NEW YORK — Loy A. Webb’s “The Light” begins with a marriage proposal. But after an enthusiastic “Yes! Yes!” it swerves into darker terrain. It recalls a moment when a woman said no and wasn’t heard. A play — sometimes dubious and sometimes devastating — about sexual assault and its aftershocks, it’s a rom-com, a drama and very nearly a tragedy. Do we have a word for that yet? Do we want one?
Webb’s play, ardently acted, continues the theatrical conversation around sexual assault, joining very recent works like “Usual Girls,” “What the Constitution Means to Me” and “The Pussy Grabber Plays.” These plays don’t typically stage rape (good call, though it’s possible that, in an age of intimacy coaches, directors might veer away from shock and titillation). Instead these works explore the social norms that produce and often excuse it. It’s nearly impossible to discuss what “The Light” contributes to this discussion without detailing a lot of the plot, so if you want to go in unspoiled, this might be a good time to stop reading.
“The Light” is the first production to open at the Susan & Ronald Frankel Theater, an assembly of plush plum seats, gray carpet and blond wood at the Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space (a mouthful and then some). The Hyde Park condo setting of “The Light,” designed by Kimie Nishikawa, is sleek, too, with its gleaming surfaces, its African and African-American art, its curated books and vinyl. It’s the kind of attractively aspirational setting (I’m pretty sure I’ve priced that coffee table) that could decorate a rom-com.
For a while, that’s what “The Light” seems to be. It opens on the second dating anniversary of Genesis (Mandi Masden, winning and assured), a charter school principal, and Rashad (McKinley Belcher III, fervent), a firefighter. She has a present for him, a season pass to see the Chicago Bears. He has gifts for her, too, and there is audible squealing in the audience when Rashad pops the ring box and the question. The happy dance Genesis does when she accepts? It’s as flawless as the diamond.
But Rashad has another surprise, tickets to a benefit concert organized by Kashif (think Chance the Rapper, but awful). Genesis refuses to go. As she’s told Rashad before, she doesn’t like Kashif’s music; it’s misogynistic. When Rashad insists they attend, she tells him that she knew Kashif in college, and that he raped her friend. Rashad, who sees Kashif as a champion of black men, insists that Genesis give him “the benefit of the doubt.” But of course, as Genesis then reveals, there is no friend. Kashif attacked her. Rashad walks backs his defense, too late.
To make Rashad less terrible, Webb has saddled him with not one but two back stories about wicked women, one eye-rollingly tragic. If this distributes sympathies more evenly (as does Belcher’s charisma), it skids awfully close to false balance. But it allows the play to skewer #NotAllMen counterarguments: Yes, Rashad is a two-time victim and not an aggressor, but Genesis will show him that in the larger conversation about sexual assault, that may not matter. Webb also neatly demolishes the “as a father of a daughter” rhetoric, with Genesis saying, “If I didn’t have a father, son or man, I would care about black men who die in the street.”
These late conversations are when “The Light” becomes its most visceral, but also its most schematic. Webb writes great lines and great one-liners, but they don’t always sound like spontaneous back-and-forth. The characters matter less than the arguments. If that’s a questionable trade-off, the debate is compelling and sometimes complicated, especially when Webb brings us to the intersection of #MeToo and Black Lives Matter. But to work against the argumentation, the director, Logan Vaughn, pushes the actors into extremes of anguish, cascades of tears and cortisol that leave them sodden and still palpably upset at the curtain call.
This is a tear-struck thesis play, proposing (with echoes of Zora Neale Hurston) that, as Genesis says, “black women are at the bottom of virtually everything in society,” their labor undervalued, their hurt unrecognized. They deserve to be heard and seen and believed, not because they are someone’s wife or mother or daughter, but because they are human beings.
And if the ending of “The Light” is ambiguous it still allows — crucially — for the possibility that after assault, love is still attainable and deserved. Genesis needs “some light. Just a little bit of light in all this darkness.” She may still get it.
Tickets: Through March 17 at Susan & Ronald Frankel Theater at the Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space, Manhattan; 646-506-9393, mcctheater.org. Running time: 1 hour 10 minutes.
Credits: Loy A. Webb; directed by Logan Vaughn; sets by Kimie Nishikawa; costumes by Emilio Sosa; lighting by Ben Stanton; sound by Elisheba Ittoop; production manager, Steve Rosenberg; production stage manager, Erin Gioia Albrecht; general manager, Beth Dembrow; artistic producer, Jessica Chase. Presented by MCC Theater, Robert LuPone, Bernard Telsey, William Cantler, artistic directors, Blake West, executive director.
Cast: McKinley Belcher III (Rashad) and Mandi Masden (Genesis).
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.