BWW Review: WORLD STAGES: HEROINE at The Kennedy Center
CW/TW: sexual assault, PTSD, self-harm, suicide, abortion, gunshots/loud noises, and strobe lighting - discussed in this review as well as the show itself.
Heroine, a one-act, one-woman show written and performed by Mary Jane Wells, relates the tale of Sergeant Danna Davis, who was gang-raped by her commanding officer and two fellow soldiers while serving in the US Army. The show, which is adapted from the real Sergeant Davis' story, follows Danna from her decision to enlist to the assault to her military career to her battles with PTSD and transitioning into civilian life. With the help of Military Consultant Barbara Autin, Wells updates Danna's story to place it in our current context - Davis herself served in Germany at the dismantling of the Berlin Wall and in Rwanda following the genocide, but Wells has set the show in the 90s and early 2000s instead, placing her character in the middle of Operation Iraqi Freedom and giving the story a direct immediacy. What happened to Davis isn't just the past; it's our present.
Heroine experienced a few fitful starts before it premiered in 2015. The show was scheduled to be performed at the United Nations' Global Summit for Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict, but was ultimately removed from the program, having been deemed too controversial and too embarassing for the United States delegates in attendence. This Kennedy Center production marks the show's premiere on American soil.
From a production standpoint, Wells - along with Director Susan Worsfold and Production Manager John Wilkie - gives us a wonderful show. The minimalist stage and George Tarbuck's clever lighting techniques give Wells the ability to remain the focus at all times, taking the audience through Danna's choppy, yet detailed memories. The story is cohesive and linear, but the unsteadiness comes from her emotional, visceral reactions - to her circumstances, to those around her, and to her own internal struggles. Matt Padden's unique sound effects add an extra layer to the immersion; we hear not only what Danna would hear in her memories, but also her own internal voices and struggles; the effects Padden utilizes are particularly effective in portraying Danna's inner self.
At times, Heroine is difficult to watch - but this is by design. It should be difficult. Heroine is a visceral, honest portrayal of the inside of Danna's mind, and it shouldn't be comfortable or easy. But what's incredible is the levity that Wells manages to bring along with the gravity of the subject matter. In this production, Danna is a three-dimensional character who can't be reduced to her trauma, no matter how life-altering it is. She's still a full person who loves, who struggles to connect with her family, who can be sarcastic or genuine or standoffish, depending on the situation at hand. The multifaceted portrayal gives Danna and others like her a more complete, human representation. Danna muses on the terminology that applies to her - rape survivor, victim, exister - but it's clear that for her, like many, the words are lacking in their ability to define her and her experiences. At the beginning of the show, Danna notes how her life has been divided into "before" the rape, and "after." But the show is focused more on the after, so we don't have much of the before; the division may define her for a lot of people, but it doesn't for the audience. This decision provides a unique insight - rather than looking at how the assault has changed Danna, we are instead able to explore her psyche more fully without drawing comparisons. We only know this Danna, so we're not looking for her to go back to how she used to be; we're just hoping for peace for the person we know.
Following each performance of Heroine, a panel is convened on the stage to discuss the impact of sexual assault in the military, policies and practices for preventing it, support for survivors, and what people can do to help. Resources are also available in the program distributed by Kennedy Center, and additional resources and support can be found on the Heroine website (https://www.heroinetheplay.com), including a way to reach out to Sergeant Davis and a way to ask for additional help and support.
Heroine handles a number of deep, complex issues (see the list of content warnings at the top of this review). And yet, it manages to do so with a sensitivity and care that feels respectful and fitting to those it portrays, directly or indirectly. The care and attention put into this production by every member of the team shows in the performance, and beyond the stage.
Heroine is playing as part of the Kennedy Center's World Stages series through Friday, February 14. Performance run time is approximately 70 minutes, with a 20-minute optional panel discussion following each performance. Tickets and accessibility information can be found on the Kennedy Center website, and additional information about Heroine, including resources for survivors of assault, military veterans, and others can be found on the play's website.