A plain-looking bus full of ticketed passengers pulled up to an ordinary Chicago street corner on Tuesday night and a couple of Nigerian women jumped on board. One was wary of the people on the bus and sat quietly, watching. The other, younger woman bounded around like a starry-eyed kid at Christmas. "I'm going to my home in Chicago," she told anyone and everyone. "I'm going to be an American. Where Obama lives."
Her fellow passengers responded to this gregarious enthusiasm. How could they not? They told the girl what they did — academic deans, funders, administrators, that kind of thing. They insisted they were not rich, even though they knew they were. To this girl. They told her she would like Chicago, where there are many restaurants. "I'm not going to restaurants because I can cook," she said. "I don't need to eat outside." Then the girl saw a man on the street — by now, the bus was traversing through sun-kissed Bucktown — pushing a child in a stroller. The girl seemed surprised. "A man taking care of a child," she mused, brow furrowed, as the young father stared back at the bus. "Where is his woman?"
If you're one of the very few people planning on taking this bus from the Chicago Shakespeare Theater at Navy Pier — tickets to "Roadkill" are sold out — stop reading now and come back afterward. If you'd rather believe the world took care of such African girls full of shine and promise, you might care to do the same.
For the rest of you: The bus stopped. The girl and her minder — that was what she now seemed to be — headed up some stairs to an ordinary apartment not far from Western Avenue. A few minutes later, the girl's 17 or 18 companions from the bus were crammed like uncomfortable voyeurs into the living room of her new "home," the same living room where the girl danced briefly to Beyonce before being ushered out. They were listening to the ear-splitting sounds of her being raped in another room.
This was a breaking-in, an initiation into sex slavery. A few minutes later, the blooded girl returned. "This it how it works here," she was told, as she screamed in agony, inches away from the people on the bus who, convention dictated (or did it?), could do nothing. The girl's childhood was suddenly gone for good. "You're part of our family now," she was told. The girl opened up her suitcase between sobs. She pulled out her family photos, her Mickey Mouse sweatshirt, her African value system where family is everything and hope is a gift. And that was the point were a few of us lost it and never quite regained it, whatever our "it" may be, until much later in the night, over a stiff drink.
It was one thing — a very difficult thing — to arrive in a new country all alone. Most of us who did that when young had resources and support systems. What if the support is tyranny? What if you don't know where to go? What if you cannot leave?
So there was that feeling — more than enough for such a night. And then, also gnawing away at you for the next 90 minutes or so, was the self-evident truth that you can be a nice city neighborhood of apartments and houses and never know precisely what is going on behind doors just a few feet away from that nice guy with the stroller. Consider Cleveland. Who knew there?
The girl, of course, was an actor from the United Kingdom, the remarkable Mercy Ojelade. So was her minder, Adura Onashile. Together only with the Scottish actor John Kazek, who subsumed himself into a veritable plethora of male scumbags, these women essentially re-created the visceral experience of what happens to a girl who is the victim of human trafficking. "Roadkill," which is being presented by Chicago Shakespeare, is an absurd economic-artistic enterprise (it plays to 18 people at once, and they have to bused). And is not an easy show to watch.
Certainly, this topic naturally engenders intense feelings and, certainly, the aims here are to raise consciousness about an issue that people may ignore, but that no one would openly say is benign.
But the work of Cora Bissett, who conceived and directed this piece with text by Stef Smith, is also remarkable in aesthetic ways. The key is that time on the bus — thanks in no small part to Ojelade's openness, you develop an intense and crucially informal connection with this character, and the best way to rile people up on something like is for them to connect viscerally with its consequences. You love her before, and thus you know what is being destroyed.
The other thing about "Roadkill," which is being seen Stateside for the first time and is traveling the world a few steps behind the real human traffickers, is the careful way the piece uses explicitly theatrical tools to probe the subconscious (the set and costumes are by Jessica Brettle) and yet is grounded in a real place, in your town, on a street that could be your own. Without entering that apartment, this would be just another piece of political art. It's different when you're there.
When: Through May 26
Where: Bus departs from the Navy Pier turnaround, 600 E. Grand Ave.
Running time: 2 hours
Tickets: $45 (sold out) at 312-595-5600 and chicagoshakes.com