Breaking Through The Haze
Thursday, November 6, 2014
By Lily Janiak
When I met writer and performer Heather Marlowe on September 30, she had just finished her run at the ACT Costume Shop of The Haze, her harrowing solo show about getting drugged and raped at Bay to Breakers in 2010—and then her even-scarier account of her case's languishing in the criminal justice system. Police botched her investigation at every step of the way: taking her to the wrong hospital; barging into her doctor's examination room when she was barely clothed; forcing her to enter, by herself, the home of a suspect as part of what she calls in the show a "DIY investigation." Perhaps most glaringly, it took more than two years for her rape kit (a collection of DNA and other evidence gleaned from an hours-long forensic exam of her body) to get processed (i.e., sent to a crime lab where it's analyzed, with the results, hopefully, sent to the FBI for entry into a national database). Even then, as she recounts in the show, that only happened because someone with political connections intervened, and that only happened because that person saw her show.
Heather Marlowe. Photo: Dan Dion
There are thousands of unprocessed rape kits in San Francisco; nationwide, the estimate is 100,000. "I know for a fact that my rape kit would still be unprocessed if I hadn't started performing this show," Marlowe says in The Haze.
Marlowe's wry advice to rape victims in similar situations, the show's script continues, is thus "to become an artist, write and perform a solo show, tell your story over and over, and then, if you're lucky, someone in the audience with power will make a 30-second phone call."
Though her run ended, Marlowe isn't slowing down, either in terms of her artistic ambitions for the show—she's pursuing collaborations with an off-Broadway theatre and various college campuses—or her activist ambitions to eliminate rape kit backlogs. Her campaign has made her a face of the issue, a role she's embraced—mostly. Talking about her rape and her mistreatment by the police over and over and over again, she jokes, "has really been a lot of me giving a shit about me—me continually giving a shit about me. On all levels."
On October 1, Marlowe spoke at a press conference regarding AB 1517, a bill, proposed by state representative Nancy Skinner of Oakland, that, beginning January 1, 2016, will "encourage" police to submit rape kits to crime labs within 20 days of logging the evidence and also "encourage" crime labs to process the evidence within 120 days. On September 30 of this year, Governor Brown signed the bill into law after vetoing it every year for many years.
While many are lauding AB 1517's passage, Marlowe is skeptical. She sees the bill as toothless (note the weak word "encourage") and unnecessarily delayed (note the 2016 start date). "It is a great thing to be out on the forefront, saying that we as a state are going to try to uphold ourselves to the best practices in terms of timely rape kit processing," she says—while looking forward to sharing her concerns about the law's lack of teeth at the press conference. "I'm going to be the face there going, 'Wow, that's great that this has become an issue, and I look forward to hearing about how you actually plan to fund this.'" She laughs. "To my knowledge, nothing's been changed in terms of actually prioritizing that."
Heather Marlowe. Photo: Dan Dion
The Haze is a searing, confrontational show. Marlowe both indicts and sympathizes with her audiences for their complicity in perpetuating rape culture: "It's really hard to care about someone's rape," she says in the show. Moments later, she offers a sardonic fantasy of just what it would take to get more people to care: "Wouldn't it be great if everyone got raped? If the police department got raped?"
The show wasn't always so in-your-face. Previous versions had very different foci: defending Marlowe against victim-blaming—"There was a lot of, 'I promise you that I really wasn't drunk,'" she says—and providing Marlowe with what she needed at the time to deal with her rape: "Because I was drugged and there was so little memory, very early on and through a lot of the writing process, it was like, 'I don't want to kill that baby; I want to hold onto every last little detail of this one section because if I let that go, then oh my god, I'm losing that part that I'm grasping so hard to hold onto from the memory that I do have.' In having that memory and holding onto what I can remember, there's an empowerment."
