Grandparents worry about everything. Even when we're focused on Toys for Tots, by the dawn’s early light we fight dangers lining their paths to adulthood: giant trees might fall, lightning might strike, markets can crash, bandits, measles, bacteria, hormones, and, along with everything else: human traffickers.
It's right here in Northwest Indiana, where the FBI and the State’s Attorney have set up task forces to deal with it; and the Lake County Sheriff and the Hammond Police Department are making arrests.
I first heard about human trafficking 25 years ago, while working on a documentary about kids in Uptown, a poor Chicago neighborhood. When I asked a young mother about her kids, she said, "The oldest is gone. She was only twelve. They shoved her in a car and took her away. White slavery, that's what it is."
What? I didn't know how to prove or disprove this. My documentary was about something else, so I filed it under "Things I Don't Understand."
"We're taking a closer look on who these women are," Lake County Sheriff John Buncich recently said. "They are not just prostitutes on the street. They came from somewhere, they belong to someone. There's a story behind these girls."
Mary Bonnett, a 60-something Chicago writer and producer, artistic director of Her Story Theater, is telling some of those stories now.
Bonnett spent close to two years interviewing dozens of people connected to sex trafficking including undercover detectives, caseworkers, FBI, vice squad, parents, pimps, therapists, and trafficked girls and young women of Chicago.
She wrote and is producing a play, Shadow Town, featuring four girls’ journeys into ‘the life.’ The little girl I remember from Uptown could be one of them. But she's probably dead. According to the American Journal of Epidemiology, the average lifespan of someone in prostitution is 34, with violence and drugs the predominant causes of death.
"Did you know," asked Bonnett, "the average age of a sex-trafficked child is 11 years old? It's a $32-billion-dollar illegal business. Once a child is trafficked, their survival rate is seven years."
Shadow Town, she says, "is a place where young girls are bought and sold like a product over a counter. You never saw them? They are there, on your street, by your hotel, in your local mall, around the corner. They are the young women and children who have been brainwashed, life threatened, brutalized, drugged, and beaten into the modern slavery of sex trafficking. They are your little sisters, cousins, aunts, daughters, classmates, friends, next-door neighbors...and they desperately need your help."
Bonnett, a self-described "hippie girl" from California, majored in theater and English lit in college, earned her Master’s in creative writing, and has been teaching, acting, writing, producing, and directing in the Chicago area for many years.
"At one point," she said, "I was in a new phase of my life and asked the question: ‘What do you want to do with it?’”
Her Story Theater was her answer. "I could write, direct, organize, had a passion for social issues--especially directed toward women and children. That’s our mission: Through theater and the written word--shine bright lights in dark places on women and children in need of social justice and community support."
Bonnett has done an amazing job of organizing her production. She has designated the part of one of the girl's parents to be played by a different local celebrity every night.
"One of the four trafficked girls is Samantha Collins from Naperville, a lonely child who seeks company from online strangers. She disappears while her parents are overseas and she is left with the nanny. It is the parents’ plight, woven throughout the play through letters written to their daughter before and after her abduction that one of the 24 guest celebrities performs each night, making them the 12th actor of the play."
Among those who will be playing a parent are Gary Houston (award-winning actor, director, writer), Karen Lewis (Chicago Teacher's Union President), Rick Kogan (columnist and radio show host).
Bonnett has also invited many renowned Chicago singers and piano players to perform on different nights, including Shauntia Toussaint Fleming with Dave Rice on piano, Maggie Brown, Dee Alexander, Robert Irving III, and Lynne Jordon. She's also arranged different groups to co-sponsor each night's show.
Item removed from "Things I Don't Understand"; re-filed under "Things to Try to Help Change."
Shadow Town opens Oct. 10, at the Den Theater in Chicago's Wicker Park. You must be 18 years or older. A lounge is attached to the theater.