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D.C.-based playwright Laura Zam loves telling a joke about her new one-woman show, soon to be featured in Theater J's Community Supported Art: Locally Grown festival.
"I have a play; it's called Married Sex," she says. "But nothing happens in this play! You're gonna have a lot of expectations that something's going to happen, but nothing's going to happen! And I can guarantee that you're going to go away disappointed!"
She's being tongue-in-cheek, of course, but she admits the title raises a lot of eyebrows. And that's exactly what she's looking for.
"[The play is] asking what does it mean to be married, what does that bond consist of," Zam says. "And how does sexuality play a role in that or in some ways not play any role in that?"
Sex: Pain and Laughter
Married Sex is Zam's seventh one-woman play. It's an autobiographical tale of a 40-something newlywed with a particular problem: "Her body doesn't respond the way that she would like it to sexually," Zam explains. "And she believes that this has to do with something that happened in her past, a trauma that's still clinging to her life."
That trauma is sexual abuse, which Zam herself experienced as a toddler, at the hands of a neighbor. So in the play, "Laura" consults a number of specialists, from a hypnotist to a sex therapist to a tantric mistress, or "tantrica."
"The tantrica is a woman that I found online," Zam says. "And she started talking to me about my problem and she said, 'Well the only way I can treat you is if you come in with your husband, and you have to make love in front of me! And whenever you experience this pain, I'm going to stop you and ask you questions!'"
While Zam says that advice was a bit "out there" for her, it helped in her quest to make Married Sex a comedy, a choice some might see as surprising, given the play's context of sexual trauma.
"Once I started turning this into art it stopped being quite as heavy and secretive and dark and twisted in its own way," Zam says. "It changed the story for me. It changed my relationship to it. And I felt that because I'm talking about it, and it's so far removed from the actual horrific event, I can laugh at myself, I can laugh at situations."
The play's director, Shirley Serotsky, says the combination of comedy and tragedy is quite apropos for Theater J.
"We've oft-quoted here at Theatre J Shalom Aleichem's statement about 'laughter through tears,'" Serotsky says. "And I think that even our comedies often bring this sense of humor to very serious things. But the humor comes out in the honesty of it, and in this piece Laura the character says things out loud that many of us might be thinking, but we wouldn't say it out loud, and I think that's where a lot of the humor comes from."
Zam says in the end, Married Sex isn't so much a play about trauma, as a play about love.
"It's not weighed down by this context of trauma," she says. "Instead it's a play of moving beyond anything in one's past and what might be helpful in terms of realizing the life that you want."
Married Sex will be presented Jan. 10 and Feb. 13, at Theater J in Northwest D.C.
[Music: "Makin' Whoopie" by Dr. John & Rickie Lee Jones from The Essentials]