After a couple of years developing the show, Marlowe made a connection through a friend with Mike Daisey, with whom she did a one-day script consultation, and Daisey's wife and collaborator Jean-Michele Gregory, who became the director of The Haze. She feels very lucky that she met them when she did. "Had they come into this project a year ago, I'd be like, 'No way, we're not leaving out that part,'" Marlowe says. Daisey, in particular, helped Marlowe distinguish between her role as artist and her role as survivor. She remembers Daisey advising, "It's actually not necessary to tell every last little detail. I understand that as a survivor, you want to do that, but as a storyteller and as a piece of art, this is not important."
The storyteller that emerged from The Haze's multi-year development, which included stints at the Boxcar and, especially helpfully, with Martha Rynberg at Stage Werx, is strong. "You never doubt for a second that I'm not okay, that I'm a person who's not on the other side of this," Marlowe says. From the beginning of the play, she cracks jokes like, "Rape is so rare in our society. It's been years since it's happened to...anyone." That strength serves an important dramaturgical function: allowing audiences to trust her as a guide. Her persona makes it clear that the story won't dwell gratuitously in sorrow and horror.
The overwhelming majority of Marlowe's audiences during the Costume Shop's run, perhaps unsurprisingly, were female, so throughout the run, she often felt as though she were preaching to the choir. The night I attended, the house in ACT's Costume Shop was decently full, but I counted just four men, one of whom was Daisey. Marlowe says that makeup was typical; she estimates that, throughout her run, just 10% of her audience was male. But the men who did come, she says, gave some of the "most meaningful" comments, both positive and negative. Many said things like, "It's my responsibility as a man to raise awareness of this issue." Others, seemingly shaken to their core, suggested she remove the parts about no one caring about rape. Still others have reacted like the male characters in the play reacted. In our interview, she described the response of men of influence who see her show and then claim to want to help as, "I will heal you with my power." In the play, one character's silencing response Marlowe distills as, "I will heal you with my penis."
The men whom Marlowe most wanted to attend—the men of the San Francisco Police Department—promised to come but never did. But if she hasn't yet put her show in front of them, she's nonetheless made them aware of a real problem in their department: "I went in front of the police commission and said, 'I'm doing a show about how my rape kit hasn't been processed.' Then they said, 'That's so weird; every rape kit that we know about has been processed.'" Marlowe and partners in the media—Jim O'Donnell, of Philadelphia's NBC affiliate, has been a particularly dedicated activist—contacted them every week for weeks on end, asking the police to audit their property log. Eventually, the police did an about-face, acknowledging that they had thousands of unprocessed kits, but that, because the statute of limitations had passed on so many of them, they could only process 753.
For her work in bringing this grim fact to light, and for her continuing efforts to get justice for the rape victims of San Francisco, Marlowe received an award from the Mayor and The Commission of the Status of Women on October 22. But looking at the work still to come, she downplays her accomplishments. "I could probably be performing this play probably for the rest of my life. And will change happen? Art is great in terms of awareness, but these institutions, in terms of realizing institutionalized patriarchy, institutionalized sexism, institutionalized degradation, are moving at a glacial pace. I find that a lot of powerful people came to my show, socialized, came to opening night, paid their money to see this play, and at the end of the day, I found a lot of them going like, 'Go Heather!' But in terms of getting in front of this issue, they gave their money and then they retreated. They see what I am doing, and the glacial pace change that the Police department in San Francisco is making, as enough."
The real change, Marlowe says, has barely begun. "It's a huge boulder that we're all trying to keep—I think just keep in place! I don't even know that it's moving up."
Marlowe urges audiences to get involved in these ways:
• Write Police Chief Greg Suhr and urge the SFPD to process their thousands of backlogged rape kits: firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Visit endthebacklog.org to learn more about our national rape kit backlog.
• Support thegratefulgarmentproject.org—so no rape victim lacks clothing to wear home (after her clothing is confiscated as part of her exam).
Lily Janiak is listings editor for Theatre Bay Area. She is also a theatre critic for publications including SF Weekly and HowlRound.