Undesirable Elements: Secret Survivors, the latest installment from the Ping Chong and Co. theater company, is a stunning exploration of childhood sexual abuse and its lifelong effects. Written and directed by Ping Chong & Co.s Associate Director, Sara Zatz, it depicts the personal experiences of five child sexual abuse survivors who share their stories in their entirety for the first time. In a question-and-answer session following a reading of this work in New York City in May, Project Coordinator and creator Amita Swadhin explained that, although sexual abuse is an epidemic problem in the US, most mass media representations of abuse deal with the issue at a safely fictional remove. Amita wanted to bring the intensity, diversity and prevalence of the problem directly to audiences while creating a space for other survivors to share their stories.
Secret Survivors, then, is a theatrical performance about sexual abuse told by the survivors themselves. A childrens song sets the stage, transporting the audience back to their own playground years. As childhood permeates this adult theater, the long talons of abuse are slowly revealed. Like a quilt, the monologue fragments are stitched together across the stage, cuttings of personal history sewn together by the chorus and the poignant music of one of the survivors.
A woman tells about the romance of her parents, both immigrants from India, in Ohio, hoping to build upon their dreams with their two daughters. At age four, the father would become her abuser. Her mother dismissed her story. The little girl blocked the abuse by creating her own world outside her home. Though she has struggled through it all, she excelled in her education. She shares, “I carry with me only one physical scar. Here on my lip, where he once bit me.”
Another shares, “I will never have any children.” Her well-to-do parents loved her, but their careers always demanded their full attention. Not until her childcare provider was arrested did they recognize the behavioral changes that accompanied her enrollment in the town daycare. Years of therapy could not unleash her deep-seated memories.
One man explains how he devoted his life to social justice issues because of his loving familys influence. Later in life he realized that he was losing jobs and friends because of his promiscuity with women. Exerting his masculinity, the way society showed him, was his own form of resistance. This is how he responded to the abuse he endured from a friend of the older son of his babysitter. He kept this a secret until a friend told him about her rape by an older boyfriend.
Next, a survivor shares how she found acceptance of her adopted family in Queens by making everyone laugh. Her older adopted brother abused her almost immediately upon her arrival to her new home. She found a voice in her music and poetry. Her life changed after being asked to become a part of an artists collective. This is how she finally healed. Midway through the performance, she sings a song to her adoptive mother, who had refused to confront the abuse by her birth son. The experience is gut-wrenching for the audience.
It is hard to describe the cumulative power of these stories. They thread through the surrounding contexts of structural violence, economic strata, racial tensions, sexual orientation and the intersections of the storytellers numerous identities. In fact, it inevitably speaks to the audiences numerous identities. Specific moments awake a different part of oneself – the instincts of a mother, a sister, a member of a family, the duty of a public servant, the experiences of a woman or person of color, the vulnerability and resilience of a child, the role of a friend, a teacher, a social worker. One will find themselves in deep reflection about broken systems and structures just as much as remember ones own closeness to sexual abuse or its prospects.
The stories serve as a reminder that child abuse can happen to anyone. One will walk away feeling like taking action so that it does NOT happen to another child. Yet one is struck, as the narratives pass, by an overwhelming truth. Despite the early trauma, despite the long and bitter influence these episodes of abuse can inflict on its victims, these survivors who are sharing before you have survived, have mastered the forces of destruction that might have overcome them, are, in the very moment of the performance, embodying hope, asserting with each utterance their liberation from the experiences that might have chained them.
Many artistic attempts to scale the cliffs of abuse, like other social justice motivated work, can feel like the art has taken a back seat to the message. This is not the case in Secret Survivors, partly because it falls under the Undesirable Elements umbrella of projects, which has since 1992 put on productions that deal with a wide range of oral histories. Secret Survivors has taken full advantage of the template developed in the Undesirable Elements series. Each survivor tells his or her own story in a series of linked monologues, and is bolstered in his or her telling by the choral participation of fellow actors. The choral element, a throwback to the Greek dramas, is particularly effective in at once highlighting these moments of high trauma even as it reveals the community of support these survivors have later carved out for themselves.
The power of an open conversation about such a taboo topic can often feel like a blow to the stomach. But, this unique performance has many layers. Though at times it leaves you hopeless, each narrative evokes a variety of feelings and emotions, for these survivors are real. They candidly share their multiple identities by voicing small vignettes of their lifetime journeys. “What is justice?” they ask — each one gives their definition. The audience is left to ponder on this question too; days, even months after experiencing the performance.
Secret Survivors is a wake-up call about an issue that is too often kept hidden, a cancerous monster that needs to be addressed. It is a remarkable work that must be experienced by everyone, because 1 in 4 female-bodied and 1 in 6 male-bodied people are currently victimized. It is an epidemic problem that survivor Amita Swadhin is committed to solving. The performance is only the beginning of what has turned into her life-long journey.
For more information on Secret Survivors, visit www.secretsurvivors.org.