Taylor St. John bubbles with anticipation over “Shaming Jane Doe,” which opens at the University of Memphis’ Mainstage Theatre on April 4. It’s a play with a serious theme — the rise of sexual assaults on American campuses — that’s designed to make audience members contemplate their own views. “I think it’s important that the audience comes in with an open mind and goes on a ride with us,” he said.
But St. John, the play’s director and a third-year Master of Fine Arts directing candidate in the Department of Theatre & Dance, also wants attendees to understand this crucial fact.
“This is not a PSA (public-service announcement) about sexual assault,” St. John said. “The play operates with the assumption that rape and sexual assault are bad.”
“Shaming Jane Doe” stands out at the UofM not only for its subject matter, but also because it is a devised production by St. John and theatre students. St. John and an ensemble of actors began researching and developing the play nearly a year and a half ago, with the eventual script emerging from their improvisational sessions.
St. John originally recruited 10 actors for the project, five of which are among the company of 14 in the play.
“During that period we really focused on doing a lot of research and making these small compositions and sketches and pieces,” St. John said. “From there we went through a more traditional process.”
That research wasn’t for the faint of heart, either. Given the subject matter, St. John and the actors researched public records and documents from relevant court cases. Some of what they found wound up in the script and the play’s staging, he said.
“I’m really interested in theatre that connects with the community and that seeks a sense of social justice,” St. John said. “When I was brainstorming a thesis production to pitch to the main stage, it was really important for me to think about who the audience was at the UofM and pick something that felt meaningful and relevant and urgent to the campus itself. And this topic obviously speaks to our campus and any campus in the country.”
Given all that, attendees may be surprised to hear St. John describe “Shaming Jane Doe” as “a wild ride” and “sort of a collage” that wants to force the audience to evaluate their own ethical stances. One of the recurring characters is Miss Kitty, a drag queen.
“The play is funny,” he said. “But it’s not funny in a glib way. Sometimes the funny is uncomfortable. We’re trying to create a space for reflection for the audience.”
What’s more, “The goal of this play is to spark dialogue. Education happens through dialogue. One of the things we’re seeking to do with this production is not to provide a platform in which we espouse our own ideas about the topic, but (instead) prompt a discussion through contradictions by presenting things that are contradictory. The audience is left to unpack those things and decide the nature of their own ethics and how we come to believe what we believe.”
St. John and the students focus much of the play on the victims of sexual assault, making sure their stories are prominently told. The goal wasn’t solely to tell those stories, but instead to ask public questions about who gets justice and who doesn’t when sexual-assault cases make their way through the American judicial system. Interestingly, the creative process that birthed “Shaming Jane Doe” began before the current #MeToo movement gained full steam throughout the United States.
The play’s team includes Nicholas Jackson (scenic designer), Jamie Gresens (lighting designer), Jen Gillette (costume designer), Tao Wang (projection designer), Hattie Fann (props), Stephen Tomlin (technical director) and Jasmine Simmers (stage manager).
The “Jane Doe” Chorus includes Amy Friedlander, Emily Edwards, Chloe Tibbett, Theorri London and Levarious Goods. The role of “Him” is played by Christian Hinton. The Ensemble cast is Marlee Wilson, John Ross Graham, Hunter Beckham, Jatavius Haynes, Tiffany Bonds, Haleigh Johnson, MK Clayton, Shelby Williams and Beverely Walker.
“Shaming Jane Doe” will run for six shows at the UofM: April 4-6 and April 11-13. Adult tickets are $25, senior tickets are $20 and Theatre & Dance alumni tickets are $10. They’re available online. As for the play’s future after its UofM debut, that’s still to be decided, St. John said.
“The focus right now is making those two weekends as beautiful and entertaining and engaging as possible,” he said. “The life of the piece after this, who knows?”
— Phillip Tutor, CCFA media coordinator, email@example.com