Playwright Karen Hartman knew her work "Project Dawn" dealt with intense material. Its story, about women with multiple prostitution convictions who are going through a treatment program in hopes of having their charges erased, is based on a real place in Philadelphia called Project Dawn Court.
The characters in the play tell the kind of stories common to drug- and alcohol-recovery meetings, in which truth is as dramatic as fiction:
"I'm noddin' out by the Pizza Hut trash can," says a character named Bonnie, a former prostitute recounting her pre-recovery circumstances. "Frostbite, no underwear, a broken rib. A woman cop shakes me awake. She goes 'I am arresting you.' I go, 'No ma'am. You are saving me.'"
Those kinds of scenes make for good theater. But Hartman, who wrote the play for a theater near Philadelphia called People's Light (which commissions work involving collaboration with the surrounding community), knew that the jargon of social work and 12-step meetings could quickly grow didactic. So, she wrote it with a unique artistic challenge for the actors.
Each of the play's seven actors play two parts: a prostitute and a legal professional.
Kathleen Warfel, who delivers Bonnie's lines with a rough Philly accent, also plays the soft-spoken, but perhaps too-benevolent judge.
And as the actors change characters, they don't have the luxury of leaving the stage and changing costumes. Instead, they walk a few steps and perhaps grab a prop or move a bit of clothing.
"It makes the play super fun to watch," Hartman says. "It's like a tour de force for each of these seven actresses because they really turn on a dime and jump in and out of these really different and really intense roles."
Having one actor rely almost entirely on body language to portray two characters in dramatically different circumstances helps Hartman make another point.
"You can't tell what someone's been through, or what cards she drew in this life, just by looking at her," she says. "So, the same face, the same body, the same voice might be the district attorney or might be a grandma who's been blinded by a bad trick."
Nedra Dixon plays that grandmother, Shondell, a crack addict whose eye injury came at the hands of a john. Dixon puts on an an eye patch to play Shondell, but takes it off to play a by-the-books district attorney named Kyla. Dixon gives Kyla a straight-backed rigidity suggesting her military background, while Shondell's movements show a loose loopiness.
It's not often that Dixon plays two fully developed characters in one show, and she's never had to change characters so quickly and on stage. When those moments come, she says: "I have to breathe a second, and listen actively to what the exchange is between other actors to know, OK, I'm back to being the prosecutor. It's a fast switch."
Dixon notes how her fellow actor, Jennifer Mays, plays an overworked defense attorney and a hooker who needs surgery — and the accompanying painkillers — for a hip injury.
"As she walks upstage transforming from Gwen/lawyer to Cassie/hooker, she picks up the cane and starts to walk with a different gait," Dixon says, "and she tosses her hair and becomes kind of a shaggy puppy as Cassie. So it's that quickly we are transforming into other characters."
Dixon says playing these characters made her think about things most people aren't that aware of.
"We know there's an illegal trade called prostitution, but I don't see that world and I'm not aware, necessarily, of all the actual traumas and drama and intense psychological physical real pressures," she says.
Hartman's play is making its third and final stop in Kansas City as one of the Unicorn Theater's periodic rolling world premieres, in which theaters in the National New Play Network agree to mount a production in at least three cities as a way of developing new plays.
Cynthia Levin, the Unicorn's producing artistic director, says she was drawn to the topicality of the play as soon as she heard about it.
"Karen Hartman sat in on this court for a year, and put all this information together for a play with seven women instead of 70 women," Levin says. "I love that it's based on a real occurrence, but also that its based on issues we have in our own community," she says, adding that the Unicorn will use the run of the show to raise awareness about the local organization Veronica's Voice.
Through her role, Dixon says she absorbed Hartman's lesson about how anyone's circumstances could change in an instant, and the idea of making good choices is more complicated than the moralistic rhetoric surrounding the sex trade.
"Certainly the thought goes through my mind: 'There but by the grace of God go I.' That can be so true for any one of us," Dixon says. "Nothing is certain in this life, and by nature are all survivors — we all want to continue to breathe. If that means thinking, 'OK, I'm homeless, I have no job, I am hungry. What do I do? I have my body, it's the only thing I have left that maybe I can barter with.' It's not an outlandish choice."
But as the play also suggests, that choice gets women arrested much more often than their customers.
"Project Dawn," through Feb. 18 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main Street, Kansas City, Missouri, 64111; 816-531-7529.
C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.