BODY & SOLD

Playwright Deborah Lake Fortson Addresses the Teenage Sex Trafficking Crisis

A virtual roundtable convened by Charlotte Meehan and Adara Meyers.

This is a story of women working together for social change. It begins in 2002 with artist and social worker Myrna Balk who organized the exhibition, “Art as Witness: Shattered Lives—Unshattered Dreams,” at the Boston Public Library. When Boston-based playwright Deborah Lake Fortson saw the exhibition, which showcased the artworks of Nepalese girls who were victims of sex trafficking, she was moved to action. Fortson traveled to India, where she visited shelters for girls rescued from the sex trade and read their testimonies as recorded by the rescue workers. She took two of these stories home and, upon her return to Boston, devised and presented BODY & SOLD, Part I: Southeast Asia, a documentary play in the voices of two girls who were abducted to Bombay and Calcutta and sold to brothels. Boston activist Carol Gomez then inspired Fortson to develop the American version of BODY & SOLD starting in St. Paul, Minnesota, where she interviewed former prostituted teenagers. She subsequently conducted more interviews at Roxbury Youthworks, Inc., and then in Hartford and New York.

Fortson’s US-based BODY & SOLD, also a documentary play, details stories of teens running away, being seduced, drugged and kidnapped, or lured into relationships that turned into prostitution. In 2015, she expanded BODY & SOLD to become the BODY & SOLD Project, fostering a network of theatres and social agencies with the goal of raising national consciousness about the intertwined issues of child abuse, runaways, and the commercial sexual exploitation of children. This season, Fortson’s theatre company, Tempest Productions, is partnering with seven theatre organizations to bring BODY & SOLD 2015–2016 to Greater Boston audiences, continuing her now twelve-year commitment to raising awareness of the growing teenage sex trafficking crisis.

The following conversation began at Sleeping Weazel’s staged reading of the play, directed by Robbie McCauley at Charlestown Working Theater in November 2015. Participants include Deborah Lake Fortson, her producing partner, playwright Amy Merrill, theatre artist Robbie McCauley (Professor Emerita, Emerson College), Lieutenant Donna Gavin (Boston Police Department Anti-Human Trafficking Unit), Mia Alvarado (Executive Director, Roxbury Youthworks, Inc.), and anthropologist M. Gabriela Torres (Wheaton College, MA).

Adara Meyers: How long have you been working together on this project?

Deborah Lake Fortson and Amy Merrill: The BODY & SOLD Project 2015–2016 is the product of a longstanding collaboration and friendship in the theatre dating back more than twenty-five years when we met at a playwriting workshop run by María Irene Fornés.

Amy Merrill: When Deborah was first writing BODY & SOLD, I stepped up to launch it at the Boston Center for the Arts in 2004. Following that premiere, between 2005 and 2012, theatres and colleges presented the play in over thirty cities across the country and in Japan.

Deborah Lake Fortson and Amy Merrill: With the economic downturn of 2008 followed by the anger against Wall Street and its excesses, in recent years many of us have become more focused on economic inequality in this country. The Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street also returned us squarely to the importance of activism and voices trying to make themselves heard. During this time New York Times articles spotlighted the increasing number of runaway children resulting from the economic chaos in American families. These stories mirrored the stories in BODY & SOLD, a small sampling of countless individual tragedies stemming from a system that condones violence against women and children and reinforces male dominance.

Adara Meyers: For the BODY & SOLD Project, what are you doing that you hadn’t done before?

Deborah Lake Fortson and Amy Merrill: We are linking performances of the play to post-show conversations with community leaders and audience members to spark social action. Our goal is to present readings of the play in multiple neighborhoods, thus building a citywide network of activist theatres and audiences to brainstorm ideas on how to combat the root causes of commercial sexual exploitation. We invited Lee Mikeska Gardner, Artistic Director of The Nora Theatre Company, to help us launch the BODY & SOLD Project 2015–2016. She enthusiastically proposed a rolling series of readings to be produced by a different theatre company each month in a different venue. We then connected with various theatre and community collaborators across the city, the first being Mia Alvarado, Executive Director of Roxbury Youthworks, Inc., who has been a long-time supporter of the project and a key proponent of sex trafficking prevention in greater Boston. Lieutenant Donna Gavin of the Boston Police Department Anti-Human Trafficking Unit has also contributed greatly to the project. We were exceptionally lucky that Sleeping Weazel engaged formidable theatre artist Robbie McCauley to direct the November 16th reading at Charlestown Working Theater.

a woman pointing
Director Robbie McCauley. Photo courtesy of Deborah Lake Forston and Amy Merrill. 

