Brave new play addresses sex trafficking in Humboldt County

three ‘Alice’s Jane Doe (Bryan Kashon), Nobody (Zafiria Dimitropoulou) and Alice (Erin Henry) face Tweedledum (Tushar Mathew) in staged reading of Jane Doe in Wonderland. Photo by Robi Arce | Dell’Arte

THREE ALICES Jane Doe (Bryan Kashon), Nobody (Zafiria Dimitropoulou) and Alice (Erin Henry) face Tweedledum (Tushar Mathew) in staged reading of Jane Doe in Wonderland. Photo by Robi Arce | Dell’Arte

Lauraine Leblanc
Mad River Union

HUMBOLDT – How many times have you heard a song that celebrates pimps and “playas,” consumed any media that disparages sex workers, or all women, as “hos”? In contrast, how many times have you heard survivors of sex trafficking overcome fear and shame to fight back against a culture that seems to not only normalize, but encourage the sexual exploitation of girls?

If you had been in Dell’Arte’s packed Carlo Theatre Friday evening, March 12, or in Eureka High’s auditorium the night previous, you would have witnessed the birth of a play, Jane Doe in Wonderland, that tackles the heartbreaking issue of sex trafficking of women, men and children. The readings were not widely publicized, as the play addresses a specific audience of high-school-aged youth and their parents.

Jane Doe in Wonderland is the work of Dell'Arte students Grace Booth, Erin Johnston and Kate Tobie, who collaborated with sex trafficking survivor Elle Snow and her local anti-sex trafficking organization, Game Over, to create a play that addresses sex trafficking in Humboldt County. The play began as a five-week community-based arts project, but the work that went into creating the piece and the community response to its staged readings is urging the creators to further the project with the goal of preventing further sexual exploitation.

The play hangs on the structure of Lewis Carroll’s classic children’s tales Alice In Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass to interpret survivor testimonials revealing how young women and men are lured into the world of sex trafficking, “a world that exists right here in Humboldt County,” write the play’s creators. The 45-minute reading was followed by testimonials by Snow and two other survivors of sex trafficking, then a question-and-answer session.

Snow, who grew up in Humboldt County and met “her” trafficker/pimp in Eureka, told how she had returned to Humboldt to testify against him (for, among other charges, rape of a minor), which resulted in him receiving a 10-year sentence; she estimates he will be released after serving just four years.

Despite the danger of retaliation that she faces here, Snow said, she stayed to start Game Over, a survivor-led organization “joining the battle to end sex trafficking in Humboldt County and beyond,” according to the organization’s Facebook page, facebook.com/itsgameover101. Snow now conducts training seminars for law enforcement, schools, youth organizations and any group that works with youth and/or sex workers.

While sex trafficking “is happening pretty much anywhere with people, hotels and Internet,” said Snow, rural areas like Humboldt County present an especially rich hunting ground. Like other rural counties, Humboldt has a population of youth who dream of leaving for the greener pastures of large cities, leaving them open to the seductive promises of sex traffickers.

Cities such as Eureka, Arcata and McKinleyville, as they are right on a major highway, are fertile fields. “We are on two major circuits from Washington State to LA,” Snow pointed out. In addition, the disproportionately high incidence of child abuse and poverty, along with overburdened and under-resourced foster care and social services leave children vulnerable to predation.

Finally, Snow said, the underground marijuana economy has not only created a well-travelled trafficking circuit, it also supports a trim scene in which women working as trimmers in unregulated workplaces are routinely in danger of sexual exploitation. “This crime goes largely unreported due to misidentification as prostitution,” said Snow. “However, the majority of cases reported in Humboldt to local agencies have come from trim scenes.”

When the Dell’Arte students met with Snow, she suggested that they use the story of Alice in Wonderland, as it “eerily parallelled her experience as a trafficking victim and survivor,” according to program notes. Even as a staged reading – with minimal costuming and makeup, no set and narrator Kaitlen Osburn reading the stage directions aloud – Jane Doe in Wonderland was powerful, heart-wrenching and galvanizing.

