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Celebrities give talents to ‘Shadow Town’

Fri, Nov 8, 2013

Unknown-7 Child prostitution “is so far beyond every woman’s nightmare, it scorches your soul,” says Susan Oppenheimer, who has helped obtain some pro bono celebrity actors and “divas” for all 24 benefit performances of Shadow Town, a play about sex trafficking in Chicago, written by Mary Bonnett. Based on true stories and produced by Her Story Theater, Shadow Town runs October 10 through November 17 at the Den Theater, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave.

Her Story Theater Artistic Director Bonnett researched Shadow Town for two years, starting with The Salvation Army’s PROMISE program — Anne’s House — and with The Dreamcatcher Foundation, both of which help child trafficking survivors reclaim their lives (see main story). Proceeds from the show benefit both organizations.

Shadow Town follows the lives of four young girls trafficked in Chicago: white, black, Latino and an Asian immigrant. Bonnett’s script lets their pimp, performed by Rashawn Thompson, lecture on his 10 steps to become master of the game. In addition, different celebrities each night will portray parents of a sex trafficked girl, a suburbanite isolated from her family and then seduced through an on-line chat room.

The celebrity lineup ranges from television and documentary producers Bill Kurtis and Donna LaPietra, to legendary anchor Joel Daly, NBC5 anchor Marion Brooks, ABC7 News’s Theresa Gutierrez, WTTW and WVON’s Sylvia Ewing to the Chicago Tribune’s Rick Kogan and Eric Zorn, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis and U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Chicago). Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez and U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall, who is writing a handbook on sex trafficking for attorneys, will also perform.

Unknown-6Award-winning Chicago actor Gary Houston will be the opening night parent, and says the play is the epitome of staging and real-life substance.

“When theater moves us emotionally because it makes us identify with characters on the stage, the audience profits when it later reflects upon why,” Houston said. “When theater pleases us aesthetically or impresses us with the exquisite taste of its execution, we gain an appreciation of its refinements to our nature. But when it does those things and also teaches us realities of the world we live in, it then has risen to its highest calling. And that is the kind of theater of which I always want to be a part.”

The 90-minute play opens with a “diva” singing Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman,” and is followed by Q&A with sex trafficking experts and a reception, so Oppenheimer went to the jazz community, along with blues, R&B, and cabaret. She said she found enthusiastic volunteers including: Dee Alexander, Maggie Brown, Yoko Noge, Lucy Smith, Spider Saloff; Molly Callinan, who performs in the Lt. Dan Band; Laura Walls, who was in “Crowns” at the Goodman; and Lynne Jordan, singer and bandleader of The Shivers. Among the accompanists, Greg Spero won a Chicago Music Award for best jazz entertainer and Robert Irving III was musical director for Miles Davis.

“The tragedy of sex trafficking is widespread but what hurts most is the ignorance of most people that it is not just some dark horror that happens in foreign countries – this terror is occurring in our own country, in our own city right under our noses,” Jordan said. “I had to get involved with ‘Shadow Town’ to educate as many citizens as possible about the continuing exploitation of women right here at home.”
Oppenheimer said she was surprised at how many women told her of sexual harassment, domestic violence, or even child trafficking. A girl in one school disappeared for two weeks while being “groomed” by a pimp. Her father sat in a police station and wouldn’t leave until they found her. “It happens much more in poorer areas even though it is everywhere. And people are shocked that it is everywhere.”

The goal of the play is to build awareness of the 16,000 to 25,000 Chicago girls sex trafficked annually.

Unknown-4Oppenheimer added that she hopes not only lawyers, but teachers and health professionals who deal with children will see the play so that they will recognize beatings, cuts and other signs of this modern day slavery.

“It’s a step that people can take when they say, ‘what can I do?’ You can learn about it. Filling the theater is important since we have all these people giving the gift of their talents.”

Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at The Den Theater, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave. An after-show discussion and reception follow each 90-minute performance. Tickets are $35 at www.HerStoryTheater.org or www.brownpapertickets.com.

By Suzanne Hanney
StreetWise Editor-In-Chief

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