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Play puts audiences face to face with horrors of sex trafficking

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When: Through May 26

Where: Meet at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand on Navy Pier

Tickets: Sold out

Info: (312) 595-5600;

Run time: 2 hours

Updated: June 14, 2013 6:22AM

If you’ve recently been stuck in traffic behind a CTA bus, you might have noticed one of several public service ads created by the End Demand Illinois campaign. The posters, designed to raise awareness about human trafficking and prostitution, bear a variety of messages, including one that reads: “Sex trafficking? Not in the second city.”

Appended to this mock inquiry is a correction: “The Ugly Truth: According to the FBI, traffickers are exploiting people here every day.”

Rachel Durchslag, executive director of the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exloitation, supplies a more all-encompassing definition of human trafficking: “It is when force, fraud and/or coercion are used in order to financially benefit from someone else. It is a form of slave trade, and it is a global problem.”

For Cora Bissett, an audacious 38-year-old Scottish director and theatrical activist, the issue of trafficking has generated something far more than posters and government programs.

Her production of “Roadkill,” an award-winning, site-specific event that already has been seen in Edinburgh, London and Paris, and is receiving its American debut here in cooperation with the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, puts audiences of just 20 people each onto a bus and takes them to an apartment at an unknown location. Once there, it brings them face-to-face with the horrors to which a young Nigerian girl who has been trafficked to Britain is subjected.

Conceived and directed by Bissett, “Roadkill” grew out of her own encounter with just such a trafficked girl.

“I’d been involved with women’s stories and human rights activities for a while,” said Bissett, a petite dynamo whose rapidfire speech comes with a heavy burr. “And through a charity I worked with, I offered up space in my home in Glasgow to people who needed emergency housing. At one point I hosted a Nigerian girl who I only gradually came to learn had spent four years being trafficked in different places in the U.K. Trafficking is not something that has been part of the Scottish self-image, but in recent years our country has changed a great deal, and it began to be on my radar.

“ ‘Roadkill’ is an amalgamation of many women’s stories. I was keen on showing a girl, like the one I’d met, who managed to save herself. She found the inherent strength to get herself out of hell, because very often the police do not have the resources to deal with all this.”

And here’s the dirty little secret about trafficking sites: “They are not necessarily brothels located in problematic areas of a city. Often they are on nice, innocuous streets that will attract patrons. And though sometimes the girls who are trafficked are taken against their will, more often they are tricked into the whole thing over a period of months. Initially they might be treated well by a boyfriend type who takes them to another country with all kinds of promises, and then, once there, their passports are taken from them, leaving them incredibly vulnerable. It’s a complex series of manipulations.”

In “Roadkill” (with text by Stef Smith), the very young girl who is trafficked comes from a loving family in Nigeria. She is “taken” by a woman who has charmed her family with promises of great opportunities abroad.

“Often this sort of woman has been trafficked herself, and she is working for a pimp,” said Bissett. “Once under her control, and far from home, the girl is told that if she runs away her family will be tortured or even killed. So the imprisonment is often more psychological than physical.”

And, as Bissett explains, sexual exploitation is only one form of trafficking.

“There is a great deal of forced domestic slavery, where the girls work long hours and never get paid. Or they work in restaurants and bars and fake massage establishments for no pay. In Scotland, some girls, often from Southeast Asia, are sent to rural areas and put to work on cannabis farms.”

Human trafficking, which often is interlinked with the narcotics trade, has escalated greatly in recent decades as many parts of the world have undergone huge social, political and economic turmoil.

“People come from Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, Central America, Mexico,” said Bissett. “And I’ve learned that Chicago has a huge problem, which is not surprising, especially since you have such a giant airport.”

So how did Bissett become involved in theater in the first place?

“I was a rock ’n’ roll singer in my teens, but by 20 things had gone bust and I’d been shafted by my record company,” she said. “So I picked myself up and headed to drama college, ‘a sensible career.’ I worked as an actress for more than a decade, and then began directing. In 2009, in order to launch ‘Roadkill,’ I applied for funding to start my own company, and I thought we’d have just five nights of performances to raise awareness about trafficking. But then the whole thing took off beyond my wildest dreams.”

This past winter, “Glasgow Girls,” Bissett’s musical about a group of teenage girls who fight to gain asylum for one of their friends, had a run at London’s Theatre Royal Stratford East. And she is now at work on “Whatever Gets You Through the Night.”

“It’s a tapestry involving 10 bands and 10 writers who have devised songs about the loneliness and exhilaration of life in Scotland between midnight and 4 a.m. And yes, I wrote one of the songs.”

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