Communication, identity, and body image are at the root of a lovely play that is much more about the darkness we let interfere with healthy sexual experiences than the actual act itself. Sex in the Dark is the latest from Uprising Theatre Company, a company that is deeply concerned with social justice and strives to give audience members the resources to actually create change based on the show’s themes. As such, the company has several community partners, usually local non-profits, who table at shows and who the company offers connection and support for. Uprising was founded and led by Shannon TL Kearns, a trans writer and performer whose background is in religion and community organizing — though his experience in theatre is certainly substantial. Kearns is joined for Sex in the Dark by company member Martin Sheeks in stage management, Ashley Hovell as an actor, and rising directing star Shalee Coleman.
Sex in the Dark is a simple, endearing story about a man named Ayden and a woman named Jess who are each wracked with nervousness about the date that the show centers around. It’s been implied that this is the night to consummate the relationship, and Jess’ track record with men has been less than ideal. Meanwhile Ayden is a trans man who has not had sex since transitioning, and has yet to build that type of confidence in himself or figure out how to make sex work while living with body dysphoria. Both characters are completely disarming, smart, fun, and, yes, attractive people, but both are battling deep-seated wounds.
The super cute part of the plot (that you don’t even realize was a factor until later) is that not only have they both not had sex in awhile for various reasons, not only are they both super nervous of the other party’s reaction and fear of rejection, but the reason Jess and Ayden put such high stakes on this night is simple and wonderful: they really, really, really like each other and have not really, really, really liked anyone in a long time. We can all relate to that extra pressure of growing feelings, I’m sure; if ever a sexual experience needs to go well, it’s the times we actually want to build something with the other party. As such, the two spend much of the first third of the play being adorably nervous and dancing around any important or intimate topics. Once things move to the bed, a world of necessary discussion about body image and sexual hang-ups opens up.
For a theatre company founded with the intention to help audience create change, Uprising’s theatre work has been consistently solid in it’s own right. This is their third show, and each show has been completely different from the one before in spite of centering on common themes such as identity and communication. Kearns is an undeniably gifted writer, though I do think Sex in the Dark would benefit from another round of editing. While it’s often intentional that the conversation between Ayden and Jess circles back on itself, it’s also sometimes clearly not intentional. There are so many stops and starts that do nothing to build to the show’s, ahem, climax, or develop new questions or insight related to the issues at hand. Kearns and Hovell are endlessly likeable as performers and in their respective roles, and director Shalee Coleman is one of the most consistently working directors I know for a reason (and that reason is her immense talent), but that doesn’t always save repetitive dialogue or entire scenes that do not further the show along.
That aside, I was very, very charmed by Sex in the Dark, and very pleasantly surprised by how relatable the characters are regardless of your own journey. While I was not surprised to relate to Hovell’s Jess, who’s issues with her own body stem from being overweight in a world that wants everyone (especially women and those assigned female at birth) to be smaller, I was surprised to relate so much to Ayden’s struggle to find joy, self, and well, sexiness, in sex post-transition. My own body is marked figuratively and literally by sexual trauma, and while I am in no way equating the experiences many trans people have with my own, I am saying that Kearns’ writing of these struggles is so earnest that you may be surprised to see your story reflected back at you even when your story is not similar to Jess’ or Ayden’s. Much of that relatability comes from the first half of the show, in which we’re introduced to two insecure but generally put together characters who are as funny and sweet as they are self-deprecating. We have already seen ourselves in the way Jess changes clothes right before the date or the way Ayden gets so nervous pre-date that he buttons his buttons wrong that by the time the bombshells about insecurity, body dysphoria, and the emotional scars from body shaming start dropping, we are already completely invested in the characters and their rocky road to happiness. To that end Sex in the Dark is a very smart show, and while I’ve addressed its main themes, that’s really just the tip of the iceberg of this nuanced show.
In the end, tragedy brings Ayden back to Jess’s apartment. This scene was jarring, but it should be. There are tragedies that come out of nowhere in life, especially for marginalized people in marginalized communities, and it is those tragedies that often push us to move past our fears. As the show brings up near the end, if we can’t have and live in the things we really want in life, what’s even the point of fighting for our acceptance and liberation? After news of tragedy hits, the two characters push past their insecurities and less than stellar communication styles when it comes to sex (once the panic dies down), and actually listen to what the other party is saying. While the dialogue in these final scenes is somewhat idealistic, as learning communication and listening skills is an active process that takes much more than one night to re-learn, I love that the show takes place over one night, and it’s not unbelievable enough to take you out of the experience. If anything, the actors have shown such a range of emotion and depth of character that you stay sucked in, and in this, really are able to internalize the lessons at play.
Sex in the Dark is a difficult show about difficult personal issues that does not ever feel like “too much,” and does not end in yet more heartbreak and sadness for its characters. It’s ludicrous that in 2016 it is still notable that “this play ends happily,” but that is still a sadly necessary deviation from the norm in LGBTQ+ centric media. The show walks a fine, difficult line between darkness and light, and by the end you’ve reached several stages and types of catharsis. The show may not be for everyone, as it’s a slow burn to move from nervous texting to finally seeing the characters accomplish their goals for the night, but it’s a fun ride with deeply emotional points, so if you’re like me and love a long build and live for a slow burn, or if you just plain value well-done original works and great performances, this is definitively a show for you. Sex in the Dark runs at The Phoenix through December 10th. Check here for exact dates and times and to grab your tickets.