Salamishah Tillet told her sister Scheherazade that she was a rape survivor when she graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in the late nineties. At the time, Scheherazade was enrolled in a social documentary class at Rutgers taught by Steve Hart, famous for his seven-year documentation of a HIV/AIDS positive family. In a Penn feminist newspaper, Salamishah had just published the story of her assault by a fellow student, and was becoming very vocal about her recovery process. Hart encouraged Scheherazade to track her sister through the difficult time of reclaiming her sexuality and self-respect. Salamishah agreed to let Scheherazade take a few pictures of her and follow her to therapy. Salamishah said about the initial stages of the project, “anything I was doing that seemed like I was healing she would capture on film.” Scheherazade started documenting Salamishah in 1998 and continues to do so today.
The next year, both sisters were in Boston—Salamishah at Harvard and Scheherazade at Tufts. The Women’s Center at Tufts heard about the project and encouraged Scheherazade to expand it with their support. Thus, SOARS, Story of a Rape Survivor, was born. The multi-media show tracks the process of recovery following sexual assault through photography, dance, poetry, and testimonies. Initially, the students involved were mainly friends of Scheherazade at Tufts. A fair number of them expressed interest because they were rape survivors themselves. The project emerged from what Salamishah describes as the “really intimate relationship” between her and Scheherazade, but it documents the stages of healing common to sexual assault survivors. Now, the show employs professional actors and dancers, picked for their talent and their healthy understanding of sexual violence, essential for the last segment of the show called Speak Out-Teach Back. The actors undergo rigorous training to facilitate this conversation.
Salamishah currently manages SOARS in addition to teaching here on campus as a visiting professor. During an interview, she remarked on the high level of energy necessary to make each show a success. It is exhausting work, but the audience is very supportive. Often, audience members speak from their own experiences. “It’s always difficult for me when survivors disclose, not because it’s my experience but I’m just so empathetic,” Salamishah explained. The process constantly reaffirms the importance of her work in preventing sexual assault and in helping survivors find their voices and get help. “While we were doing this program on recovery and trying to educate people around how this trauma affects sexual assault victims, we’ve been creating programs that are more prevention oriented. So now we have a program in Chicago called Girl/Friends, which gives young girls the tools to become peer educators around sexual violence. This reinvigorates us. We use the multi-media art model and they also go through a rigorous advocacy training, using the SOARS model to help the next generation to become activists and advocates.”
A Long Walk Home, Inc., a non-profit the Tillets founded in 2003, was inspired by the success of SOARS and the perceived need for more comprehensive training, from workshops on how to support survivors to lecture series on how race informs public beliefs on rape victims and assailants. The new tagline for the show is “_Vagina Monologues_ meets _For Colored Girls_…” (The latter half of the tagline references _For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf_, the late 1970s choreopoem by Ntozake Shange.) The cast has been pleased by the diverse audience at their shows, including people of color and men, two groups who are often underrepresented in the realm of sexual assault awareness. Scheherazade, who acts as the artistic director of SOARS, also works in Chicago as an art therapist and rape crisis counselor.
SOARS’ primary audience lives on college campuses, the ones that have the funding to hire the cast—the show costs $3,000, not including travel costs. The focus on college rape awareness and prevention, which extends to workshops on staying safe from sexual assault while studying abroad, reflects the statistics: only ten percent of college women who are raped will report it. Thanks to SHARE and 14 other Princeton sponsors, a Take Back the Night rally was held on campus last April. (For readers who want to learn more about last spring’s event, equalwrites.org covered it well.) SOARS has been performed as part of Take Back the Night on other college campuses. Those who participated in Princeton’s—or even just considered it—should certainly plan to attend this performance that Suzanne Brown-McBride, the Executive Director of the Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs, calls “an incredibly effective, powerfully constructed, and beautifully performed testament to the power, pain and transformative nature of the experience of sexual violence.”