The theater long ago was laid waste by the gods of big entertainment. Now, when we think of acting, we think Hollywood, celebrities, an HBO series. When we think of the stage, it’s Broadway musicals, or if “serious” theater, it’s usually the work of famous dead playwrights being produced for the umpteenth time for high-priced tickets that put you in the upper seats.
Kerri Koczen and Danielle Roos had another idea. Both women had graduated from their colleges a few years earlier as theater majors. They met through mutual friends involved with Southwestern, a Nashville-based company that recruits undergraduates for door-to-door book sales as a summer job.
They had a dream of doing real theater, the dark transformation of human bodies into the fancies of a live audience’s imagination. Real theater: small black spaces with gel lighting that blots out all but the first row of an audience you can feel holding its breath, fully absorbed. The magic of the human voice; the smile and frown of the old Greek masks on our human condition.
But they wanted to use the power of the theater not for mere entertainment. They wanted to do good. Danielle had already created Yellow Rose Productions and produced one show. When Kerri joined her about six months ago in Knoxville, they decided to move in the direction of addressing issues of social justice. Knoxville seemed like a good place to start, without much competition. It needed them.
“Princess Cut” was their first production together. It had one showing, a riveting experience for a full house of more than 200 people. It played last Friday, May 30, in The Square Room, a venue behind a curtained glass wall at the back of Cafe4, a cool restaurant on Market Square in downtown Knoxville. Kerri and Danielle had apparently done good preliminary work contacting church groups and agencies that deal with the particular social issue that “Princess Cut” tackles: sex trafficking.
You might call it prostitution, or in updated terms, sex work. But what Kerri and Danielle uncovered was that sex work could be actual slavery and trafficking as much as what takes those terms in news stories from Africa and Southeast Asia. Through a fellow writer, they found a woman in her 20s who had been recruited into this subculture at age 5 by a teenage cousin. Her parents both worked, so they never suspected that the cousin was a link to a man, “The Head,” who so terrified the little girl that she lived a double life, at home and in the sex house, until she was 14 – old enough for “the street.”
The two dramaturgists decided to transform this singular story of “Sarah” into art, believing that one real story would spark an interest in the broader issue. Hours of interviews, some recorded and transposed, were turned into a script. The play had seven other actors besides Kerri, who played Sarah; Danielle directed. Reading the script, one actor told me, made her cry. I saw audience members wiping tears in the dark. Kerri, transmuted in the way of live theater into her character, seemed to move from innocent confusion to terror to deadened emptiness and finally, to a glistening brim of tears. How do you end such a grim play, after you’ve used the other actors as a kind of Greek chorus of sadness and terror? “I’m lucky,” says Sarah at the end, recognizing that unlike some others still captive, she has escaped to tell her story.
But that wasn’t the end. After a 15-minute intermission, to help us come back to ourselves from that abyss, three chairs were set up on stage for a panel of experts on sex trafficking in Tennessee: a man and a female “mental health specialist” from Second Life, a Chattanooga agency serving those recovering from prostitution, and a female FBI victim-witness specialist. The discussion proceeded with questions from the audience.
Kerri found out later something I had suspected: Yes, “Sarah” was in the audience, watching her story acted out in public.
The idea of live theater engaging the public on an issue of social justice is familiar to me. In 1971, the Academy Theater in Atlanta received a federal grant to create a play about the tensions and misunderstandings among black and white students who were being forced by court order into newly desegregated high schools in Georgia. The Academy Theater’s director, a brooding Jewish iconoclast named Frank Wittow, had grown impatient with theater as an entertaining social adornment. If theater in Atlanta didn’t address contemporary reality and stir audiences to action, he would say, it deserved its slow death. He recruited a black theater troupe from the Atlanta University community to work with his company to create, through research and improvisation, a play to take to high schools in places like Savannah, Dublin and Rome, Ga.
I was lucky to join the Georgia Tour Play project just as it was getting started, as its writer-in-residence. I had come back to my Florida college from a semester of independent study in London as a sophomore, and felt too restless to return to the classroom. So I dropped out – not the last time I would drop in or out of college. As “writer,” my job was not to write a script but to record the process. This was, in a way, my first journalism job. But the project itself was also a lot like journalism, in the best sense.
To me, “Princess Cut” is the soul of journalism in the same way. Kerri and Danielle looked out and found an issue, found sources, interviewed one in depth, protected her identity, and told her story artfully to an attentive audience. That’s literary journalism. It doesn’t seem to generate enough revenue for newspapers and magazines these days. And it isn’t generating any immediate revenue for Kerri and Danielle. I’d like to see them take this play, with a localized panel discussion, to other cities around the South. But that would require some grant money from the government (like the Georgia Tour Play), a foundation, churches, or enlightened investors.
Sitting next to me at the play was the chairman and CEO of Southwestern, Henry Bedford, who had come from Nashville on his Harley-Davidson. The 160-year-old company, Southwestern, does not just send college kids around the country to sell education books door-to-door. It also tries to teach entrepreneurial values and business discipline through these demanding summer jobs – which the kids do entirely as independent contractors without a salary. Henry Bedford is a quiet, modest-seeming man who likes to invest in promising enterprises that many former Southwestern sales people launch.
He became an underwriter of Yellow Rose Productions. Like most start-ups in the arts these days, it’s not a promising investment, financially. But in the way of good journalism, it’s a promising investment in the civil sphere. So Henry Bedford is now telling people that this play was the best investment he’s ever made.