Jordan is your typical male Jewish college student.
He grew up in an intellectual family and attended private schools. At a small liberal arts college, he studies film and, outside of class, he participates in the Men’s Peer Education Group, a club where male college students try to deal with their privilege and prevent sexual assault and harassment.
Jordan is also — said Lexie Braverman, who portrays him in Sensitive Guys — the most sensitive of all the sensitive guys in the group.
“I definitely went to college with Jordan in my head,” Braverman said. “He reminds me of almost every young, Jewish guy I went to college with.”
When sexual assault accusations come out against one of their own, members of the Men’s Peer Education Group are thrown into turmoil. So goes the plot of Sensitive Guys, a new play by MJ Kaufman. InterAct Theatre Company, which develops new plays exploring contemporary issues, will present Sensitive Guys starting Jan. 19 at The Drake. The show will run until Feb. 11.
Kaufman said a brother’s experiences in a similar club during college inspired the play.
“He was part of it for all four years,” Kaufman said. “He started out pretty hopeful about it, and by the end, somewhat defeated about what they were doing, about the culture of sexual violence at his university, on college campuses. He felt a little defeated about what could be done to address it.”
Kaufman started working on Sensitive Guys two years ago and, since then, the script has been workshopped and rewritten several times.
One major change made was the removal of the sexual assault scene itself. Kaufman said that when audiences read or heard that assault scene, some of them questioned whether it was even assault, a fact that frustrated Kaufman.
“Even when they were reading it or seeing it in a fictional thing, they wanted to argue about whether or not it was actually assault and not trust the person speaking about what their experience was,” Kaufman said.
One aspect Kaufman, who identifies as transgender, wrote into the script is that women or nonbinary performers play all of the characters, which makes the characters’ masculinity more visible.
“We expect women and nonbinary people to not take up a lot of space and be hesitant and apologize for themselves,” Kaufman said. “But when we see those people are playing men, and mansplaining and manspreading and interrupting — these behaviors that are actually sort of microaggressions and subtle violence — these things become visible to us. I wanted to alert the audience to those subtleties of entitlement that add up to a larger culture of entitlement.”
Identity plays a large part in Sensitive Guys, since it often is important to college students.
Kaufman said it’s hard to say how much of an influence their trans identity played in Sensitive Guys. Though the play is about straight, cisgender people, Kaufman said, trans identity probably impacts everything written.
“I live between genders, and I’m hyper-aware of every expression of gender in the world,” Kaufman said. “That’s the bread and butter of everything I’m writing and definitely this play.”
Kaufman, who is a member of Kol Tzedek, said Judaism had some influence in the play as well, primarily through the character Jordan. Originally, Kaufman did not write Jordan as Jewish, but when Braverman, a Jewish actress, was cast in the role, that identity became an explicit part of the character.
Jordan wants to be a filmmaker, Kaufman said. He relentlessly pursues social justice and tries to be a good guy. His community taught him that being a successful man means academic success. He also has economic privilege, Kaufman said, and has come to expect that when he has something to say, others will listen.
“With Jordan, we thought about what’s underneath the smart, successful, sensitive layer that he presents, that has been ingrained in him, what’s the anger that he’s never been allowed to show,” Kaufman said.
In addition to Jordan, Braverman also plays Jones, the faculty adviser for the Men’s Peer Education Group, and another student named Katie, whom she describes as “Sarah Silverman-esque.” Compared to Katie, Jordan wears his emotions on his sleeve, Braverman said.
“Growing up with young Jewish guys at theater camp, and going to college with a lot of young Jewish guys, Jordan very much reminds me of most of them, specifically ones that want to accept everyone, be on everyone’s side,” said Braverman, who grew up attending Beth Israel Congregation of Chester County in Eagle. “But at the same time, they’re still human, and they’re still very much products of their parents and their Jewish identity.”
A similar thought process went into the development of every character, Kaufman said. Each of them explores the intersection of their background and gender. Another character named Will, for example, had been homeschooled in the same town as the liberal arts college, and he tries to overcompensate for this insecurity.
Kaufman said they hope the audience leaves thinking about what confronting rape culture would mean.
“The current conversations around sexual assault and the #MeToo movement are somewhat focused on accountability for celebrities and movie stars,” Kaufman said. “I hope the audience can leave thinking and talking about how we confront the rape that happens in our schools and workplaces and neighborhoods that’s not famous people. It’s everyone around us.”
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