THEATRE: Actors dedicated to cause in play about human trafficking

A compassionate person would worry about the state of mind of the actors in She Has a Name, a dramatization of the life of a sex slave.

The play runs Sept. 25-30 at the Catalyst Theatre as part of a Canadian tour to raise awareness on the issue of human trafficking. Calgary’s Burnt Thicket Theatre company has been doing the Andrew Kooman-penned production for more than a year and a half, on and off, dwelling on it every day, getting worked up about it on stage every night, wondering what can be done, if anything, to stop the buying and selling of human beings.

You can ask this of any dedicated activist: How do you avoid becoming too depressed to do anything? Perhaps more to the point, since we’re talking about a play that charges admission to the public – how do you avoid letting the heartbreaking topic overwhelm the quality of your art?

“That’s been the big risk with this,” says director Stephen Waldschmidt. “It could be dismissed as a piece of political theatre, as propaganda, or people would only be thinking about the subject matter and not the story.”

The solution, he says, is to zero in on one victim – a Cambodian girl her captors call No. 18 (played by Evelyn Chew). Left on her own after her father dies, with a mother who can’t provide for her, the girl is sold or falls in with the wrong people (it’s never made clear) and is forced to become a prostitute in Thailand. We meet her as she makes her first contact with Jason (Carl Kennedy), a lawyer posing as a john on the streets of Bangkok in an attempt to rescue her.

Focusing on one story has more impact in hearing all the depressing statistics; there are an estimated 28 million slaves wordwide, about a third of them in the sex trade, Waldschmidt says. He quotes Mother Teresa: “She said, ‘If I look at the millions, I will never act, but if I look at one person, I will act.’

“There are a number of different things we’ve done with the production to try to keep the audience connected emotionally with the story, and not to be thinking about the big issues so much. It’s an invitation to open their hearts to this one girl and imagine her life. I believe if the audience will let themselves be taken along for the ride, that story will get into their hearts … it’s a beautiful show and I think people really will fall in love with No. 18. It’s actually a love story.”

The director admits the topic sometimes gets him down, but says the feeling is mitigated by finding new people and organizations fighting against human trafficking. Every city the play runs yields new contacts, new discussion, new ideas. The after-play talk-back on Sept. 29 will feature a former victim on the panel. At the very least, this play can help bring these activists together. There is also talk, Waldschmidt says, of bringing the play to Europe, or Thailand, which “could be dicey,” he says, given the ruthlessness of the criminals making millions on their slaves. It happens everywhere. Waldschmidt says there are thousands of slaves “imported” into Canada annually. Most of the victims come from the countries with the worst poverty.

He says, “You wouldn’t have this kind of exploitation of people without poverty, and you wouldn’t have it without male demand for access to women in children’s bodies.”

Devoting your entire career – in this case, a theatre career – to a cause takes a special kind of dedication. Waldschmidt has done several productions that haven’t been this heavy – he wrote and starred in “Hockey Dad, a Play in Three Periods” – though he does play Jesus in the annual Badlands Passion Play in Drumheller. Heavy enough. The playwright Andrew Kooman has also been involved in a number of Christian-themed shows.

Asked what prompted him to get involved, Waldschmidt quotes British slavery abolitionist William Wilberforce, “Once you know, you can never again say that you do not know.”

Modern social media, obviously, has given this statement new dimension. How can anyone not know and not act? Click here for more information.