NEW YORK — The script for the play “Prima Facie” didn’t languish after landing in Jodie Comer’s inbox. Fitting for an urgent call for change, the script demanded action. It would not be denied.
“Sometimes when things present themselves, it’s impossible to say no,” says the “Killing Eve” actor. “This piece felt very, very clear to me. There was no hesitation that I felt. Sometimes that kind of guttural instinct really doesn’t lie.”
It didn’t matter that the script represented Comer’s first stage role. No matter that she’d be alone for some 90 minutes, even asked to move her own props. “I read it within the hour and I was like, ‘What have I got to do?’”
Comer leapt in and has found herself winning an Olivier Award in London for her performance and now a Tony nomination for best actress in a play. She’s also raising her fist for women in a work that challenges the status quo.
The script was from Suzie Miller, a former criminal defense and human rights lawyer who uses the one-woman show to illustrate how current laws fail terribly when it comes to sexual assault cases.
Comer plays Tessa Ensler, a young, clever barrister who has developed a knack for getting her male clients off the hook in assault cases until she spends a night drinking with another barrister and he rapes her.
Now, instead of donning a fancy wig as a crown prosecutor, she’s left shaking in the witness box. Why isn’t her evidence presented in a clean, logical package? She must relive her nightmare in court with her motives questioned. And justice may hinge not on the actions, but on whether the perpetrator believed he had consent.
“A woman’s experience of sexual assault does not fit the male-defined system of truth. So it cannot be truth, and therefore there cannot be justice,” she says in the play.
“Prima Facie” — a legal term meaning “on the face of it” — has already created shock waves in England. A filmed version is now compulsory viewing for new judges, and Miller says a judge who saw her play has redrafted the spoken directions juries are given in sexual assault matters. The play has inspired efforts to change British laws.
Both Comer and Miller get hundreds of messages a week from women telling their own stories of assault, some telling about it for the first time, part of a larger movement fueled by #MeToo.
“I’m really trying to savor every second of it because not every piece of work creates this sort of conversation or space,” says Comer. “That is the biggest reward of all —when you are a part of a piece like this and people genuinely feel represented. That it is a source of comfort.”
To win a Tony on June 11, Comer must beat Jessica Chastain in “A Doll’s House,” Jessica Hecht in “Summer, 1976” and Audra McDonald from “Ohio State Murders.”
In terms of sheer physicality, Comer earns it every night. She moves tables together, jumps up on them, sits in rain, uses various voices and performs her own character’s rape.
“It really helped me build my kind of mental resilience, even though I have moments that is absolutely challenged,” she says. “I would say what I’ve learned from this experience is that you have to take care of yourself.”
Miller was inspired to write “Prima Facie” by the years she spent as a lawyer taking statements from hundreds of women who had been sexually assaulted. “Not a single one of them who went to trial actually ended up having a conviction,” she says. “The worst things is they’re all so similar.”
Her first play, “Cross Sections,” was about the homeless and the desperate living in the red-light district in Sydney, Australia, a work which humanized what many believed were throw-away people.
“After I wrote that there was a lightning bolt moment for me, which was, ‘Oh, wow, stories really can make people empathize and think about things,’” she says.
Miller has since taken up the baton of V — the “Vagina Monologues” playwright formerly known as Eve Ensler, who brings social messages to her work. It is no coincidence that Miller named the heroine of “Prima Facie” Tessa Ensler.
The idea of battling the establishment also attracted Comer, an Emmy Award and BAFTA winner, who grew up in the working class of Liverpool and has had to shapeshift in order to succeed, like her character.
When she was auditioning for theater roles, she was rebuffed because she hadn’t attended drama school. “There was a lot of feedback of like, ‘She’s not trained. It’s too big a task,’” she recalls.
The producers of “Prima Facie” didn’t ask her to audition and didn’t mind she hadn’t attended drama school.
“They didn’t see it as this kind of hindrance. And so I guess the stars all aligned at the right time,” Comer says. “This is beyond anything I could have ever dreamed.”