Prima Facie – Trauma Furthered by Law
Prima facie is a Latin expression meaning based on first impression i.e. “on the face of it.” In law, a prima facie case occurs when something is inferred from a given set of facts absent contrary evidence.
Britain. Tessa is a driven defense barrister with a successful career and shining future. Words erupt. We hear about her strategy and the behavior of court participants in a recent case. She even observes the gallery. “He (the prosecutor) knows and I know, but the guy is about to be buried!” Tessa says gleefully about an unaware witness. “It’s not emotion for me. It’s the game of law. Today I was a winner.” This early part of the play is difficult to grasp. With no reference to the kind of case and no identifying names, abstract facts and reactions are dizzying.
“Top law school, top city, top marks,” she recalls on a visit to her lower middle class mom. Competition was stiff. A burglary and two assault cases are on her current docket. “You don’t get to ask him if he did it,” Tessa instructs a naïve colleague. “The job is not to know. The system works because we all play our roles. A good lawyer tells the best version of the story…What if he did it? The job is to poke holes in the prosecution’s story…” On these foundations, she achieves an impressive track record feeling righteous.
One night at a party, fellow attorney Julian gets handsy. A bit drunk, Tessa finds she doesn’t mind. They subsequently go at it on an office couch after hours, then arrange a real date. She’s not only excited, but hopeful, imagining a future with this man who’s apparently smart, good looking, and fun. They talk about past relationships, their families. At her apartment, things go apace until the combination of alcohol, gelato and, who knows what kind of food, send her to the bathroom vomiting. After a while, he holds her head and carries her back to bed.
Things don’t end with spooning and sleep however. “Just lay there and let me make love to you,” Julian says. Everything is perspective. Exhausted, drunk, sick and limp she tries fruitlessly to resist. Description emerges as if in real time. He has his hand over her mouth. One can’t help but squirm. “I’m not speaking. I’m there and I’m not. He snores. I vomit again and brush my teeth.” She imagines what the prosecution of such a case might say. Tessa showers, scrubbing her skin raw. “Do I let him (Julian) take everything away?” No. She leaves him in her bed.
Common mental and emotional effects of rape include: flashbacks, nightmares, severe anxiety, and uncontrollable thoughts. Depression, feelings of hopelessness, unexplained crying, weight loss or gain, extreme fatigue. Suicidal thoughts or attempts. Dissociation, lack of focus. Changes in trusting others. Anger and blame. Numbness, disorientation, sense of vulnerability; damage to sexuality; fear. Self-blame/guilt for “allowing” the crime to happen.
Tessa knows it will be an uphill battle. Julian is a respected barrister. There was consensual sex before, just before. In most states if a man is the victim’s husband, for example, she won’t have a chance, no matter what the circumstances. More than half (51.1 percent) of female victims of rape reported being raped by an intimate partner and 40.8 percent by an acquaintance. (The National Sexual Resource Center) They run into each other at the office. He asks her to lunch assuming everything is a misunderstanding. 780 days later, Tessa’s case comes to court.
There were 139,497 reported rapes in the U.S. to date in 2023, approximately one every 98 seconds. (National Rape Statistics) and in a 12 month period ending 2022, 70,633 reported cases in Great Britain. (Rape Crisis England and Wales) Out of every 1000 sexual assaults, 975 perpetrators in the United States will walk free. (RAINN Criminal Justice System Statistics)
Tessa is overwhelmed, but finally stands up for herself. She shares what she feels as a woman as well as revelations from the other side of “a faulty system.”
Performance is a tour de force.
Director Justin Martin keeps Jodie Comer moving, focused and intense throughout the play. Small stage business, interaction with office furniture, and (often full body) gestures rivet. As effective as it is, I question the need for pouring rain. The actress’s helpless shock is fully aparent without the theatrical trope.
Set and costume design by Miriam Buether is respectively creative and apt.
Composer Rebecca Lucy Taylor creates a completely unique and evocative background with what appears to be a heartbeat, drums, and wordless chorus. Sound designers Ben and Max Ringham keep things pristine.
It’s estimated only 19 percent of rapes are reported.” (Schools Consent Project: Education is Prevention)
Photos by Bronwyn Sharp
Prima Facie by Suzie Miller
Featuring Jodie Comer
Directed by Justin Martin
Ten weeks only
252 West 45th Street