By Mallory Clarkson/London Community News/Twitter: @MalloryClarkson
Number 18 is a young Cambodian girl who’s forced into an unimaginable situation. Her aspirations to do exciting things in life were snuffed early when, following some difficult family circumstances, she was forced to live in a Thai brothel, turning tricks every night.
“She’s this really beautiful and sweet young girl and forced into circumstances that you can’t really imagine,” said Andrew Kooman, about one of the characters in his play, She Has a Name.
But, when this man walks into the brothel, not asking for the “girlfriend experience” from Number 18, but rather for answers, the little girl’s flame of hope for a better life is ignited again.
“She starts to see maybe a light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s not just a train that’s going to hit her, but it’s perhaps a way out,” Kooman said. “Into a dream of a new life to pursue the things she’s always hoped to pursue.”
Kooman’s play is coming to the Aeolian Hall on July 12-13 as part of the Burnt Thicket Theatre’s 20-week cross country tour.
While it’s a fictional tale, Kooman said Number 18’s plight is shared by many victims of sex trafficking, which is something he wanted to mirror in his play.
“I think it’s important to do justice to the issue, but it’s also important for us to connect with the human story of trafficking,” he said. “We want to produce really powerful theatre that stands on it’s own feet as art.
“It’s important to paint an accurate picture of what it looks like and the challenges that people are doing the work to fight it and what they really face.”
The girl — who’s being played by Evelyn Chow — is referred to as Number 18 because in a lot of instances, victims of sex trafficking are given new names, numbers or are even branded, Kooman said.
“It’s really dehumanizing and I think that’s one way to highlight it,” he said.
But what of the man who’s trying to change the fate of Number 18? That’s Jason, an ambitious lawyer who’s posing as a “John” to build evidence for a case against the brothel owner. Jason is being played by Carl Kennedy.
“He starts to see that Number 18 could be key to his case and he wants to earn her trust and wants to convince her to testify for the sake of justice,” Kooman explained.
All the while, both characters are being haunted by ghost-like entities called Voices. Kooman explained the Voices midwife Number 18’s fate.
“I see victims of trafficking, especially sex trafficking, are often nameless and forgotten when injustice is done against them is unseen and unreported,” Kooman said. “(The Voices are) women who didn’t survive the trade, who are there to bear witness and usher her (Number 18) to her fate.”
Kooman said reactions from audiences have been heartfelt and emotional.
“They laugh during the show, there’s gasps during the show, people are shocked,” he said. “After (a performance), I’ve had people thank me for writing this story. People are angry about the issue, people who are shocked and surprised, there’s just a whole wide range of emotional reactions.”
One of the best responses Kooman said he’s heard is Number 18’s role mirrors what’s happening on the front line.
“It personalizes the reality for them,” he said. “With an issue like this, instead of going at the head, it’s really a way to kind of come from the side and surprise people and to engage the emotions, heart and humanity of the issue and people in the audience.”
The play’s stop in London is hosted by both Men Against Sexual Trafficking (MAST) and the London Anti-Human Trafficking Committee.
Stan Burditt, with MAST, said that while he hasn’t seen the play, he’s excited for the opportunity to have a local showing.
“It’s a visual, moving rendition of what happens,” he said. “There’s a certain degree of entertainment there and you catch people’s attention more than the spoken word itself or written word.
“People are touched by a lot by visual, what they see visually and how they can be affected by it.”
Burditt added following the performance on July 12, there will be a panel discussion, where three or four people, including an RCMP officer and a survivor, will speak and answer questions about the issue.
But, as for why people should attend the show, Kooman challenges London and area residents to check it out.
“I would just dare people to go and I think they’ll be moved emotionally and they’ll be challenged and I think it’ll be very worth their while,” he said.
“I dare them to take that risk because it’s a life-changing thing to learn about the reality and you encounter imagined.
“I have encountered real stories of injustice and trafficking and you can never be the same.”
The show will take place at 7:30 p.m. on July 12-13 at the Aeolian Hall. Tickets are $27 each, but a group (minimum 10) rate of $22 each is also being offered.
Tickets can be purchased by calling 1-800-838-3006 or online at www.shehasaname.net.