‘Project Dawn’ brings reality-based court drama to Malvern


"Project Dawn," a new play about issues tied with prostitution, is being staged at People's Light and Theatre Company in Malvern. Actors (from left) are Melanye Finister, Yvette Ganier, Janis Dardaris, Claire Inie-Richards, Susanna Guzman, and Danielle Skraasted. (Mark Garvin for People's Light)

Philadelphia’s innovative treatment court for people repeatedly arrested for prostitution is now the subject of a play, “Project Dawn,” now premiering at People’s Light and Theater in Malvern, Pa. 

Project Dawn — the court — was launched in 2010 in Philadelphia to combine a legal trial with social services and rehabilitation.  The goal is to guide repeat prostitution offenders out of the sex trade.

The judge, prosecutor, defender, and social workers form a team, with the intent of shepherding offenders through a treatment program that can last for a year or longer. Graduates can have the charges dropped and their records expunged.

Offenders in the program are required to check in with the judge monthly. Playwright Karen Hartman, based in Seattle, came to the Philadelphia court for a year to witness the process and get to know the women.

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She saw it as a different kind of courtroom drama.

“In a court drama, there’s a lot of is somebody innocent or guilty, and what’s the verdict going to be?” said Hartman. “But in Project Dawn court, the facts of what happened are not in dispute. All the women plead no contest in order to enter this treatment court. So the question is what happens from here?”

Hartman was commissioned to write “Project Dawn” through People’s Light New Play Frontiers initiative, which seeks to develop new plays based on real people and events in the greater Philadelphia area.

The play follows seven women through a treatment program overseen by the court, which can last more than a year of drug rehabilitation, trauma counseling, half-way housing, and vocational training.

Hartman did extensive interviews with Project Dawn staff and several women in the program, and observed them for a year. The characters in the play, however, are fictional, composite figures loosely based on real people.

Before the commission, Hartman had been researching a play about the Underground Railroad, attempting to trace a slave’s psychological transformation from being property to being a person. She discovered a similar transformation happening in Project Dawn.

“It’s hard to explain but the staff treats the women like people and not numbers,” she said. “They talk about them like people and not statistics.”

Project Dawn, the play, has been selected for a rolling premiere — after its debut at People’s Light and Theater, it will be produced in Atlanta and Kansas City.

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