Celebrate the Fourth With a Haunting New Revolutionary War Play
Making its American debut, Unanchored by Wichita playwright Lisa Sillaway shows the human side of the War of Independence
“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 Unanchored, a new play by Wichita playwright Lisa Sillaway. It 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 Methodist Church.
The action of the play takes place in a cell on one of these prison ships—which became, essentially, floating coffins.
“It was horrific,” said Sillaway. “Illness, smallpox, 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.”
And who are these characters? One, played by Charlene Grinsell, is an American spy known only as Leper. Her leprosy had the unexpected benefit of making her both untouchable and invisible—able to cross enemy lines with relative ease. That is, until she is captured and promptly placed in one of the notorious English prison ships in Charleston Harbor. Her only options: die or agree to betray the land of her birth, turning spy on Washington and his men.
She is guarded by Captain, played by Quinn Warren. Captain is an English nobleman’s son who is compelled by duty and family tradition to serve in the military but is by nature a pacifist. He is not the most enthusiastic soldier—charged with getting the leprous spy to turn over information.
Leper is tended by Nurse, an outspoken slave born in Senegal. Portrayed by Darian Leatherman, Nurse is 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.
“There’s this almost mythical, larger-than-life quality surrounding the Revolutionary War, the Founding Fathers, and the people of that time,” said Grinsell. “We lose sight of the fact that they were real people like us, with many different viewpoints and experiences. What I love most about this play is its intimacy, its human-ness. It tells the story of people you usually don’t hear from 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.”
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.’”
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.
Unanchored is produced by The Guinea Pig Lab, a Wichita-based organization dedicated to Kansas writers. Focused on new work, the theatre company strives to find, produce and promote Kansas-based playwrights.
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 are $10 at the door with proceeds going to the College Hill UMC Food Pantry.