When playwright Jeff Barker set out to craft a drama about sexual abuse among God-fearing people, the 1976 Seattle Pacific graduate was sure of two things: Christians were not immune from the pain of abuse; and he, as a professor of theatre and speech, was no expert on the issue.
That his play Unspoken for Time went on to win critical acclaim is evidence of Barker's ability to listen to those who have suffered the trauma of sexual molestation, and a credit to the social science and law enforcement experts he consulted to make his play as accurate and involving as possible.
Winner of the 1995 Meritorious Achievement Award by The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Unspoken for Time takes center stage for SPU's Homecoming '98. Director James Chapman thinks highly of Barker's work and has few qualms about offering so sensitive a subject - one that he says is ultimately about faith, family and healing deep emotional hurts.
"The play is really about the mystery of a young woman's past," says Chapman. "Though it sounds like a heavy topic, there is a great deal of humor, engaging dialogue and interesting human struggles in the show."
It's those very dynamics, believes Barker, that can help people confront the ghosts of the past. "In the play, very funny things happen in the most serious of moments. Great hope and joy appear in the darkest of times. And troubling secrets lurk just beneath the most placid faces."
Jeff and his wife, Karen, share a joint professorship in acting and directing at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa. To give his play the ring of authenticity, Barker interviewed sexual abuse survivors burdened with guilt and low self-esteem. Many were Christians and most were college students, some of whom found for the first time a safe place where they could talk of their experiences and begin to deal with emotional wounds. Sadly, they couldn't predict when, if ever, they would be able to tell family members about the abuse.
The stigma of sexual molestation, say the experts, is particularly acute among Christians. They question their faith, worry that God will not accept them, and see themselves as no longer worthy of his love. Ironically, these feelings can rarely be expressed at church because to do so would risk bringing shame to their family. Consequently, the incident is repressed and the damage compounds.
"Even though the church is the place to talk most openly about grace," says Barker, "it's not the place to talk most openly about sin - even when we're not at fault."
The power and honesty of a play like Unspoken can make a world of difference to those who suffer. "Some in the audience weep for joy because they know it is their story, that someone has empathized with them at last," says Barker, who has written nearly 50 comedies, dramas and musicals for radio, video and stage. "Some are finally set free to tell their own story." Letters from grateful audience members bear this out.
For others, the revelation may be too much at once. Sharon Smits, a Christian, was a rape crisis coordinator for a domestic violence intervention agency when the play debuted at Northwestern. "There were some students overcome with emotion who had to walk out," she says. "We need to be prepared that a play like this will not only open people's eyes a little more to what's going on, but may also reopen old wounds.
"The strength of Jeff's play is the clear message that sexual abuse can happen to anybody, including to someone from a religious family."
It is a message the church can ill afford to ignore. At Seattle Pacific, sexual abuse is often cited by students as a reason for seeking personal counseling. National statistics show that one in three adult women and one in seven adult men are sexually molested by the age of 18. For every known victim, there are five more who choose not to come forward.
Chapman helped his cast prepare for their roles by having a family counselor walk them through the shades of trauma experienced by the sexually abused. Both players and audience benefit from the resulting realism.
"Unspoken was written first as my gift to the Christian community," says Jeff. "It is a gift intended to lead some of us, myself included, away from the myths that come from silence."