Charlotte Meehan: You have a long history in making theatre for social change. Can you speak about approaching a verbatim play like this with actors?

Robbie McCauley: Directing this dramatic reading of BODY & SOLD produced by Sleeping Weazel, I gained a new insight on the viability of the staged reading format —especially for a play intended to inform and incite concern. We cast this showing with twelve actors we knew, a culturally and racially diverse cast, most of them young and playing roles from early teens to mid-twenties with one playing a little girl. We had a limited rehearsal period at the Charlestown Working Theatre, a warm and welcoming venue. I had actors talk to each other and play the room, to focus the audience as story listeners, as people “you’re telling your story to.” The actors, all good at craft with different levels of experience, were encouraged to give their best to the characters’ (i.e., the real people’s) stories. I learn from actors, from what they do—or resist doing.

Three actors on stage
BODY & SOLD, (l-r) Patricia Johnson, Jose Disla, Siara Padilla, and Jaronzie Harris.
Photo courtesy of Deborah Lake Forston and Amy Merrill. 

Based on interviews with actual young people who’ve been abused, used, and who took responsibility for bad choices, [the play] is effectively structured so that private stories reveal a public horror visited upon many young people in this country.

I am always thrilled by the willingness of actors to be present with unfamiliar material, and with their collaborative ability to transform time and space in the view of witnesses. This is old news for us who work in theatre, and for frequent audiences, but with this work I also relearned so much of what I knew. It’s always thrilling, too, to relate to a live contemporary writer who is willing to go with the visions of several directors of readings of the play for social activist purposes. The play is excellently written, which again solves the old contentions about social activism and art. Deborah’s play, which is based on interviews with actual young people who’ve been abused, used, and who themselves took responsibility for bad choices, is effectively structured so that private stories reveal a public horror visited upon many young people in this country.

Adara Meyers: Who is at most risk of being brought into the sex trade?

Donna Gavin: The majority of teenage girls and young women involved in the sex trade have experienced intergenerational violence in their homes and thus ended up in public child welfare systems as a result of neglect and abuse. Many have aged out of these systems, having failed in foster care and ended up in group homes with little or no familial support. Runaways are particularly vulnerable. Many become young mothers and without viable alternatives and support to exit prostitution and leave violent pimps, their children then end up in child welfare systems and the cycle of violence continues.

Adara Meyers: How has the epidemic changed in the past ten to fifteen years?

Donna Gavin: Though there are many factors that have caused the sex trade to flourish over the last ten to fifteen years, the Internet has provided easy access and anonymity for pimps and exploiters to find their prey. There is a great demand by buyers to purchase sex and lots of money to be made by pimps and traffickers. In many cases pimps have lured young victims away from their homes through social websites. Buyers go to dozens of websites every day and respond to ads in which teens and young women are sold in hotels and apartments in cities and towns across the country. Buyers don't check their IDs nor ask if they are under a pimp's control. They simply don't care. The Internet has allowed them easy access to do so. If there were no buyers, there would be no business.

Charlotte Meehan: How did you handle the difficulty of this material with your actors?

Robbie McCauley: Actors have a particular intelligence. They show up, agreeing to be present with the material after reading the script (or hearing the ideas of a generative piece). Actors want to be creative even in a reading, often in response to direction. Trusting and allowing them to enact their impulses can add to the director’s vision and/or become information for the actor. Resistance is information, so therein lives information that can be named and given voice. One of the strongest actors, a young woman I’d taught at Emerson, resisted her power until I told her to go deeper, and she went more deeply and more wise than I could have imagined.

The actors hear all. An exercise that became part of the reading was to have the actors quietly talk to each other about the play. The reading was set up out of that exercise, which effectively framed the dramatic reading mode. The writing efficiently described atmospheres of several cities and the actors transmitted them by following impulses to change spaces, language textures, and gestures, which I jokingly claim credit for as director (something I admit to actors).

Two actors on stage
BODY & SOLD, Cora Kohn (l) and Emerald Johnson (r). Photo courtesy of
Deborah Lake Fortson  and Amy Merrill. 

