Voyage of the Damned

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roadkill chicago shakesI thought I would never say this at the risk of shaving points off from my classy broad image, but I boarded a tour bus at Navy Pier on Sunday afternoon.  But this was not just any tour bus,  this was the beginning of the audience experience for Roadkill, a Chicago Shakespeare Theater World’s Stage production from Scotland, conceived and directed by the immensely talented multi-hyphenate Cora Bissett.  Somewhere around West Town the bus stopped to pick up a gregarious teenage girl and a twenty-something woman she called “Auntie”.  As the bus trip continued on for ten more minutes, I started thinking about dinner later that night after the show (sushi or pasta?) as the familiar building facades and monotonously hip denizens of Wicker Park whizzed by, amused by the non-stop inquisitiveness of the girl, who told us, her bus mates, that she just arrived from Nigeria that day “to become an American”.  And then we reached our destination, a nondescript apartment building very close to the Western blue line train station, where we were all ushered into one apartment’s living room and listened in horror as the girl screamed while being raped in the bedroom next door, her initiation into her new life as a sex slave. And as the horrifying, gut-wrenching immersion into the Roadkill theatrical experience unfolded, plunging me and the other 15 or so audience members into the heinous world of human trafficking, suddenly any of our concerns, whether my dinner plans that night or someone else’s Cubs tickets or another person’s job deadlines, became so inconsequential.

I bet if you asked the regular Sox-cap wearing, Half-Acre beer-swilling, Target-weekend shopping Chicagoan what he or she thought about human trafficking today, you will be met with a quizzical “Huh? That doesn’t happen here.”  But according to the materials provided by Chicago Shakespeare, it is a significant and growing criminal activity around the world, generating $32 billion a year, with more than 80% of victims female and over 50% children. Although in the US, California, New York, Texas, and Nevada have the highest number of trafficking cases; Illinois has its significant share.  That’s staggering and unfathomable. So Roadkill is an important piece of theater not just because it educates us about this shocking phenomenon but also, by placing us, the audience, in the unsettling midst of it, the play challenges us –brutally- to reflect on why we don’t know more about it and why we aren’t doing more to stop it.  Unfortunately, Roadkill  is sold out for its entire run, and the way it is staged can only accommodate a small group of audience members per performance, so its power to influence the broader theatergoing population is somewhat diluted.

But for us fortunate to have secured tickets, Roadkill is shattering, uncomfortable, and unforgettable. Bissett uses performance, video projections, music, and movement around the rooms of the apartment, even a little bit of audience-voyeurism, to paint the hellish life of the teenage girl, now given the name “Mary” for her johns. It’s an effective blend of realism and hypnotic stylization that I won’t spoil for any blog reader who still has to see the show.  But the play, and Stef Smith’s painfully naturalistic dialogue, works because of two towering, committed performances, both by actors who had been with the show since it took the Edinburgh Fringe Festival by storm in 2010.   The youthful-looking Mercy Ojelade plays “Mary” with such visceral pain and desperation that your chest tightens and your stomach churns with your inability to help her get out of her situation.  Adura Onashile as “Auntie” Martha, Mary’s handler, madam, comforter, and surrogate mother, is both hateful and devastating, powerfully creating her trajectory from trafficking victim to pimp and slave scout. In one of the final scenes, Martha recounts what she and her sister had to do when they were Mary’s age, and Onashile’s all-emotions-in, no-limits performance can leave your mouth agape.  John Kazek portrays multiple male roles effectively – impressively painting personas from slimy and cruel to ineffectual. 

The play ends with uncertainty for Mary’s future, which may be unsatisfactory for some audience members. But I don’t think Bissett intends for the audience to have any kind of satisfaction or closure.  Some people have commented that the presence of the Chicago Shakespeare ushers restrict us from fully immersing ourselves in the experience, and remind us, as we are herded from room to room, that this is all a play. But I actually think there is method to Bissett’s madness.  At one point, Mary directly comes up to select audience members and whispers “help me”. But no one does, because it is a play, and there are ushers, and Mary is an actor, and this is not real life.  But if Bissett had provoked us enough, and we had enough courage to act on the provocation, shouldn’t one of us have “stepped out of character” as an audience member and said stop?  I think human trafficking is such an immense and urgent social problem because many of us in the developed world just don’t want to step out of character. We continue on with our weekend Target shopping and our Sox baseball games-watching instead of proactively engaging in social and cultural issues that are global, intimidating, and seemingly-removed from us. What happens to a Nigerian girl isn’t really a Chicagoan’s concern. Roadkill tells us otherwise.

I am still devastated nearly a week after seeing Roadkill. All performances sold out at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater at Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave.


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