The Unicorn’s “Backwards Forwards Back” Takes a Jagged Road to Recovery

A young Black woman in military fatigues gesticulates while speaking.

Chioma Anyanwu in Backwards Forwards Back (Cynthia Levin/Unicorn Theatre)

The road to recovery—pretty much any sort of recovery, from any injury, emotional, mental, or physical—is rarely straightforward. As desperately as we may want it to be, we cannot force the path to healing to move any faster or more directly than it intends to.

That’s the idea behind Jacqueline Goldfinger’s Backwards Forwards Back, now running on the Unicorn Theatre’s intimate Jerome Stage. In the one-person show, Chioma Anyanwu plays The Soldier, a veteran home from Afghanistan, battling devastating, debilitating PTSD. (The character is written without indications of gender, suggesting the role can be played by an actor of any gender, underscoring the universality of these struggles. Here, though, I’ll refer to the role as played by Anyanwu with she/her pronouns for clarity.)

After a violent, traumatic incident occurs while home on leave, The Soldier enters into a VR (virtual reality) therapy program—a real, relatively new method of treatment employed by the VA for vets experiencing PTSD, depression, and other issues. The Soldier takes us through her story, of both her love of the army and the harrowing experiences it brought her. VR sessions are interspersed throughout, and we are immersed alongside her in triggering scenarios brought to life with beautiful simplicity by Jerry Mañan’s evocative digital projections, along with powerful, dramatic lighting (Scott Olney) and sound design (David Kiehl).

A simple theater set with digital projections of blue brushstrokes on the back wall.
(Cynthia Levin/Unicorn Theatre)

The Soldier is undergoing the treatments, but reluctantly. She’s angry that the regular talk therapy and meds that she sees work for her friends and fellow soldiers aren’t effective in treating her PTSD. It’s a fascinating evolution of the stigmas mental health advocates have spent decades working to combat. As acceptance of therapy thankfully becomes more and more commonplace, new advancements in the field can still bring out that old suck-it-up mentality, the insistence that we should just be able to “beat it” on our own. It’s a constant battle that Goldfinger approaches with compassion.

Anyanwu, an always impressive fixture on KC stages, is a total powerhouse here. Goldfinger’s script demands a huge emotional range, as The Soldier tears through alternating bursts of comedy, tragedy, reminiscence, anger, and much more. Under the deft direction of Logan Black, the show is a brief 70-minute whirlwind and Anyanwu doesn’t let a single moment go to waste. 

“Backwards Forwards Backruns through April 7 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St. For more information, call 816-531-7529 or visit unicorntheatre.org.

Vivian Kane

Vivian Kane is a writer living in Kansas City. She covers pop culture and politics for a national audience at The Mary Sue and theatre and film locally, with bylines in The Pitch. She has an MFA in Theatre from CalArts.

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