Arts & Culture » Arts Feature

52 Letters Is More than Theater

Real-life stories of women oppressed by sex traffickers is a passionate call for viewers to engage.

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Oh, woe is us, to paraphrase Shakespeare, that Regina Evans' searing, one-act play was not as it first appeared at Sunday's opening performance: Two women telling fictional stories about young girls. Instead, a compelling one-woman performance by the Oakland artist and activist and the mesmerizing Negro spirituals sung by Rashida Chase combined, in a half-dozen real life narratives, to sweep aside any doubt about the harsh realities of young girls and women targeted by sex traffickers and johns. So convincing and sincere were Evans' poetic, streamlined delivery and Chase's soulful mourning that the characters in 52 Letters sprang to life, invaded, and seemed powerful enough to crack the cement floor and walls of a back room at The FLAX building in Oakland.

Surely, the stories broke hearts.

Here, as in 52 Letters' debut at the 2013 San Francisco Fringe Festival, which was honored with a "Best of" award, Evans' playwriting used beautiful words and elegant phrases to tell horrible stories. There was "the evil that drew a map" to a 10-year-old's home and "snatched her from everything joyous she was meant to be." Eventually, her "money-making purity and beauty seared," the child not "pimped" but slave raped — as we are encouraged by Evans to view her plight — she ceased to be anything but "a coffin" filled with fear and "blistered shame."

Another story told of a 15-year-old girl so lonely and lost her nose "refused to smell the true stench" of a "Romeo pimp's" false love. Evans as narrator declared that child prostitution is "rape for sale," akin to slavery, with family displacement, people sold for profit, plantation masters "updated" to pimps and rapists. The teen in response to trauma, we learn, turned off her tears and became like "spun frost." Years later, reaching for hope, she had the courage to protest: "I am somebody's baby. I am somebody's child."

The stage was dressed sparsely with a white lace and tulle covered chair and hat stand that resembled a bride-never-to-be; a black, raised platform box sprinkled with pennies; and two rag dolls lying prone on the floor — both brown-skin-toned; one torn and damaged, the other sweetly costumed and combed. Evans, bearing dark black hand prints and smudges painted on her arms, hands, legs, and feet, appeared in ragged black cloth layers, a patchwork of small red squares traveling like a bloody stab wound from head to tail down her back. Gestural choreography during songs sung by Chase provided respite; a moment to inhale and heal before the onslaught of another story about somebody's baby, somebody's child.

Happily-ever-after recovery stories are rare and not what people should "wrap their hearts around," Evans cautioned in the play's final moments. We are called out of passivity, ignorance or blindness to become "inflamed," to "ignite a fire to act" and to be "watchful keepers of others." As the lyrics of an earlier song suggest, we have but to "wade in the water" to change the trajectory of young girls held captive in a land of evil.

For attendees expecting resolution — explanation of the title's significance, the exact meaning of three red squares held by clothespins to a black fabric portal in the backdrop, the "solution" or best action to take upon departure — 52 Letters provided no easy-to-read maps, clues, or answers. In that, it was theater that leaves a person unsettled, disrupted, exposed, which is to say, its purpose achieved.

Program notes include suggestions for involvement, anti-trafficking organizations to support, and available resources. Talkbacks after most performances have expert local anti-trafficking advocates and activists speak on the topic and answer audience questions. Sunday's panel presented Evans and Chase with Sharan Dhanoa (South Bay Coalition to End Human Trafficking) and Dr. Ayodele Nzinga (Founder, Black Arts Movement Business District Community Development Corporation; Creative Director, Lower Bottom Playaz). Evans, asked what happens to the thousands of exploited girls who survive to become adults, said some are helped out of the trap and find jobs, families, homes. But even when their external trappings change, she remains focused on the minds and hearts of the women. She believes their trauma is forever in need of healing. Which is why 52 Letters is more than theater to watch; it is a call to engage, to see somebody's child and to care, take helpful action — now.

Through Aug. 25, $15-45, times vary, Ubuntu Theater Project, the FLAX Building, 1501 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Oakland, 510-646-1126, UbuntuTheaterProject.com

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