Over the past few years, human trafficking has become fodder for films, TV crime shows and other media as advocates seek to raise awareness on the issue. Some of those stories are also exploitative, featuring flashy, surreal situations and broad generalizations paired with false statistics. That's not what you'll find from seasoned playwright, and anti-trafficking advocate in his own right, Christopher Johnston in his new part-documentary, part-stage reading, part-drama Live Bodies For Sale at the adventurous Waterloo Arts. This is a more down-to-earth approach to the subject.
Without any connotation, the play is pedestrian — simply take real people and their stories and showcase the real harm that comes from it, and the auxiliary epidemics that occur with causality to human trafficking, such as heroin overdosing and dependency. Dramatized situations of victims are juxtaposed with heart-to-heart discussions ripped straight from the mouths of sex trafficking survivors and the real people in Ohio who strive to make a difference.
Director Terrance Spivey, a legend in the Cleveland theater community, injects the story with thought-provoking visuals and charm that take a concept that could result in something drab or emotionally cold and instead imbue it with a sparkling of authenticity, wit, and even the occasional joke to lighten the mood.
The play forces you to connect and appeal to its characters on a visceral, universally human level. The cast shines at portraying these characters — some actual people living in Cleveland and abroad — with strength, heart and incredible resiliency.
The majority of the play follows three narratives, the first of which is a series of group therapy sessions for sex trafficking survivors held at the Renee Jones Empowerment Center, where Lauren (Rocky Encalada), Nicole (Hayley Johnson), Martina (Juliette Regnier) and Shanice (Rochelle Jones, who also plays Renee Jones in some scenes) relive the painful memories of their experiences to share with the rest of the group. As newcomer Tammy (Arien Hodges) joins the bunch, the others help her let down her guard by letting her know that she isn't the only one to endure being used by people for profit.
The second and third narratives intertwine, as recent captive Emily (Emily Taylor) is brought into the world of sex trafficking by her smarmy pimp (Joseph Milan) and is informed of the rules she needs to follow in order to survive, also succumbing to subjugation and drug use along the way. She is discovered and brought in by undercover detective John Morgan (Stephen Hood) in his pursuit to bring those who profit off trafficking to justice. In his search, he breaks down how the underbelly of this criminal world operates and how officers like Morgan infiltrate it.
Once their two stories collide, it's the moments between Hood and Taylor that create some of the most captivating parts of the production. Hood's rich voice and fatherly mannerisms toward Taylor's character are complemented by Taylor's spunky yet frightened persona.
In many ways, the women of the group therapy sessions represent the stages of grief and PTSD associated with survival. Encalada — in her debut for Playwrights Local productions — bares her heart in explosive monologues on her character's triggers and her life before exploitation. Johnson — like her character, in a slightly more confident and independent stage of grief — shows confidence beyond her years of experience.
Regnier — who also plays Sister Cecelia Liberatore, another real-life local figurehead and advocate — excels at portraying the doe-eyed and fragile victim with a motherly charm and natural kindness. As a mournful victim vying to be independent again, Jones boasts a vast emotional arsenal. Hodges shows great potential, and has her share of tear-jerking moments and dynamic monologues as a victim forced to constantly hide her emotions from the rest of the world.
Milan, who also portrays Prosecutor Rick Bell from a specialized task force within Cuyahoga County, gives two very distinct performances in his double duty; as both a slightly over-the-top, detestable pimp and an authoritative yet still approachable lawman, Milan makes good use of his natural posture and dominant presence on stage.
The technical layout of the play is as straightforward as the subject matter and script, but there are some clever creative liberties taken in Bodies. Particularly the costume choices by designer Inda Blatch-Geib give each character instantly definable characteristics before even uttering a word. Additionally, the high-contrast lighting by Marcus Dana adds depth to some of the most profound monologues.
Live Bodies For Sale isn't just an unabashed emotional roller coaster taken from heartfelt, honest testimonies by those affected by trafficking; it also warrants the attention of those beyond the theater community by its relevance, importance given the crime's rampant nature and its ability to showcase its scope of the issue, locally and worldwide.
While its execution is excellent in many ways, the subject matter of this production alone is enough to convince the most casual of theater fans to visit Waterloo Arts and witness one of the purest forms of the medium: a slightly dramatized iteration of people's lives that — unfortunately — is too outrageous and devastating to make up. And if you leave the theater wondering what you can do to raise awareness and help people stuck in this horrible position, you can depart with a satisfying answer: A portion of the proceeds from this production go toward the Renee Jones Empowerment Center, and additional monetary donations can be made at the theater.