A few weeks ago, Furman Theatre opened Project Dawn. Project Dawn ran from Tuesday Feb. 14 to Saturday Feb. 18. Directed by guest director Ahsha Daniels, Project Dawn took on several heavy socially relevant topics. Based in Philadelphia, this show follows seven women who are on a journey to reform their lives after sex work, drug use, and other crimes. The Project Dawn court is an experimental system aimed at rehabilitation versus traditional jail time. As the play progressed, each character’s complicated backstories were revealed and the audience experienced their struggles to get clean. This show explores several heavy topics such as drug use, mental health, rape, race, and homelessness. From this play, Daniels hoped the audience would gain a new perspective and learn to not judge someone so quickly. Of all the possible productions to put on, Project Dawn was picked because Daniels, who previously saw the show, was intrigued by the story which had a profound impact on her.
Fellow Paladin writer, Savannah Jones, wrote about Project Dawn’s anticipated arrival at the Furman Playhouse. Her article showed the cast and crew were hard at work to deliver a thought-provoking show. In a review for Broadway World, Project Dawn is called “powerful, heart-rending, often slyly funny, and serendipitously timely during a national conversation over drug abuse and sex trafficking.” The cast did a remarkable job taking on such a serious production and represented all characters well. They were able to convey the sadness, desperation, anger, joy, and range of emotions that this play covered. However good the actresses were, though, this was not the play for Furman.
Covering and exploring topics such as drug abuse and rape is difficult no matter the setting and audience. It takes a lot of care to correctly explore these topics and should not be taken lightly. Watching this play resembled a class lecture or Dins Dialog more than a Furman Theatre Production. Oftentimes, topics were just mentioned for what seemed like the sake of including as many sensitive topics as possible in two hours rather than really grappling with a select group. Acknowledging the interconnected nature of the justice system and racial or gender inequality is highly important to fully synthesizing and digesting the complexities of the issue, but is not something that can be done in two hours in a play format. Effectively grappling with these topics can barely be done in a semester-long class, and certain people spend their entire careers on it. Maybe there is a play out there that can take on all the issues discussed in Project Dawn, but it is not this play. The two-hour production was exhausting and caused more of an emotional shutdown than critical thinking.
Furman students experience these issues in their lives and see them on the news every day. While some might find it cathartic to watch this production, others can find it overwhelming. Since this play came out in 2017, numerous campus events have made the topics of drug abuse, sexual assault, mental health, etc daily topics in our lives. Students have gone through the process of grappling with these topics and gaining perspective. Project Dawn did not change our perspective or teach us anything new, it merely spent its runoff reinforcing over and over how messed up our current justice system is.
The second act opened with a writing activity to better understand the concept of “power”. The scene was delivered much like a class activity, and audience members even got the opportunity to take part. This scene was out of place from the overall plot of the play and hammered home the preachy nature of the play. Another scene that did not fit was the bathroom scene. Watching the students act with their pants down did not progress the story but was a distraction and uncomfortable instead. The scene's point was to show interactions between the new intern and the women but, instead, was a bizarre unwelcome change in scenery from the courtroom.
The small cast size, with each actress playing two characters, was intentional and was supposed to show a juxtaposition between the characters—those in the court as employees and those in the court as convicts. The quick very visible changes became more confusing than thought-provoking. Watching the actors change mid-scene as others still talked was distracting, especially between the actresses’ lines.
Project Dawn was an emotionally heavy play that missed the mark. I can see why the Broadway Review praised the play outside of the Furman bubble. But inside the Furman bubble, this production felt powerless. Leaving the playhouse, I did not feel as though I gained a new perspective or encouraged me to evaluate the way I judge people when I meet them; I felt emotional fatigue and the need to go to bed.