If you went to high school in the U.S., you know “The Crucible.” You read or watched it or acted in it: teenagers accusing folks of witchcraft; an affair between a 17-year-old and her employer; the adulterer, John Proctor, yelling about his ‘good name’; land speculation in the background; everyone wearing buckled shoes and bonnets.
Premiering in 1953, “The Crucible” is an important American play and classroom fixture for good reason. Miller uses the Salem Witch Trials as an example of America’s dangerous bent for groupthink and scapegoating, bringing the term “witch hunt” into contemporary use.
But for all its merits, playwright Kimberly Belflower noticed something unexpected after rereading it in the wake of Me Too.
“I was taught, and the way that almost every single person I know is taught, is John Proctor is this beacon of goodness and the girls are hysterical,” Belflower explains. “And rereading it, I found myself saying out loud, ‘John Proctor is the villain.’”
The revelation not only provided the title for her new play, about a group of high school students questioning Miller’s play after close-to-home allegations of sexual abuse, it tied many strands together for the avid reader, writer, and educator about place, whose truths are held valid, and how to call things what they are. It begins performances at Studio Theatre on April 27.
“I’m from a very small, rural town in Georgia, much like the town in the play. In late 2017, when the first tidal wave of Me Too was cresting, I was with my family on their farm in North Carolina, and there was something about being back in a rural environment while these allegations were breaking that really connected me to my teenage self in a lot of ways,” Belflower says.
“I was doing a lot I’m looking back on things that happened to me and to my friends in my teenage and young adult years, and kind of like grappling with this new frame for my life and the world around me. I think the power of Me Too is renaming past experiences for what they actually were instead of what you were taught to call them.”
Earlier that summer, Belflower read Stacy Shift’s “The Witches: Suspicion, Betrayal, and Hysteria in 1692 Salem,” which revealed the dire conditions many teenage girls experienced in the Puritanical community, from orphanhood to trauma and rampant sexual abuse. “So I kind of had my mind frame changed on this period in history that I had been taught in school and thought I understood. And then someone, I think it was Woody Allen first, compared Me Too to a ‘witch hunt.’ And I was like, ‘That’s not what that means.’”
These shifts caused Belflower to consider the experience of people coming of age today, which she sees up close as an instructor in creative writing and playwriting at Emory. Her admiration for young people is clear.
“We’re seeing Gen Z be so smart and powerful. They’ve been raised with the Internet, and this, like, allows them to question systems without being told by us that they should. They’re like, ‘I read this thing, but you’re teaching me this [other thing].’ It’s this clear-eyed way of looking at things and asking questions that most people don’t ask, and that’s intersecting with this larger cultural kind of reshuffling of what we know and think to be true, of collectively reexamining and reckoning with our systems of power and who they benefit and who they oppress.”
Belflower also finds inspiration in how her students connect various writers, mediums, and schools of thought with ease. “The Internet has put a lot of things on an equal playing field. I see this in my own students. I can mention Beyoncé and Tarana Burke in the same sentence, and they mean equally important things. They can both change my mode of thinking and relating to the world in completely different ways, but can be held in the same hand.”
A smart and layered script, “John Proctor is the Villain” quotes Lorde, Joan Didion, the founder of Me Too Tarana Burke, Bey, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and more.
Discussing the play’s high school setting further, Belflower says “The most interesting drama is about moments of change, moments of upheaval. In your teenage years, that’s like every day. It’s a really great time to examine a lot of bigger questions, and to put that power in the mouths of [teenage girls], people who have been marginalized in a way but who are asking those questions in real life.”
“John Proctor is the Villain” performs at Studio Theatre, directed by Marti Lyons, April 27 to June 5. Tickets and more information available here.