Last summer, Selina Fillinger’s drama Something Clean asked us to consider the aftermath of a campus rape from the point of view of the perpetrator’s parents. Now in Liliana Padilla’s How to Defend Yourself (presented at Victory Gardens in a co-world premiere with Actors Theatre of Louisville), we meet a group of college students who are wrestling (literally) with what to do after a sorority sister is raped by two young men at a frat party. Guilt, defiance, desire, and cultural as well as gender differences all break out in a series of self-defense classes, conducted by Brandi (Anna Crivelli), a Type-A whose bossiness hides her remorse at not doing more to protect her “little sister,” and Kara (Netta Walker), whose defiant proclamations about enjoying the messier edges of sex eventually reveal her own insecurities.
Their students include gun enthusiast Diana (an endearing Isa Arciniegas), who is attracted to her best friend, Mojdeh (Ariana Mahallati), who in turn harbors a crush on an older guy in her biology class. Painfully shy Nikki (Andrea San Miguel) and the well-meaning-but-out-of-their-depth male duo of Andy (Ryan McBride) and Eggo (Jayson Lee) round out the class.
What Padilla’s play—directed with pinpoint precision and plenty of startling wit by Marti Lyons—asks us to consider is how defending our lives can so often clash with living our lives. As we teach young women “how to avoid being raped,” do we spend as much time teaching young men (even the “good” ones, like Andy and Eggo) how to avoid staying silent in the face of rape culture? At the very time that young people should be exploring their sexual identities, we remind them that their joy in their powers of attraction can’t always save them from a world where conquest remains a dominant driver in human interactions. v