Having opened last night on Capitol Hill at the Annex Theater, Safe Space will shock and astound you. Devised by the talented ensemble cast and directed by the capable Kyleigh Archer, the comedic drama chronicles the last sleepover organized for a group of eight girls – middle-schoolers recovering from traumatic sexual abuse – who begin to recognize the amplitude of the issues they must face when approached with adolescence. Meanwhile, they continue efforts to remain positive in the face of adversity and reconcile their past trauma with their hopes for the future.
The play opens on Clementina (Ashley Salazar) and Jo (Sarah Garcia) in their basement, anxiously awaiting the arrival of the other girls from their therapy group at a sleepover they’ve been planning for weeks. As the other girls – Dolores (Anasofia Gallegos), Britney (Kacy Caughlin), Lauren (Caroline Rensel), and Tiara and Casey (Danela Butler and Sam Harrison) – arrive in ones and twos, the girls spend most of the early evening snacking and dancing to music while they trade petty insults and spread rumors about each other, testing boundaries of some of the friendships formed. Once the youngest member of their support group, eleven-year-old “screamer” Paris (Devotion Charles) enters, the group elects to play a game of “Never Have I Ever,” which quickly falls apart when Britney’s open promiscuity stirs discomfort with some of the other girls.
Their next game of flashlight tag is represented with an intense and memorable musical number performed by the cast, blending popular song lyrics with exposition and laying out in explicit detail some of the previous horrors suffered by the adolescent girls at the hands of family members while providing background for how the group knows each other. Detailing the threats of violence made against them by their abusers in their song, the girls also take a moment to reflect if they themselves are ready for the normalized, sexually-aggressive practices of teenage boys and men and the suffocating social pressures associated with high school and growing up. Incapable of providing an answer, they nonetheless declare they’re tired of living in a world where it’s only convenient for them to be women when men desire them. Shortly thereafter, Paris offers an unforgettable and haunting monologue recounting her abuse by her father before she experiences a terrifying flashback that brings a halt to their fun.
After returning indoors, the night continues to escalate in the basement. Tensions rise between various parties and girls take sides as they attempt to justify to each other their undeniably harmful and personal manifestations of their own post-traumatic stress. And once a climactic fight erupts, the members of the troubled group must confront the sinister realities of poverty and institutionalized racism, budding sexualities in a patriarchal and sexually oppressive culture, and the repercussions of their shared abuses before they can hope to resolve their problems and provide emotional support for each other again in a time where they need each other most.
Featuring a clever set design, the stage for Safe Space repurposes the set from another of Annex Theater’s current productions, ROW YR BOAT (Achievement Unlocked). However, the set of Safe Space differs significantly in that it is draped in heavy blankets and quilts bearing patches with logos or lettering that advertises certain brands or various merchandise, though not in any way that’s overtly distracting from the action, nor is uncharacteristic of the characters’ interests. Additional blankets litter the stage, spread across the floor in a colorful blend of patterns and designs, offering a fantastic visual indicator of the emotional safety supposed to be provided by the girl’s therapy group – an ironic gesture that becomes all too apparent as the night unfolds and friction between the group drives members to seek emotional refuge through other means. Printed pictures of female pop icons make for sparse wall decorations while a mass of throw pillows is bundled in a red sheet in the middle of the floor and the girls occasionally pick over foods left out on a folding table.
Though the costume design is relatively simple, with the girls dressed solely in their pajamas for the slumber party, they all don capes prior to their game of “witch” flashlight tag, during which they also provide their own lighting by using their flashlights in orchestrated cohesion to spotlight themselves individually and to illuminate the whole group. And though perhaps unnoticeable at first, the clothes and color schemes preferred by the attending members provides some subtle hints at a few of the girls’ defining character traits and behaviors. And when one of the girl’s costumes is revealed to conceal her self-harming habits in a shocking sequence, the audience is left to wonder what other external manifestations of their abuse these girls might be hiding from each other.
Despite the obvious raw emotion and the heavy themes, Safe Space maintains a surprisingly upbeat tone, even as the girls wonder to themselves and each other what will become of them after their therapy ends. With emotionally-charged, powerful performances by the ensemble cast and driven by themes of inadequate foster care, sexual violence and objectification in a patriarchal society, institutionalized racism, self-harm, and closeted sexuality, Safe Space challenges social concepts of love, trauma, and sisterhood in an unforgettable performance that will stay with you long after you’ve left the theater. See Safe Space at the Annex while you can.
Safe Space, devised by ensemble and produced by Annex Theater. Showing at Annex Theater, 1100 E Pike St. Seattle, WA 98122. Located on Capitol Hill at the corner of E Pike St. and 11th Ave. Feb 13th to Feb 28th Tues and Wed @ 7:30pm. Tickets available online at http://www.annextheatre.org/2018-season/off-night/safe-space/ or call (206)-774-6083. Info at annextheater.org.