Jennifer Mays, Vanessa Davis, and Nedra Dixon. Photo: Cynthia Levin

When someone says that prostitution is the world’s oldest profession, the comment is usually tongue-in-cheek, or a bit of a joke. However, many people do not consider it funny, because prostitution is a problem. Indeed, a 2013 study estimated that 14.5 percent of men here in Kansas City have responded to ads for sexual services. This percentage put KC near the top of the list, second only to Houston.

Playwright Karen Hartman decided to bring some attention to this issue by writing Project Dawn, which is now playing at the Unicorn Theatre. It is based on a real experiment in Philadelphia, where there is a special court specifically for prostitutes, which gives them a chance to clean up their lives in exchange for expunging their record.

Project Dawn follows the story of several prostitutes who are working their way through the court system. Heidi Van directs, and the cast is made up of seven women – and 14 characters. Each woman plays two roles – part of the court, and part of the society that interacts with the court – prostitutes, judges, support group leaders, etc. Often, an actress needs to switch between court personnel and a prostitute in the same scene. This is a brilliant way to handle the casting, because it causes the viewer to reflect that prostitutes could be anyone. It’s a societal problem, not a problem of individuals.

Vanessa Davis, Leah Swank-Miller, Jennifer Mays, Kathleen Warfel, Nedra Dixon, Lanette King, and Amy Attaway. Photo: Cynthia Levin

The cast is an amazing ensemble, and they all completely transform themselves between characters. I was especially impressed with Vanessa A. Davis, who plays a meek Latina woman pulled into prostitution and a court coordinator who works with an intensity that usually only comes by shot-gunning Red Bull. Leah Swank-Miller was another standout, switching from a traumatized victim of human trafficking to a bouncy intern who is so naïve that it’s almost painful to watch.

The issue of prostitution is huge and reaches into most facets of society. If there is a fault with this play, it’s because the play tries to take on all the issues at once: not only the “profession” of prostitution, but the sex-positive sex workers who prefer to do it, the idea of arresting johns instead of prostitutes, the efficacy of programs to rehabilitate prostitutes, the personal stories of individual women, and the burnout that inevitably takes down most people working in programs like this. To cover all this ground, several issues are just glanced over, and sections of the play become almost like a lecture class. Indeed, even though the play is almost three hours long, it doesn’t really end; it just stops.

Even though it may have benefited from being turned into two separate plays, the fact remains that this is a passionately acted and passionately directed attempt to draw attention to an issue that always remains just under the surface of society, hidden from direct sunlight, where it is allowed to fester and grow. Project Dawn is an attempt to begin to let sunlight in, which makes this an important contribution to the theater of social justice.

Performances of Project Dawn continue through Feb. 18 on the Levin Stage at the Unicorn Theatre. Tickets: 816-531-7529 or https://www.unicorntheatre.org.

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