Theater & art

Lopez’s ‘Night’ plunges into the darkness of campus violence

“I was fascinated by the idea of how people respond to situations,” says Melinda Lopez of her play “Back the Night.”
Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff
“I was fascinated by the idea of how people respond to situations,” says Melinda Lopez of her play “Back the Night.”

Playwright Melinda Lopez is drawn to unruly women.

“I tend to write plays about characters who are asking questions, and ultimately upending social norms,” Lopez says.

Her plays span a wide range of topics and eras, even as they explore that central idea of the power of change. Her works include the award-winning “Sonia Flew,” about the repercussions of the evacuation of children from Cuba; “From Orchids to Octopi: An Evolutionary Love Story,” about a woman who confronts her own evolution as she studies Darwin’s theory; “Becoming Cuba,” about a pharmacy owner in Havana who tries to avoid taking sides on the eve of the Spanish-American War; and “How Do You Spell Hope?,” true stories of individuals overcoming obstacles to literacy. 

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Her newest play, “Back the Night,” which runs through Feb. 28 at the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, explores the choices two women make when they are confronted with violence on their college campus. The title comes from the “Take Back the Night” protests against sexual violence that began in the ’70s and continue today. The play follows the repercussions that follow one undergraduate’s assault, and the way she and her best friend deal with its impact on their lives and their friendship.

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“The issues of self-victimization, the culture of silence in the face of assaults, the question of how women survive and thrive in the midst of this are all around us,” Lopez says. “The idea for the play came to me complete and fully formed. One month later the University of Virginia story broke.”

In November 2014, Rolling Stone magazine published a story of a horrific gang rape at the University of Virginia that seemed to exemplify the culture of violence against women on college campuses. The story, it turns out, was a hoax that cast doubt on the veracity of other stories and victims.

“I was fascinated by the idea of how people respond to situations,” Lopez says. “I read a book by Susan J. Brison called ‘Aftermath,’ in which she talks about how we hold the victims’ experience apart, suggesting they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, or shouldn’t have been drinking. That comes, Brison says, from a fear of identifying with someone who was not in control.”

“Back the Night,” says Lopez, is a look at how two friends navigate this difficult terrain, and the compromises young women must make to survive and thrive in the midst of a culture that is uncomfortable with confronting the issue of violence against women.

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Director Daniela Varon says “Back the Night” is something of a departure for Lopez. “I think of her plays as epic dramas covering sweeping topics,” Varon says. “This is much more intimate, asking the question ‘what is truth’ and ‘what does it mean to be truthful?’ ”

For “Back the Night” to pack the required dramatic punch, Lopez says the action has to move very quickly.

“I tried to describe the pace to the actors as a bullet or a fist,” Lopez says. “Something that knocks you off your feet. When you experience trauma, time moves differently. At the other end of the spectrum, things spiral out swiftly in the blogosphere.”

Varon says Lopez always creates strong characters. “What I love about this script is the way we begin scenes in the middle of conversations, and things leap around a lot,” she says. “When you’ve experienced trauma, your brain is trying to reconstruct things like a jigsaw. In the play, characters jump from one thought to another, the way they do in real life.”

When Lopez was writing “Back the Night” she was thinking about David Mamet’s “Oleanna” and Tracey Scott Wilson’s “The Story,” which feature characters with clearly defined realities. “I think I tend to write plays with characters who carry secrets,” says Lopez. “In the course of the play they reveal their true selves.”

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Not only do they reveal themselves, says Varon, Lopez keeps asking questions without providing pat answers.

‘I tend to write plays with characters who carry secrets.’

“I think the issue of violence on college campuses is probably worse than it was 30 years ago when I was in college,” Varon says. “The question is why? And the answers aren’t as simple as we’d like them to be. Melinda doesn’t let people off the hook.”

BACK THE NIGHT

Play by Melinda Lopez. Directed by Daniela Varon. Presented by Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, 949 Commonwealth Ave., through Feb. 28. Tickets: $10-$30, 866-811-4111, www.bu.edu/bpt

Terry Byrne can be reached at trbyrne@aol.com.