Ohio University

skip to main content

Playwright Bianca Sams tackles the issues of military sexual assault and post-traumatic stress disorder in new works

Natalia Radic | Oct 13, 2014
Bianca Sams, left, works with Ohio University theater students Jessica Savitz, center, and Thomas Daniels, right. Table readings help playwrights refine their work prior to a staged performance.
Bianca Sams, left, works with Ohio University theater students Jessica Savitz, center, and Thomas Daniels, right. Table readings help playwrights refine their work prior to a staged performance. Photo credit: Ben Siegel, Ohio University.

When Agnes goes missing, her husband confronts her therapist, Deborah, who has been treating Agnes for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) triggered by a military tour in Iraq. Agitated and irate, he locks himself in Deborah’s office, demanding confidential health care information about his troubled wife.

The scene is the setup for Bianca Sams’ play “Rust on Bone,” which explores the ramifications of military trauma. Although a work of fiction, it draws on extensive interviews the Ohio University graduate student conducted with veterans.

Sams, a playwright and actress, is drawn to exploring social issues through what she calls “found stories.” Her work touches on such issues as race relations—in the Claudette Colvin story “Battle Cry,” which won several national awards in 2013—and the struggles of American servicemen and women.

“Taking on social issues is a great way to foment change around you,” Sams says. “Forcing people to look at what we do to each other— and the issues that keep repeating—can in fact create a type of social change. That’s my hope.”

Veterans speak out

When word first got out that Sams was looking for women and men to interview about their experiences with military sexual trauma, she didn’t expect such a large response. She began getting calls in the middle of the night and graphic voicemails from survivors who wanted to share their stories.

After interviewing many of the survivors, a pattern became apparent: A service member would be assaulted, typically by a commanding officer in a higher position of authority, and would choose not to report it for fear of career damage. If the assault was reported, it was most likely the victims, not the perpetrators, who would leave their military careers behind.

“None of the people I spoke to were still in the military,” Sams says. “I know that things are changing … but most of the people I talked to said that the biggest factor in their emotional distress was the fact that there were serious repercussions (for reporting sexual assault).”

According to a 2012 report by the U.S. Department of Defense’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program, instances of unwanted sexual conduct were estimated to be 26,000, but only 3,374 assaults had been filed. While 94 percent of service members said they received sexual assault training during their time in the military, only about 10 percent actually reported it.

Many fear retaliation in social and professional settings, the report noted. Most victims were women between the ages of 20 and 24, and men, primarily in junior enlisted grades, accounted for 90 percent of the alleged perpetrators.

Victims of sexual assault may experience sleep disorders, substance abuse, flashbacks, and depression, according to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN).

When interviewing survivors, Sams tried to avoid rehashing traumatic experiences.

“I had to be very careful of the questions I was asking and how I asked specific questions. (I told interview subjects that) if there’s a question that is too difficult to answer, tell me that and we’ll move on,” Sams says. “At this point, I haven’t worked on anything that was as emotionally sensitive as this issue.”

Taking stories to the stage

“Rust on Bone” focuses on the role that the therapist, Deborah, plays in the lives of patients with PTSD. In addition to her research on military personnel, Sams consulted with psychiatrists to learn how Deborah would interact with veterans under her care.

The play is a companion to “Rise, Phoenix, Rise,” which focuses on the story of Agnes, the missing patient who is dealing with both PTSD and sexual assault trauma from her military service. She tries to put on a brave face, as she was taught to do in her military training, but struggles to suppress her emotions.

“Agnes is sort of this weird enigma to me,” Sams says. “She’s somebody who is very strong, but she’s dealing with all of these things, and she doesn’t realize that strength doesn’t come from being rigid. … She needs to heal from this, and then she can be as strong as she really is.”

Working with fellow graduate student actors in the School of Theater, Sams has held several table readings of “Rust on Bone” this school year. She debuted the first reading of “Rise, Phoenix, Rise” this spring.

Although she originally planned to write only one play on the topic, a grant from Ohio University’s Student Enhancement Award program allowed her to expand her research and pursue the additional script.

Making an impact with theater

Charles Smith, head of Ohio University’s Professional Playwriting program, praised Sams for her tenacious research skills and artistic drive.

“Bianca’s work goes beyond the clinical accounting or news headlines and explores the lives of individuals suffering from these traumas in a very up-close, personal, and poetic way,” Smith says. “Her work tells us that the effects PTSD and sexual assault trauma can have wide-ranging, unforeseen, and unexpected consequences.”

The plays can help us understand how these issues impact society, he adds.

“Once we understand how insidiously widespread and detrimental the impact that post-traumatic stress disorder and sexual assault trauma has on all of our lives, perhaps we as a nation can first openly acknowledge the problem, then take decisive steps to address the problem,” he says.

Sams relishes the opportunity to use her art as a way to create social change.

“You see how theater and arts can get people fired up in ways that seeing (an issue) on the news, or seeing statistics or reading about it don’t,” she says. “There’s a visceral thing about theater and entertainment that can envelope people in a story.”