War Stories: OU Playwright Tackles Military Sexual Assault, PTSD In New Works

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Bianca Sams, left, works with Ohio University theater students Jessica Savitz, center, and Thomas Daniels, right. Table readings help playwrights refine their work prior to a staged performance. Photo: Ben Siegel

When Agnes goes missing, her husband confronts her therapist, Deborah, who has been treating Agnes for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) triggered by a military tour in Iraq. Agitated and irate, he locks himself in Deborah's office, demanding confidential health care information about his troubled wife.

The scene is the setup for Bianca Sams' play Rust on Bone, which explores the ramifications of military trauma. Although a work of fiction, it draws on extensive interviews the Ohio University graduate student conducted with veterans.

Sams, a playwright and actress, is drawn to exploring social issues through what she calls "found stories." Her work touches on such issues as race relations—in the Claudette Colvin story Battle Cry, which won several national awards in 2013 (see sidebar at end of story)—and the struggles of American servicemen and women.

"Taking on social issues is a great way to foment change around you," Sams says. "Forcing people to look at what we do to each other— and the issues that keep repeating—can in fact create a type of social change. That's my hope."

Veterans speak out

When word first got out that Sams was looking for women and men to interview about their experiences with military sexual trauma, she didn't expect such a large response. She began getting calls in the middle of the night and graphic voicemails from survivors who wanted to share their stories.

After interviewing many of the survivors, a pattern became apparent: A service member would be assaulted, typically by a commanding officer in a higher position of authority, and would choose not to report it for fear of career damage. If the assault was reported, it was most likely the victims, not the perpetrators, who would leave their military careers behind.

"None of the people I spoke to were still in the military," Sams says. "I know that things are changing … but most of the people I talked to said that the biggest factor in their emotional distress was the fact that there were serious repercussions (for reporting sexual assault)."

According to a 2012 report by the U.S. Department of Defense's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program, instances of unwanted sexual conduct were estimated to be 26,000, but only 3,374 assaults had been filed.

The discrepancy may suggest that a large percentage do not report instances of unwanted sexual conduct because of fear of retaliation in both social and professional settings, the report noted. Most service men and women—97 and 96 percent, respectively—acknowledge that they have received military training in how to manage and report sexual assault incidents.

Most victims were women under the age of 25, and men, primarily in junior enlisted grades, accounted for 90 percent of the alleged perpetrators. Victims of sexual assault may experience sleep disorders, substance abuse, flashbacks, and depression, according to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN).

When interviewing survivors, Sams tried to avoid rehashing traumatic experiences.

"I had to be very careful of the questions I was asking and how I asked specific questions. (I told interview subjects that) if there's a question that is too difficult to answer, tell me that and we'll move on," Sams says. "At this point, I haven't worked on anything that was as emotionally sensitive as this issue."

Taking stories to the stage

Rust on Bone focuses on the role that the therapist, Deborah, plays in the lives of patients with PTSD. In addition to her research on military personnel, Sams consulted with psychiatrists to learn how Deborah would interact with veterans under her care.

The play is a companion to Rise, Phoenix, Rise, which focuses on the story of Agnes, the missing patient who is dealing with both PTSD and sexual assault trauma from her military service. She tries to put on a brave face, as she was taught to do in her military training, but struggles to suppress her emotions.

"Agnes is sort of this weird enigma to me," Sams says. "She's somebody who is very strong, but she's dealing with all of these things, and she doesn't realize that strength doesn't come from being rigid. … She needs to heal from this, and then she can be as strong as she really is."

Working with fellow graduate student actors in the School of Theater, Sams has held several table readings of Rust on Bone this school year. She debuted the first reading of Rise, Phoenix, Rise this spring.

Although she originally planned to write only one play on the topic, a grant from Ohio University's Student Enhancement Award program allowed her to expand her research and pursue the additional script.

Making an impact with theater

Charles Smith, head of Ohio University's Professional Playwriting program, praised Sams for her tenacious research skills and artistic drive.

"Bianca's work goes beyond the clinical accounting or news headlines and explores the lives of individuals suffering from these traumas in a very up-close, personal, and poetic way," Smith says. "Her work tells us that the effects PTSD and sexual assault trauma can have wide-ranging, unforeseen, and unexpected consequences."

The plays may help society acknowledge and address the problem, he adds.

Sams relishes the opportunity to use her art as a way to create social change.

"You see how theater and arts can get people fired up in ways that seeing (an issue) on the news, or seeing statistics or reading about it don't," she says. "There's a visceral thing about theater and entertainment that can envelope people in a story."

Sidebar: Before Rosa Parks: The teen who fought segregation law

By Jessica Salerno

Rosa Parks' refusal to give up her seat on a bus for a white patron inspired a nation to demand desegregation. While Parks has become an iconic figure in American race relations, the reality is that several other black women preceded her with similar acts, Sams says.

"If Rosa Parks is the galvanizer, what do you say about the four women who in the year before all did the same thing? How do you tell that story?" she asks.

Sams' answer is Battle Cry, a two-act play based on the experience of Claudette Colvin, a 15-year-old girl who was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955, nine months prior to Parks. She was the first person in Montgomery to fight the segregation law in court, Sams says.

The playwright explores the complicated aftermath of Colvin's decision, including why the NAACP didn't publicly support the teen, who was from a low-income area and became pregnant shortly after her arrest.

Sams first came across Colvin's story in James W. Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, which highlights common historical myths. She encountered challenges finding more information about the woman, who lives in The Bronx, New York, but rarely gives interviews. (The major exception is the Phillip Hoose book Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, which Sams used for background research.)

With grants from Ohio University, Sams traveled to the Alabama State University archives, where she was able to find newspaper clippings and oral histories of what had happened to Colvin in Montgomery. Sams also tracked down videos of Colvin to be able to write in Colvin's voice and perfect her speech and cadence.

In 2013, the play had readings at Ohio University's Seabury Quinn Jr. Playwrights Festival and at the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival in Washington, D.C., where it landed two awards. In addition, she won the Kennedy Center Fellowship to the O'Neill New Play Festival in Connecticut and received second place in the Association for Theatre in Higher Education's Jane Chambers Student Playwriting Award.

Sams has submitted the play to additional festivals and theaters to gain a wider audience for the work.

"I feel like people should know who (Colvin) is," she says. "She can be inspiration for other people, whether male or female, to change their lives or the world we live in."

This story appears in the Spring/Summer 2014 issue of Ohio University's Perspectives magazine, which covers research, scholarship and creative activity.