Our culture’s willingness to talk about anything no matter how personal at anytime seems to expand with every Cialis commercial. It’s as if any topic is an acceptable topic no matter where or in what company it is introduced. Child sexual abuse has been a bit slower to enter the national conversation – unless the perpetrators are teachers or priests, then we can’t seem to get enough of it. Still, when the topic is sexual abuse of a very young child, many of us get a bit squeamish.
Last February I wrote about “Fiction,” the initial project by Yellow Rose Productions. A very provocative play in its own right, it challenged the notion of truth itself. Not light fare by any stretch, it seems like a comedy in retrospect when compared to “Princess Cut,” the most recent offering from the company. While I left the first play anxious to discuss the issues raised by the text, I left “Princess Cut,” unable to talk about it for some time.
The play opened innocently enough, “Sarah,” played by Kerri Koczen, sat a a table having dinner on an early date. A similar scene started the previous play the group produced. The two scenes quickly diverged, however. In “Princess Cut,” Sarah’s date lightly suggests that they might go ahead and tell each other their “number” of sexual encounters. This leads to horrific flashbacks as Sarah remembers being gang-raped by a cousin and three of his friends at age five. Her “number” was already “four.”
The script is based on a true story recounted to the writers of the play – Danielle Roos, Kelsey Broyles and Kerri Koczen. It is set in Knox County and following that opening scene, a series of disturbing and progressively darker scenes reveal Sarah being sold, essentially, into slavery. Her “number” runs into the hundreds before she is a teenager, yet, she never left home. It’s quite disturbing to consider and the play didn’t completely explain the logistics of how that might happen.
A 2011 TBI report, however, sheds some light on the topic. It notes that reports of child sexual abuse and child sex trafficking have increased across the state of Tennessee. It makes clear that an intricate relationship exists between sex trafficking, drug abuse and poverty. Girls in poverty are much more likely to be at risk for child prostitution, while the men who purchase them are likely to be married, college educated and make over $120,000 per year.
Most sex trafficking of minors – and there were over 100 reported cases in Knox County that year – involves a quest for simple survival. It is just as likely to be found in rural counties as urban counties. Child prostitution is just as likely to be forced by a family member as by any other source. “Sarah’s” situation appears to be a minority situation only in that she was forced into the trade at such a young age. Early teen years are the more typical age of entrance into trafficking.
The play set out to present this painful social issue in such a way as to force the audience to confront the issue’s uncomfortable reality. It certainly accomplished that goal. Kerri Koczen played the primary role and it often felt like a one-woman play as others played minor scenes, often only walking across stage while staring at her. Her portrayal of the woman projected both power and terror. That she survives seems a miracle.
The music deserves a special note. All original, the music was woven into the play in the form of breaks in the action, but it extended the tone and focus of the play in such a manner as to feel less like an intrusion and more of a piece with the story. “Orpheus,” written by Christian Barnett and performed by Christian and Joe Rebrovick filtered through my mind repeatedly as I left the theater. Equally impressive were “Breaking Ties” and “Deepest Cry,” which were co-written by Kelsey Broyles and “Sarah.”
After the play a panel discussion and audience question-and-answer session ensued under the guidance of Jerry Redman of Second Life Chattanooga, Brittany Gianunnzio, a mental health specialist and Tiffany Short, an FBI victim-witness specialist. Ms. Short affirmed that the portrayal of victims of child sexual trafficking seemed to her to be one of the best she had seen, with the exploration of guilt, shame, emotional dependence and the flashbacks these young girls experience. She did note in response to a question that the typical victim is older.
The size of the audience clearly exceeded all expectations as more chairs had to be moved into the Square Room in order to provide a seat for everyone. The room had to be beyond capacity, which speaks well, I think, for support of challenging theater and also for the willingness of our community to engage in difficult and painful dialogue.
I understand from Danielle that the play will be produced in other cities across the state in a modified form as they continue to make it better. It easily could have sustained a multi-night run in the Sqaure Room, simply judging by the response on one night. Whether this play returns or Yellow Rose production offers something entirely different next time out, it is clear these talented women have much to offer our local arts scene and that they aren’t afraid to bring it.
I would also like to say a special “Thank You” to the Square Room for offering their space for such an important and challenging production.