McGill student play “The Elephant” delivers a fresh perspective on a difficult subject

Image by Noa Padawer-Blatt

Content warning: this article discusses sexual abuse and trauma.

 

This November, Montreal’s theatre scene saw The Elephant, a McGill production written and directed by U3 music education student Troy Lebane and put on by the Tuesday Night Café Theatre. The play was held in the cozy basement of the Islamic Studies Library Building—Morrice Hall— where the theatre’s environment is friendly and intimate. 

Viewers are subject to the conversation which lingers instead and bear witness to the guilt, trauma, and pain of survivors in everyday dialogue, an earnest and compelling twist on the common narrative of sexual abuse as a sensationalized spectacle.  

Prefaced with a necessary content warning for sexual assault, rape, and trauma, The Elephant details the fallout which accompanies the arrest of an influential theatre department head for sex crimes with a minor. His colleagues grapple with the exterior aftermath of the situation: crafting a statement for parents, choosing a new department head, and deciding on appropriate support services. But this all-too-familiar exteriority takes a backseat to the tenderness of The Elephant, a story more interested in the vast interior turmoil which follows a distinctly 21st-century calamity. The show notes on its Facebook page that “graphic scenes of abuse, police investigations, and court cases are notably absent,” which is true. Throughout the hour-long runtime of the production, the name of the perpetrator is not mentioned, the legal processions are not depicted, and the case is never closed. It’s implied that the perpetrator may face little to no legal consequences when all is said and done. Viewers are subject to the conversation which lingers instead and bear witness to the guilt, trauma, and pain of survivors in everyday dialogue, an earnest and compelling twist on the common narrative of sexual abuse as a sensationalized spectacle.  

“The whole point of the play is to really give voice to the survivors and to do the bare minimum [in] mentioning the assaults, the abusers,” says Lebane. “The offstage character that’s only mentioned but not actually shown, it kind of creates like a mystery around them… you’re never fully satisfied with it because you never see them.” Satisfaction and resolution are indeed scarce throughout The Elephant. The liminal space between the exterior narrative and a personal conclusion for the victims seems at times to be endless. Themes of justice and injustice are pervasive.

“Justice is a concept that I think every single character in the play explores in one way or another,” Lebane goes on to say. “For some it might mean seeing their abuser locked up, put away, and for some it might just mean telling the truth and being told they were right, and the people that they’re talking to were wrong, for some people it might mean they get fired… every single survivor, every single person that’s been affected by sexual assault is I think entitled to their own opinion of what justice means to them.” It is through this spirit of empowerment that The Elephant becomes a story of reclamation rather than resolution, fostering the belief that acceptance might not come, and should not have to, that healing is a messy process, and that the ultimate tool for recovery is to allow the survivors of sexual abuse to set their own pace.

Accompanying justice as one of the major themes of The Elephant is authority. Every character in the play is an authority figure, whether that be an educator or a member of a school administration. Subsequently, a haze of culpability settles upon the characters, haunting them as a spectre in and of their environment. 

The show is a mirror depicting a collective moment from a distance, and in doing so it masterfully reflects the viewer’s interiority back at themself. 

“The people that are in the story are based on real people that were not teachers but authority figures… and a lot of the authority figures themselves were affected in the same way, so it really all comes from a place of like, this kind of stuff actually happens,” says Lebane. Rooted in honesty, The Elephant never comes across as merely moralizing. What takes place on the stage takes place amongst the audience. The characters’ agony and strife are a direct reflection of those who observe them. The show is a mirror depicting a collective moment from a distance, and in doing so it masterfully reflects the viewer’s interiority back at themself. 

The Elephant’s showing concluded on Friday, November 26th, but Tuesday Night Café Theatre will continue to put on plays into the new year. Auditions for their next production, Sleuth, have opened and will be conducted in January of 2022. 

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