CELEBRATE THE FOURTH WITH A HAUNTING, ‘ASTUTE’
NEW REVOLUTIONARY WAR PLAY
“Rebels! Turn out your dead!”
During the American Revolutionary War, the British set up prison ships in various harbors along the East Coast. Conditions were grave and a sentence to the ship was, in reality, a sentence to death. Each day began with the call from English soldiers for the rebels imprisoned down below, to locate and pass their dead to the deck of the ship.
This is the setting for the new play by Wichita playwright, Lisa Sillaway, which debuted in 2016 at the Bread & Roses Theatre in Clapham, London and makes its American debut June 28, 29 and 30 at College Hill United Methodish Church. The play, Unanchored, takes place in a cell on one of these prison ships – which became, essentially, floating coffins.
“It was horrific,” says playwright Sillaway, “illness, small pox, and madness rampaged on these ships. But the premise that hope, friendship, loyalty and even love could flourish in such a setting – well, it was just too tempting for me as a writer. Once the idea began to come together in my mind – these characters wouldn’t leave me alone until their story was told.”
During the American Revolutionary War, average citizens passed gossip, listened for rumors and essentially became spies in George Washington’s massive intelligence network. In Unanchored, one Southern woman has found her own unique circumstances allowed her to do even more than eavesdrop on British soldiers who invaded her hometown. After all, suffering from leprosy had the unexpected benefit of making her both untouchable and invisible – and able to cross enemy lines with relative ease. Until she got caught, that is, and promptly placed in one of the notorious English prison ships in Charleston Harbor. There, she is guarded by a pacifist nobleman’s son who has been banished from the battlefield and tended to by an outspoken slave and nurse who tries to ease her leprosy. The tiny, damp cells were generally reserved for those destined to die a miserable death – but she instead finds herself in a tempting conundrum
Warren and Grinsell practice a scene from Act 1 of ‘Unanchored.”presented by her two keepers. Her option: die or agree to betray the land of her birth, turning spy on Washington and his men.
The script, completed in 2016, was selected as a finalist for the 2016 Fall Edition of the Stage It Live! ATL Playwright’s Audience Choice Competition at Mark SQuared Studios Orange Box Theater in Atlanta, Georgia. In addition, London theatre critic Michael Davis called the London production of the play “… an astute play that subliminally comments on the world today…” and that “… with a minimum of fuss [it] conveys the horrors at the time, as well as a multilayered commentary on individuals’ motives and serving the ‘greater good.’”
And they aren’t the only ones who love the drama. Katherine Rodden, Oxford School of Drama graduate and popular London actress who was featured in a short film during this year’s Cannes Film Festival, was thrilled to discover that Sillaway had initially written the leading role of Leper specifically for her.
“I was drawn to the play entirely based on Lisa’s previous work. Having worked with her on a rehearsed reading [in London’s Camden Fringe Festival] of her incredible play blank last year, I said very openly that if she should ever want to work with me again – I would be there in a flash,” said Rodden at the time. “Having read the play, I’m incredibly pleased to be involved. It’s a beautifully told story with some simply stunning pieces of dialogue. The character I will be playing is written very clearly, flawed, kind and caustic.”
Rodden has handed the character of Leper over to Wichita’s Charlene Grinsell, who has also appeared in another Guinea Pig Lab production, f*sh. Sillaway said there was no other choice for Leper in the Wichita theatre community – the role “is as perfect a fit for Charlene as it was for Katherine. I cannot believe how lucky I have been to work with two such amazing actresses in this role.”
Grinsell, a staple in local productions, has been researching the time period and Leprosy for weeks – but it is the humanity of her character that drew her in.
“There’s so much spectacle around the Fourth and near-mythology surrounding the Founding Fathers and other
figures in the Revolutionary War. We lose sight of the fact that these were real people with many different viewpoints and experiences. What drew me to this script is its intimacy, its human-ness. And we get to hear from people that you usually don’t in the history books. Women. A social outcast. A slave. A soldier who wants to do his duty honorably but has grave doubts as to its morality,” Grinsell said.
Darian Leatherman, as Nurse, brings the outspoken and rather sassy character of a Southern slave to heartbreaking life. Torn between hating her life as someone’s property and wanting to defend her way of life, however flawed, from the Red Coats, Nurse befriends Leper and the Captain – forming an unusual alliance that crosses educational, race, societal and battle lines. Another character in Unanchored, the Captain, is being brought to life by Darian’s real-life partner, Quinn Warren. Captain is not the most enthusiastic soldier – charged with getting the leprous spy to turn over information. He’s not very good at it, either, but uses his new job to at least stay out of the line of fire.
Properties master Louise Brinegar made the trip across the pond to help out with the production in 2016 and her work continues on this iteration of the show. The Guild Hall Players donated costumes to both productions which were initially designed and built by Joyce Cavarozzi. Another member of the team is musician, Emily Strom, whose modern musical prelude sets the mood for the historical show. Classically trained as a young child, the former Miss Kansas and Miss America contestant switched over to jazz upon entering college. The music and lyrics are timeless and therefore a lovely addition to the production, said Sillaway.
The Guinea Pig Lab is a small group dedicated to Kansas writers, located in the state’s largest metro area, Wichita. Focused on new work, the theatre company strives to find, produce and promote Kansas-based playwrights with readings and full productions in the state and by taking shows outside the state lines. Dan Bacalzo, PhD serves as dramaturg for the group which was founded by Sillaway, who also serves as managing director. Since its founding in November 2014, the theatre has held four contests, hosted a Playwrights Day, held rehearsed readings for more than a half-dozen playwrights and staged four full productions – one which earned the production company a Mary Jane Teall Award for Wichita theatre excellence.
The play runs at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday (June 28 and 29) and a special matinee will be at 2 p.m., Saturday, June 30 at College Hill United Methodist Church, 2930 E. 1st Street, Wichita Kansas. Tickets will be $10 at the door with proceeds going to the College Hill UMC Food Pantry. collegehillumc.org