Seven: A Documentary Play
★★★ ½
Through April 6
Sonorous Road Theater, Raleigh

Works like Seven: A Documentary Play sometimes experience difficulty attracting audiences, not despite their worthy subject matter but because of it. The 2007 project, commissioned by the Washington-based international organization Vital Voices Global Partnership, tasked a septet of playwrights, including MacArthur Foundation “Genius” grant-winner Anna Deavere Smith, to interview and dramatize the harrowing stories of seven notable women who have labored in recent decades to improve the living conditions of women in Africa, Central America, Europe, and Southeast, Central, and Western Asia.

That description, in itself, has the potential to turn off audiences already all but deafened by the constant carillon of alarms, both false and true, from last year’s presidential campaign and its bewildering aftermath. After another day’s disclosing of new horrors in American politics, viewers might understandably think twice before devoting ninety more minutes to an evening of words of woe from abroad. Just three months into Trump’s presidency, there’s hardly any need to unpack the term “activism fatigue.”

But that perception is crucially off-base when it comes to Sotto Voce Theatre’s inaugural production. True, this staging of Seven may well have difficulty finding audiences due to its unconventional run; it ends this Thursday after midweek-only performances at Raleigh’s Sonorous Road, following an opening last weekend at Durham’s Living Arts Collective.

In literary theory, the presence of a narrative implicitly denotes survival—somewhere, someone lived to tell the tale. But the seven subjects here are more than mere survivors. The compiled script in Seven emphasizes their triumphs without shortchanging the danger and hardship they have faced. At the end of the evening, I found myself inspired by their accounts.

In seeking the diversity in age and ethnicity required by this script, this new theater company took on a significant challenge, one that hasn’t entirely been met. Under Sean Wellington’s direction, Cindy Vasquez gives an austere reading as she voices the tale of Anabella De Leon, who waged an indomitable campaign against corruption as a member of congress in the Guatemalan government.

Lucia Foster plumbs the earthy frankness of Northern Irish activist Inez McCormack. Ambient sound effects support Ra’Chel Fowler’s account of Farida Azizi’s night-time treks through the Afghani countryside to bring basic medical care to women in remote villages. Sharon Eisner finds the pathos in Marina Pisklakova-Parker’s efforts to start Russia’s first center for domestic violence in 1993.

Hazel Edmond’s crisp take on Hafsat Abiola animates her tale of political upheaval witnessed from afar, and the odyssey in which she found her political voice in Nigeria. Kaley Morrison gives a delicate, eerie note to Mu Sochua’s account of a Cambodian religious ritual used with the victims of human trafficking, and Julya Mirro reminds us of her signal strengths as an actor as she undertakes Mukhtar Mai’s shocking description of sexual abuse in Pakistan—and the amazing reversals of fortune that occurred in her life and many others’ when her attackers were brought to justice.

As the narrative threads cross repeatedly in this production, its actors bear eloquent witness to the achievements of women the world over against deeply ingrained social prejudices, with only the smallest of resources and support to begin with. To say the least, that news is needed in this moment in our culture. Throughout the night, beneath their tales of plight and perseverance, the voices of women from many lands whispered, sotto voce, “This is how we won.”