When you were born, you were given a name-- it identifies you and acknowledges your existence to society. But what if your own name was denied you?
U of C grad Andrew Kooman's play She Has a Name brings forth the intertwined stories of a sex worker and a lawyer to a Canadian audience, highlighting the injustices of human trafficking and sexual exploitation in Southeast Asia.
The Red Deer playwright bases his play on a 2008 real-life incident where 121 Burmese sex workers were found in an abandoned shipping container in Thailand, 54 of them dead. In She Has a Name, Jason, a lawyer, investigates the grisly deaths of sex workers whose bodies were abandoned in a large truck. He tracks down a young local sex worker-- known only as "Number 18"-- in Bangkok, and persuades her to testify against the human trafficking crimes. "Number 18" must make the difficult choice to trust him as Jason tries to pursue the equally difficult task of rescuing her from where she is being held against her will.
While the play is set in Southeast Asia, most of the cast is not of Asian descent-- a deliberate casting decision.
"We hope that the casting of the play would suggest that it isn't just a situation of people [in Asia] . . . We want to reinforce that this is a human problem. Bangkok and Thailand do have a reputation for sex tourism. But statistics from the U.S. government also shows about 300,000 youths aged 10 to 17 are being forced into prostitution [in North America]," says Waldschmidt.
"Human trafficking is abhorrent," he continues. "It has become a fast-growing criminal enterprise. The reason why sexual exploitation is growing so fast is because there is a male demand for the access of the bodies of women and children," explains Waldschmidt.
With the availability of internet pornography and semi-pornographic images in magazines and social-networking sites, popular culture has normalized the objectification of the bodies of women and children, with or without their consent.
"I myself have gone through the journey in coming to terms with my own sexuality and the mixed messages in the world around us," Waldschmidt shares.
The thematically sexual nature of the play presented an obstacle for Waldschmidt.
"The challenge was how [to] stage the sexual content and extreme violence of the show. I didn't want the play to have a pornographic feel. Here is this 15-year-old girl forced to work as a prostitute . . . Now, what do we do with that?" asks Waldschmidt.
He acknowledges the conflict between the seriousness of human trafficking and engaging viewers.
"What we discovered is that we have to push it too far to not shy away from the reality . . . [Jason] goes into the room and tries to talk to ["Number 18"], but what happens if she is doing her best to seduce him? And what if he has a hard time keeping focus? It creates a very powerful dynamic on stage."
After much analysis, Waldschmidt and his crew found the right balance of sexual connotation, violence and emotional resonance.
"We did not want to violate the audience's trust. There is no actual nudity in the production. We kept the violence intense and real, but not abusive. We want [the audience] to open their hearts to let the story into their soul. If it's too gritty, it will be emotionally numbing."
The play is a life-changing experience that will haunt one's conscience. Waldschmidt recalls that, during previous performances, many audience members remained in their seats even after the curtain call. Some were moved to tears while others were outraged. She Has a Name taps into the strong human belief that every person is entitled to "inherent dignity and value," according to Waldschmidt. If this is breached, we will have an instinctual drive-- one that Waldschmidt calls "a deep hunger within us"-- to make things right and to achieve justice.
Like Jason, the audience will undergo a similar journey of confronting the unethical and then being spurred to do something about it.
To do this, Stephen Waldschmidt, together with artistic director James Popoff, have started local company Burnt Thicket Theatre.
"We take the show into smaller communities-- even to venues that are sports and hockey-oriented," explains Waldschmidt. "We are trying to get a non-theatre crowd to see the play. Bringing that section of society with [other art patrons] will connect them with these current issues . . . We are hoping that we will all be connected to this problem-- a problem that is very human and very real."
Waldschmidt also mentions that Kooman is currently working on a screenplay version of She Has a Name, thereby broadening the scope of audience.
Waldschmidt and Kooman have unearthed this otherwise swept-under-the-rug social issue through intricate performance art, and the product will evoke mixed and intense reactions. She Has a Name begs us to open our eyes a little wider and to let our minds think a little more decisively. Not just a work of art, She Has a Name is a powerful work of theatre that stands on its own.