Human trafficking is usually understood as an international issue, but it also heavily affects communities locally. According to various studies, between 16,000 and 25,000 women and girls in metropolitan Chicago are trafficked annually.
Her Story Theatre's newest original production, Shadow Town, sets out to shift perceptions about the topic.
"These are real people. ... It's our story and it's in our backyard. It's a global issue but it's here and people don't believe that," said Bonnett, Shadow Town's writer and director.
The play was borne from nearly two years of research and outreach that began in January 2011. During this time, Bonnett contacted several local organizations that work with trafficking victims for information and potential interviewees. Many of them refused during the initial six months of outreach, until discussions with The Dreamcatcher Foundation and the Salvation Army's PROMISE program proved fruitful.
Even then, Bonnett said it took many more months before she was able to hear firsthand accounts.
"It took a long time for them to trust because it's a private world and they protect everything in it because they don't know who's going to exploit it," said Bonnett. "They really had to understand what we were about."
Shadow Town is based on Bonnett's interviews of several local women and girls who were involved in sex trafficking, along with social workers, undercover detectives, parents, former pimps and johns. From various threads of these firsthand accounts, Bonnett composed four representative characters: Marisol from Humboldt Park, Tatiana from the West Side, Ling Ling from China and Samantha from Naperville.
Shortly after beginning interviews, Bonnett felt compelled to immediately begin writing.
"It was so timely ... and I felt there was a demand to do it now because there's a need to get it out there. [Human trafficking] has exploded over the last seven years," said Bonnett, who is also artistic director for Her Story Theatre.
Shadow Town takes the audience through 10 lessons on "how to become master of the game," which details how trafficking victims are recruited, the abusive conditions they endure and how they are mentally and emotionally manipulated by pimps.
Rashawn Thompson portrays one such pimp in the play through his role as Prime Cut, who teaches "the game" to the audience.
Thompson, who has played famous R&B artists in musicals such as "The Marvin Gaye Story" at Black Ensemble Theatre, noted that his role as Prime Cut is a departure from most of his previous work because of his character's profane language and abusive treatment of women.
"I have to emotionally get myself prepared for it and let it go when I leave, because when you get into your characters so deep you can take it home..." he said. "It's a difficult subject but when I get on the stage, I have to let all of that go and just let myself be the person."
Thompson also noted that similar tensions extend to his interactions with female castmates, including Lindsey Scalise, who portrays Prime Cut's most loyal worker, Renee.
Scalise said that, like other fellow castmates, she learned more about human trafficking after becoming involved in the production and participating in cast discussion sessions with some of the women and girls who inspired the script.
"From all the womens' characters ... I would hope others have the same kind of awakening that I had," said Scalise. "I don't want to speak for the audience but I would assume that most people would be like me and wouldn't have been exposed to this before. I would hope they would also be enraged that this is going on and that culture celebrates it and turns it into entertainment when it's happening in their backyards."
Twenty-four rotating local celebrities and public figures will each join the 11-member cast during the run, portraying a parent of Samantha, a Naperville teenager who disappeared while in a nanny's care during her parents' overseas travel. After each show, Bonnet and Shadow Town's cast and crew participate in an open discussion, which includes a performance from a guest musician.
The play's proceeds will benefit two local organizations that provide services to female sex trafficking victims: The Dreamcatcher Foundation and Anne's House, part of The Salvation Army's PROMISE program.
Attendees who are licensed counselors or social workers can also receive three free continuing education units from the Dominican University Graduate School of Social Work.
Shadow Town premieres Thursday, Oct. 10, and runs through Thursday, Nov. 14, at The Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave., with evening performances beginning at 7:30 Thursday through Saturday and 3 p.m. matinees on Sundays.
Tickets are $35. To purchase tickets, call 800-838-3006 or visit herstorytheatre.org for more information and the schedule of celebrity performers.