Shelli Pentimall Bookler, a 2013 playwriting alumna, said she was “shocked, stunned, ashamed, embarrassed, enraged and disgusted” to discover that Donald Trump was elected president of the United States on Nov. 8.
“It’s so hard to believe that a racist, sexist, narcissistic, unqualified child could possibly become the representative of the United States of America,” Pentimall Bookler added.
On Nov. 4, Pentimall Bookler oversaw the performance of “Incident: The Consequence of Locker Room Talk” at The Rotunda on Walnut Street near 40th. Pentimall Bookler is the co-founder and artistic director of Underbite Theatre Company, a nonprofit dedicated to producing plays that promote social change. Funding for the production was made possible by the Puffin Foundation, an organization that provides art grants.
Underbite initially planned to show “Incident,” a play about sexual violence, during Spring 2017 — but then Pentimall Bookler listened to Michelle Obama’s New Hampshire speech on Oct. 13.
“She was talking about the hurt and the pain that women feel in hearing all of this ‘locker room talk,’ and I just got so upset and angry by that,” Pentimall Bookler said.
After realizing how strongly “Incident” related to the current political dialogue, Pentimall Bookler decided to add the subhead, “The Consequence of Locker Room Talk.” She also added specific remarks that President-elect Donald Trump has made about sexually assaulting women to the lines of the male characters in the play.
In response to Trump’s victory, Pentimall Bookler said she plans to make statements about him in her next play, “Shaming,” which is still in the early stages of the writing process.
Pentimall Bookler said it will be told from the perspective of five women who feel they have been shamed for their choices or actions, and how this shaming reflects on their own self-images.
“I think there is room to make a statement on how Trump has made fun of persons with a disability, prisoners of war, women who are not ‘beautiful’ by beauty contestant standards and women who are considered ‘nasty’ for asserting their opinions.”
Pentimall Bookler said she started the theatre company because she has “always believed in the ability of art to create change.”
“We pursue this avenue as a means of social awareness, education, inspiration and transformability,” she added.
In 2014, Underbite produced “Snyder v. Phelps,” a musical about the controversial 2011 Supreme Court case ruling against the Westboro Baptist Church. The Court ruled in favor of Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church’s right to protest military funerals while holding signs that say “Thank God for 9/11,” and “God hates f–s.”
Pentimall Bookler originally wrote “Incident” in 2013 when she was a graduate student at Temple. She said she got the idea for the play from watching Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film “Rashomon,” which depicts various characters telling contradictory and self-serving accounts of the same incident.
“I wanted to show more of the relationship between the language choices someone makes, what that says about them in terms of personality and behavior and how that behavior can lead to an action,” Pentimall Bookler said.
This plot device, known as the “Rashomon Effect,” reminded Pentimall Bookler of the events that typically unfold after someone is sexually assaulted.
“Normally in the case of date rape, a ‘he said versus she said’ situation is created,” she added. “So I wondered, what if there [are] three assailants in a sexual violence situation? Will their perspectives differ? And how do their perspectives differ from the survivor’s?”
To understand the perspective of a male assailant, Pentimall Bookler read Joseph Koenig’s and Sylvia Levine’s book “Why Men Rape: Interviews With Convicted Rapists.” The book helped Pentimall Bookler come up with the reasoning behind her characters’ actions.
Pentimall Bookler said she didn’t have to work as hard to understand Amy, the only female character in the play and a survivor of the sexual assault.
“Pretty much every woman I know, me included, has experienced some sort of violation,” she said. “So, I combined a lot of stories and perspectives that I’ve heard and then created the voice of Amy, who pretty much speaks for all of the women and men who have been sexually assaulted.”
Actor and 2010 Stephens College theater alumna Austin Stanton plays Amy, the survivor in “Incident.” Stanton said it was not hard for her to prepare for the role because she knows so many people who have been impacted by sexual assault.
“This is a topic that affects so many people because the stereotypical rapist is not someone who jumps out of the bushes, it’s people you know,” Stanton said.
Michael Bee, a 2012 Temple theater alumnus, plays C.J., one of the three male assailants that attack Stanton’s character, Amy, in “Incident.”
Bee said he normally acts in “cheesy comedies,” but when he finds work that is relevant and meaningful to him, like “Incident,” he completely immerses himself in the project.
“I attribute some of my passion for work like this to Temple and to my own personal interest in social justice,” Bee said. “This is the one thing I love about theater, that it can create social change.”
Pentimall Bookler said that despite the results of the elections, the company will continue to promote social change through their plays.
“We strive to create a dialogue about what is relevant in our society and will continue to be fearless in doing so,” she said.
Meghan Costa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.