It is not a feel-good play, but one that leaves the audience seeing differently and open to act on a condition that needs action for positive change. Theatre does its part for social action. It allows for beauty even with ugly truths.

Although no one of the characters is a big winner in the play, each one moves up from the lowest point in their lives. It is not a feel-good play, but one that leaves the audience seeing differently and open to act on a condition that needs action for positive change. Theatre does its part for social action. It allows for beauty even with ugly truths. I am grateful that this work re-acquainted me with the thrill of that.

Adara Meyers: Where would you most like to see the help come from in bringing this grave issue to the public’s attention?

Mia Alvarado: I would really like to see the entertainment industry join us in the fight to end the commercial sexual exploitation of people. We cannot continue to inundate our youth with messages and images that glorify pimp culture. We need to ensure that no movies are made; no songs recorded and no TV shows watched that reinforce the wrongful belief that engaging in “prostitution” is a person’s choice and that it is a glamorous lifestyle.

Charlotte Meehan: As an anthropologist specializing in violence against women and girls on a global level, can you point to the primary causes you see—in the play and in the world at large—of teenage abuse, stranger abduction, and sex trafficking?

M. Gabriela Torres: The spectacle of social suffering represented in rape, drug abuse as a tool of sexual enslavement, and bruised and neglected bodies is essential for raising our ire about exploited women and children. Individualizing stories of sexual exploitation, sex trafficking, and accompanying sexual assaults are indispensable advocacy tools for raising awareness about such gross violations in our midst. Unfortunately, these narratives seldom tell us much about the ways that gender-based violence arises and very little about how this violence is sustained. Importantly, focusing on spectacular narratives of sexual exploitation may also work to distance us from the everyday roots of violence which lie much closer to home than most of us care to admit. Gender-based violence is rooted in social, legal and gendered inequalities that range from our social indifference to domestic abuse to the chronic underfunding of social services and unequal legal protections for the abuse and trafficking of children.

Charlotte Meehan: What do you see as the most effective ways to address this global epidemic?

an young woman on stage
BODY & SOLD, Audrey Aka as Little Girl. Photo courtesy of Deborah Lake Fortson and Amy Merrill. 

Combating the sexual violation of women and children begins in our understanding that the human experience of sexual exploitation is always located in the society that produces it.

M. Gabriela Torres: Combating the sexual violation of women and children begins in our understanding that the human experience of sexual exploitation is always located in the society that produces it. As active members of those societies we all have a role in combating inequalities in the spectacular forms that demand our recognition and the quotidian gendered inequities that we have learned to live with.

Adara Meyers: What tangible results have you seen thus far from the BODY & SOLD Project 2015–2016 and what are your hopes for the next iterations?

Deborah Lake Fortson and Amy Merrill: The interest and enthusiasm for this project on all sides has been exciting and encouraging. Audiences are responding to the stories in this play with a lot of energy and interest in taking action. We have several events planned for Spring 2016 that will continue to bring together a wide variety of audience members, theatremakers, community agency advocates, and law enforcement officials. Our challenge is to fuel the momentum by translating audience members’ outrage and concern into action steps, so we can work together to eradicate the root causes of child exploitation in Massachusetts.

Adara Meyers: What is the timeline for the BODY & SOLD Project 2015–2016?

Deborah Lake Fortson and Amy Merrill: On September 14, 2015, The Nora Theatre Company launched the project as part of its “That’s What She Said” series at Central Square Theater. There have since been readings produced by Fort Point Theater Channel (The Club by George Foreman III) and Sleeping Weazel (Charlestown Working Theater). There will be five more readings beginning with Maiden Phoenix’s presentation scheduled for February 7 at The Democracy Center, 45 Mount Auburn Street in Harvard Square, at 7:00 p.m. More readings, workshops, and contact information, especially for those interested in getting involved, can be found here.

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I'm honored to direct this play with the Laboratory Theater of Florida (www.laboratorytheaterflorid...) this spring. Southwest Florida needs to hear this message! We are collaborating with a local education and prevention focused organization, Human Trafficking Awareness Partners, Inc., and the public school system to reinforce our production directly with young people in our area.

FYI: This important issue is also being addressed at Portland, Oregon's Miracle Theatre, with a touring troupe for a play called Broken Promises.