Monday, June 17, 2013

Sexual Trafficking, Up Close and Personal


Sexual Trafficking, Up Close and Personal

‘Roadkill’ Bears Witness to Human Trafficking

Robert Stolarik for The New York Times
Audience members watch Mercy Ojelade perform in a Brooklyn town house in Cora Bissett’s production “Roadkill.”
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The girl on the bus had been promised summer and sunshine, she says, and it is cool and clammy on this wet evening in June. But Mary, 14 years old and fresh from Nigeria, is willing to forgive this new, exciting city its disappointing weather. If she has any suspicion that what awaits at the end of her journey will be beyond forgiveness, she does not betray it.


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Robert Stolarik for The New York Times
Roadkill Adura Onashile, left, and Mercy Ojelade in a St. Ann’s Warehouse production about being forced into prostitution.
Robert Stolarik for The New York Times
Audience members watch a scene from "Roadkill."
Thus began the performance I attended of “Roadkill,” the unsettling site-specific theater piece about sex trafficking created by Cora Bissett,first seen three years ago at theEdinburgh Festival Fringe and brought to New York by St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. The audience members, who numbered about 20, had boarded the same bus as Mary outside the Warehouse’s theater.
She proved to be a delightful traveling companion, infectiously alert to the changing landscape as we rode toward Clinton Hill, and full of artless questions for her bus mates. Were we rich? Did we have cars? Did we live in houses?
Though portrayed by the adult actress Mercy Ojelade, Mary seemed far more childlike, less guarded and more exuberantly hopeful than most American teenagers. How could you not answer her questions? How could you not want to protect her? How could you not feel an urge to yell at her to get off that bus right now? Needless to say, nobody yelled anything like that; we were watching a play.
Ms. Bissett fully intends to exacerbate the sense of helplessness that is always to some extent part of being a passive spectator. In forcing us into instant intimacy with its guileless heroine, “Roadkill” makes us feel personally responsible for what happens to Mary once she steps off the bus and into a town house in Clinton Hill.
Within minutes of her arrival she will be raped by a pimp. Shortly after, she will be sexually servicing man after man; they will later describe her performance in consumer satisfaction reports, as if she were a new model of car. As we are ushered from room to room, we share the claustrophobic prison that is now Mary’s home (designed by Jessica Brettle and lighted by Paul Sorley).
Conceived and directed by Ms. Bissett, with a text by Stef Smith, “Roadkill” was inspired by first-person accounts from girls and young women who have been sold into prostitution. This is by design a consciousness-raising show, meant to bring a sobering immediacy to a topic that has become a regular subject of television crime shows like“Law and Order: SVU.” (The program includes a list of ways to help stop human trafficking.)
Ms. Bissett successfully avoids tabloid prurience in telling Mary’s story. The girl’s initial rape and subsequent sexual encounters are mostly rendered impressionistically, in animation (by Marta Mackova) and video projections (by Kim Beveridge) on the walls. The sequences are artfully made, but there’s a didactic quality to their inclusion, making you feel a bit like a visitor at a sexual trafficking information center.
In other scenes the audience is put in the position of uncomfortable eavesdropper on Mary’s conversations with Martha (Adura Onashile), the older woman who accompanied her on her bus trip as a seemingly benevolent aunt. As played with alternating warmth and brusqueness by Ms. Onashile, Martha is no bluntly drawn villain but a survivor of an experience similar to Mary’s, who has now pragmatically accepted the rules of her trade as grim but unavoidable facts of life.
Viewed coldly as a work of theater, “Roadkill” is variable. It can seem clumsy, in hindsight, as it switches between live and video sequences. And the use of a single actor (the credible but overworked John Kazek) as the different men in Mary’s life, from her evil pimp to her loving father, goes against the grain of you-are-there experiential theater. (Michael Bradley Cohen completes the cast as a police officer who arrives during a noisy party.)
But “Roadkill” is not meant to be viewed coldly. And it is unlikely that anyone who sees it will be able to sustain an objective distance. That’s largely because of the performance of Ms. Ojelade, whose Mary seems to age, harden and wither before our eyes.
She is not on the bus that takes the audience back to St. Ann’s Warehouse after the show. And something like a scream fills the silence left by the girl who 90 minutes earlier had been so full of ingenuous chatter.
Conceived and directed by Cora Bissett; text by Stef Smith; sets and costumes by Jessica Brettle; lighting by Paul Sorley; video art by Kim Beveridge; animation art by Marta Mackova; dramaturge, Pamela McQueen; assistant director/sound design by Harry Wilson; movement by Natasha Gilmore; associate producer, Colin Baird. Produced by Pachamama Productions and Richard Jordan Productions, in association with Traverse Theater, Edinburgh; presented by St. Ann’s Warehouse, Susan Feldman, artistic director; Andrew D. Hamingson, executive director. Bus departs from St. Ann’s Warehouse, 29 Jay Street, at Plymouth Street, Dumbo, Brooklyn, (718) 254-8779, Through June 30. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.
WITH: Mercy Ojelade (Mary), Adura Onashile (Aunt Martha), John Kazek (Various Male Roles) and Michael Bradley Cohen (Police Officer).

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