Think of prostitution as portrayed on stage. Tragic, measured and distant, for many decades it was done in a well-worn approach seen in such plays as “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” or “Anna Christie.” The oldest profession was portrayed as driven by altered economic circumstances and bad luck rather than sexual abuse, drug addiction, illiteracy and deep-rooted poverty. Examinations of power – the power of men over women, of women’s own power – was usually peripheral.
In fairness, dramatists had little choice. Statutes such as the Comstock Law effectively discouraged further artistic examination of prostitution. It took two world wars and a literary/sexual revolution to bring the reality of the “profession” to light.
That was then. Now the spotlights rise on the world premiere of “Project Dawn” at People’s Light. This is theater that’s immediate, loud and in your face. Front and center on stage is a women’s restroom done in institutional sheet metal and muted shades of cheap paint. The restroom is next to a courtroom created for women in the toils of the law and the stalls are as full as the docket. The women are raucous, foul-mouthed, funny and fearsome. Here they both powerful and powerless.
“Project Dawn” is Philadelphia’s very real (if no less theatrical) “diversion court” where women arrested at least three times for prostitution can be placed on probation for a year if they plead no contest and agree to participate in treatment and counseling programs, individual and group therapy and drug testing. They are offered support for housing, education, job training and medical care. If the women slip, their plea is entered and they are likely to go to prison. If they complete the program the charges are dismissed and their records are cleared.
The audience is promptly reminded that there are around a thousand prostitution arrests in Philadelphia each year and only a few hundred arrests for solicitation. It’s big business and not limited to the city. Roughly half of the men who are soliciting for sex are from the Pennsylvania and New Jersey suburbs. Women arrested for prostitution have two choices: an accelerated misdemeanor program or Project Dawn Court.
This amazing cooperative venture between the city courts, the district attorney’s office, public defenders and a kaleidoscope of social service agencies forms the basis for “Project Dawn,” a fictionalized play based on very real women caught on both sides of the system and struggling to treat each other like people rather than caseloads.
Playwright Karen Hartman, with support from the People’s Light New Play Frontiers initiative, came to Philadelphia for a year to interview the Project Dawn staff and women in the program. People’s Light launched a crowdfunding campaign to underwrite ticket costs for specific audiences in the legal, justice and social service community who might not otherwise see the production. People’s Light Artistic Director Abigail Adams personally took the director’s role in this production, which in staging and production must present challenges not unlike a rock concert or Las Vegas show. The result is a slice of life inside the “system” as close to reality as anyone might want.
Seven outstanding actresses play dual roles as case workers and legal staff as well as program participants, slipping easily as a sip of courtroom coffee from one role to the other. Antoinette LaVecchia plays Gwen, the defense lawyer who created and loves the court but is overwhelmed by its demands as it wipes away time she would spend with her family. Her friendly adversary, the district attorney Kyla (Yvette Ganier) joins forces with Gwen, working with Judge Kaplan (Janis Dardaris), the hyper-efficient clerk Nia (Susanna Guzman), and unflappable social worker Ruth (Melanye Finister) to try to piece together the fragmented lives of the women who appear before them.
To add some naïve idealism is the new intern Noelle (Claire Inie-Richards). No voice is stronger than the feared and admired Sister Carol (Danielle Skraastad) who advocates for these Philly women and links the subjugation of women worldwide with the chaos in Kensington and North Philadelphia. Guzman alternates with an acutely precise performance as Lola, the meek and far-too-amiable Latina who is swept along in the tide just barely keeping her head above water until a final confrontation. Skraastad also portrays Tracy, the brash and overconfident social climber poised on the knife edge of legality as she tries to secure her future.
Ruth runs a workshop for the court staff about power, and her questions will resonate with everyone in the theater who has ever had a boss, been a parent, run a business or been fired. How do you define power? Think back to a time you felt powerful, and a time when you were powerless? How does this effect your life today? After seeing “Project Dawn” no one will be unmoved by this exploration of power and how it shapes the justice system we have created to manage our weaknesses — and our power.
A recent production earned a standing ovation after a handful of people left at intermission. There’s a content warning reminding everyone this is not a show for the faint of eye and ear. But “Project Dawn” is an artistic achievement that lights a way forward to a more empathetic justice system.
IF YOU GO
“Project Dawn” is on stage at People’s Light through July 9. People’s Light is located at 39 Conestoga Road in Malvern. For tickets call 610-644-3500 or go to www.peopleslight.org