At a staged reading of Trafficked, a play about child sex trafficking written and performed by a group of young women, the girls on stage wore daisy dukes and torn tank tops, tiny dresses and teetering heels. But that wasn’t the only reason I kept checking my program, convinced that the young actresses, who are now performing the play at the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity, were actually sharing their own stories.

The verisimilitude doesn’t come from the young actors’ life experiences, but from the fact that the fifteen members of the Project Girl Theatre Collective, who range in age from fourteen to twenty-two, own their characters to an unusual degree. After the reading–a fraught affair that left members of our small audience wiping our eyes–the girls explained how they had written the play. They researched sex trafficking with the help of partners at the United Nations, ECPAT (Ending Child Prostitution and Trafficking) and GEMS (Girls Education and Mentoring Services), and then each created a character and monologue. They worked in small groups to create scenes: every writer got veto power over her character’s lines and actions.

Perhaps as a result, Trafficked is both a group portrait of a surprisingly diverse set of characters–ranging from a kidnapped Haitian to an Afghan refugee to a wry daughter of American drug addicts–and a meditation on the complexity of telling their stories. As the play opens, a peppy news reporter barges into a shelter for trafficked girls to interview Justice, a victim-turned-activist. She disgusts the girls with her voyeuristic, racy approach. To give voice to the voiceless, it seems, we need to let them speak for themselves.

These young actresses have tried to tell these stories without the storytelling itself adding one more layer of exploitation, and the result is a play that is believable, darkly funny, and heartbreaking. The woven narrative follows characters as they enter and sometimes escape this unthinkable life, only to be forced back in by poverty and drug addiction, or lured back in by pimps who profess to love them. We watch as they form bonds of friendship that are, more often than not, broken.

At the staged reading I attended, the actress-writers asked the audience, which included playwrights and activists, for advice about a crucial part of the play: getting people to come, given the difficulty of the subject matter. As it turns out, that won’t be a problem: two performances, including shows with talks by Gloria Steinem and Nigel Barker, have sold out.

Trafficked runs at Planet Connections Theatre Festivity through June 23.

Abigail Rabinowitz

Abby Rabinowitz teaches writing at Columbia University, where she earned her MFA in nonfiction writing. Her essays and articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Virginia Quarterly Review, Science, Nautilus, BuzzFeed, and Guernica.

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