Spectrum Theatre presents 'The Presidential Suite: A Modern Fairytale'

Spectrum Theatre presents 'The Presidential Suite: A Modern Fairytale'

Spectrum Theatre, an organization at U.Va. dedicated to engaging and challenging the community through provocative, socially relevant, universal, inspiring and innovative performances, recently presented the first installment of this semester’s “Breaking Grounds Reading Series.”

The Presidential Suite, by John Binkley, is a play inspired by the Strauss-Kahn court case in which a prominent French economist and politician raped his hotel maid. In the play, French economist Richard Chataigne and his wife Madame Chataigne use their wealth and status to pressure the rape survivor, Hermione St. Cloud, to refuse to testify. Chataigne’s lawyer, Jordan Pershing, helps their case by manipulating the media and ruining St. Cloud’s reputation. St. Cloud is faced with the choice between accepting their bribe and dropping her testimony, or fighting back to make Chataigne pay for his crimes.

The play is meant to start discussions about the abuse of power, sexual assault and exploitation. Binkley was inspired to write this piece after he first heard about the Strauss-Kahn case and later read an interview with Harvard law professor Alan Dershowtiz in which he defended the tactics used to try to discredit the complainant.

“It was that disturbing cynicism that actually motivated me to sit down and write the play, committed to leveling a very uneven playing field, at least in the world I created in the play.”

Binkley asked Spectrum Theatre and the Maxine Platzer Lynne Women’s Center to help him bring The Presidential Suite to U.Va. with the hope that it would continue the conversation surrounding sexual assault on Grounds that began last semester in the aftermath of the controversial Rolling Stone article depicting the sexual assault of a student. The article, which was later discredited by Rolling Stone itself, left the University community searching for ways to lower the risk of sexual assault and promote a healthy, safe environment for all of its students.

“Why shouldn't something good come out of all the pain and self-examination U.Va. has had to undergo? U.Va. could be a model for campuses all over the country if it responds with courage and conviction to the challenge to reduce sexual assault on these Grounds.”

The reading was followed immediately by a talkback between Binkley and those who wished to further discuss the play. The talkback took place in a small circle in the center of the room. The cast members, representatives of Spectrum Theatre and the Women’s Center Gender, Violence and Social Change program, and other audience members all felt free to share their thoughts and opinions on everything that has happened at U.Va during the past semester, the recent controversy surrounding Boy’s Bid Night, and how to reverse the growth of rape culture within our society. Although this was not the first time Binkley had included an open discussion after one of his readings, he found this dialogue to be particularly encouraging. “I thought people were candid, even vulnerable, and that they were searching for answers. 

I thought they were willing to take responsibility for the social change which must be part of a cultural shift on campuses throughout the country, where the communities have been too willing to tolerate and attempt to conceal sexual assault.”

Part of the talkback included a discussion of the play’s subtitle,  “a modern fairytale” and why Binkley felt that it was important to the purpose of the play. The play ends with a nonprofit organization offering to match any monetary amount Chataigne offers St. Cloud to not testify. With the lure of the money from Chataigne aside, she felt secure enough to testify in court, knowing she could support her daughter and finish her own education. Binkley admitted during the talkback that although this outcome is unlikely, it is possible. It is also possible for the oppressed to fight against those who abuse their power and work to correct social injustices.

The play itself is a reminder of how incredibly moving theater can be. The reading took place in a very intimate setting on the top floor of Para Coffee, allowing for everyone in the audience to sit very close to the actors. The audience was left on the edge of their seats from the very start until the final scene. This story of empowered women who refuse to allow others to oppress them argues that there is a way to combat injustice and to change the way in which society views victims of sexual assault.

Binkley, along with those who participated in the dialogue following the performance, believe that there must be significant cultural changes before society can see a reduction in sexual assault and violence against women.
“I believe order can emerge from chaos and that trauma and despair can produce hope. If this play and the dialogue it generates can contribute to the social change required to reduce sexual assault, I will be more than satisfied that we have accomplished something, that it’s work worth doing, as they say.”