Like any cautionary tale, the play chronicles the “downfall” of main character, Alice, her struggles to escape danger and her eventual escape. Being told through the lens of a children’s classic tale underscored the vulnerability of the victims of sexual exploitation, especially when they are children. In a brilliant piece of staging, it is not eating the cake, but putting on high-heeled shoes that makes Alice grow taller.

The play opens with 17-year-old Alice (Erin Henry) meeting White Rabbit (Tafadzwa Bob Mutumbi), a suave older man who pays attention to her, seducing her into travelling out of town with him, then forcing her into prostitution, a common tactic used by sex predators dubbed “Romeo pimps.” After “falling down the rabbit hole,” Alice dissociates, drawing forth a new facet of herself, Jane Doe (Bryan Kashon), in order to survive, who in turn is further broken down into Nobody (Zafiria Dimitropoulou).

As the Mad Hatter (Erin Johnston) and the March Hare (Kate Tobie) provide commentary, Alice/Jane/Nobody is exploited by truly creepy johns TweedleDum (Tushar Mathew) and TweedleDee (Giancarlo Campagna), forced to play “games” in exchange for “cake.” As the play progresses, White Rabbit instructs a fellow trafficker, Bill (Taylor Brewerton), in the finer points of psychological manipulation; in a chilling sequence, Bill reads aloud from Biderman’s Chart of Coercion and an actual pimp manifesto/manual that uses the same tactics as cult leaders.

When Alice/Jane/Nobody attempts to escape, she is countered by the Flowers’ (Johnston, Tobie and Osburn) scorn, the complicity of the Bandersnatch/police (Campagna) and social stigma from the Jabberwocky (Brewerton and Osburn). It is not until Rabbit’s “bottom” or brothel mistress, The White Queen (Jenny Lamb) – a victim brainwashed into complicity through Stockholm Syndrome – her tries to get her to help victimize a 13-year-old newcomer that Alice/Jane/Nobody is able to make a final escape attempt.

The careful casting of Jane Doe in Wonderland – mostly Dell’Arte MFA students – worked wonderfully. Jane Doe, while being an aspect of the Alice triad, is played by a man, while the other two are women, a choice the creators made to highlight that men, as well as LGBTQIA folks, are also victims of sex trafficking.

In the talkback, one audience member raised the issue of stereotyping in the casting of Mutumbi, a black man, in the role of Rabbit, the main pimp. Creators Booth, Johnston and Tobie revealed that they had struggled with this decision, and Mutumbi pointed out that, as he is from Zimbabwe, he brings a different perspective on racial issues.

The creators of Jane Doe in Wonderland intended to use “art over lecture” to open a dialogue among high school students aged 14 and over, the intended audience of the play. They hope to raise awareness among teens and parents to the occurrence of sex trafficking in Humboldt County, as well as addressing the psychological impact on victims and the stereotypes and misconceptions propagated by popular culture.

Jane Doe in Wonderland, an exquisite piece of theatre and a powerful play about a critically important issue, deserves a full staging that should be seen by every high schooler, parent and community member in Humboldt County. To find out more, contact Game Over at [email protected].

If you suspect that you or someone else is being victimized in sex trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline 1-800-373-7888 or, locally, the North Coast Rape Crisis hotline at (707) 445-2881.

*****

SEX TRAFFICKING BY THE NUMBERS

The United Nations defines human trafficking as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring, or receipt of persons by improper means (such as force, abduction, fraud, or coercion) for an improper purpose including forced labor or sexual exploitation.”

ϖ The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (missingkids.org) estimates that in 2015, 1 in 5 endangered runaways were sex trafficking victims.

ϖ Sex trafficking of children is growing; the center estimates that the 1 in 5 statistic is up from 1 in 6 in 2014 and 1 in 7 in 2013.

ϖ According to the Polaris Project (polarisproject.org), California is one of the top three destinations for human trafficking in the U.S.

ϖ One third of the 4,163 sex trafficking cases reported to the Trafficking Resource Center (TRC) (traffickingresourcecenter.org) in 2015 were children.

ϖ TRC documents that 781 of these sex trafficking cases occurred in California, of which 293 – more than one-third – involved minors.

ϖ In the U.S., the average age of entry into prostitution is 12 to 14 years old, according to a 2001 study cited by trafficking.org.

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