For some reason, despite the title, I chose to ignore the implication that there might be smoking in a play called Smoke. My bad. There was plenty of smoking, although fans drew the worst of it out of the theater. Having survived the physical discomfort of a smoke-filled theater, I was then challenged by a play about how sexual games can go beyond what many, including myself, are comfortable with. But did I need to be warned about that?
Smoke is, according to the brief description on Theatre Exile’s website, a play about a couple who “meet at a kink party in New York City.” That description may kick up a few red flags, unless you’re the sort of person who prefers to go to the theater knowing nothing ahead of time, in which case, I suppose, you deserve what you get and probably wouldn’t have read the warning anyway. On the other hand, too many women have been subject to unwanted sexual advances and more, and to ask them to unwittingly submit to something that may force them to relive the experience could be considered another form or coercion. But does it, as an attendee at a recent post-performance talk-back suggested, call for a trigger warning?
The knives come out
The play is challenging. Julie (Merci Lyons-Cox) is a 20-year-old young woman who prides herself on doing nothing. John (Matteo Scammell) is a 31-year-old would-be artist who interns for Julie’s father, a successful photographer. They meet in the kitchen of the kink party, and while everyone in the next room is playing out their own sexual fantasies to loud music, Julie and John torment and insult each other until the knives come out, literally, and their sexual play goes beyond what either of them intended at the start.
A play so nuanced makes it difficult to grapple with some of the underlying topics. Yes, life is messy and doesn’t have easy solutions, but in raising so many issues at once, playwright Kim Davies winds up cancelling out one issue with another.
By making the woman so much younger than the man — although Julie is beyond the age of consent, she is 11 years younger than John — Davies has affected the conversation. There’s really no way to make the man’s position okay. But what if she were slightly older and he slightly younger? How would we feel about it then? What if she had been the older one? Would we have immediately expected her to be more mature? Or would we call her a cougar and label her a predator?
In addition, there are class differences: John works for Julie’s father, Geoffrey, on whom Julie relies for financial support. When her father calls, demanding that John rush over to work for him, Geoffrey becomes the dominant figure in the room, even though he isn’t present. This is a class struggle between a wealthy young woman who has never worked and a loser who is always working but never succeeding. She has the power to cost him his job; he has the moral high ground of working for a living.
In the BDSM world of dominance and submission, it can be hard to know who’s playing which role. John is a “switch” — someone who plays either role — and he wants to know who Julie is so he can accommodate her. She seems to be submissive, but it’s not long before she becomes the dom to his submissive — except he has knives and physical strength.
What gets lost in all these power plays is the concept of a woman as a fully realized sexual being with her own needs and desires. It’s a powerful play, but couching women’s issues in the BDSM world makes it easier to distance oneself from the concept of woman as person and not just sexual object. Making Julie a victim because of her age alters the discussion further. As long as we always make the woman the victim, we deny her the right to her own sexuality. She is always being put upon by the man.
At the talk back I attended, the men saw Julie purely as a victim who needed to be defended, while the women had a greater understanding that Julie was playing her own game of manipulation. The play, it seems grew out of Kim Davies’s experience in college, as well as Strindberg’s Miss Julie, and is about more than just kinky sex; it’s about power and domination and unintended consequences.
But does it need a trigger warning?
When innuendo is inescapable
Today, gender bias and sexuality are taken as the norm, making me wonder if TV shows that denigrate women in the guise of comedy shouldn’t come with their own warnings. Steve Harvey’s Family Feud is so filled with sexual references — not all of them cloaked in double entendre — that it should come with an R rating, yet it’s on daytime TV. The Republican debates have devolved to the point where the candidates are comparing the sizes of their penises.
Smoke, however, is explicitly about sex. The description tells us that, and the image promoting the play hints at violence and sexuality. If we are always protected from seeing challenging material, how do we learn to deal with the unexpected challenges that life inevitably throws at us? On the other hand, shouldn’t we be able to choose what we want to see, particularly when it brings up very painful memories? (For a defense of the use of trigger warnings in an academic context, click here.)
It’s not an easy question, and as this play shows us, we can always find ourselves in situations we didn’t intend.