really is violent.
LBD: It’s totally violent. To me it is a sign of the times. You look at a culture and if it can breed an ethnic cleansing, a rape campaign, you look at culture and see what can exist but the hope is our culture can breed a play like The Fallen. It struck me how much I was learning while watching you all perform.
Ananda: A lot of audiences say that. I think people want to feel. I really think you can’t keep the human spirit down or the soul in a box. If you put it down it gets stronger to break the bonds. I believe it’s going to end up badly for people who want to put down the human experience. I am feeling we are going to have another enlightenment, hippie movement or civil rights movement. Some kind of uprising of the spirit.
LBD: I agree. There really is a burning need for people to tell their stories. Yes, people want to do selfies all the time on FB or Instagram but I think a reading of that is, “I want to be heard. I have a story. This happened, look at me, see me, understand me, it’s that…”
Ananda: That’s in Shakespeare. Tell your story and have a catharsis, together. I think there is going to be a revival of things like live theater. There is something that happens together, when we are here together, that just doesn’t happen while texting or on Skype. Spirits communing. We can cry together. By being forced to be separate I think we are going to come back together really strong.
LBD: I love it. So what is next for you?
Ananda: I have a one-woman show and I am also directing an installation on the west coast with giant, 65-foot tall sculptures done by artists in residence. Visitors will have this experience of walking through something of a birth canal surrounded by media. You get closer until you push through fabric and come to the other side, where you are greeted by ballet dancers and people performing Shakespeare’s sonnets.
LBD: That sounds amazing.
Ananda: People say “The reality is…” and “That’s the way it is…” but the truth is, we can influence media and culture. When people use disempowering language we just have to flip it and we will succeed.
Author Lindsay B. Davis is a performing artist and writer. Her work has appeared in PassportMagazine.com, BBCAmerica.com, DNAinfo.com, BBC.com/Travel, New York Magazine, BoweryBoogie.com, Focus Fine Art Photography Magazine, Psychology Today and more. She is an award-winning playwright and member of BMI. Lindsay is also the co-host of The Jazz & Lindsay Show on BlogTalkRadio.com. Find her on Twitter at @LBDinNYC!