Mercy Ojelade as Mary in Cora Bissett's "Roadkill," presented… (Tim Morozzo )
The inspiration for "Roadkill" came to its Scottish creator-director Cora Bissett when a young girl who had escaped her captors literally landed on Bissett's doorstep.
"I volunteered with a charity in Glasgow, which seeks to help destitute women, many of whom are asylum seekers," she said. "You can give space in your home for short periods of time, whilst they mount their legal appeal. Often, I didn't know what had happened to the women, but I trusted that they just desperately needed help. This young girl told me her story."
In the play, presented by Chicago Shakespeare Theater in its American premiere, audiences board a bus along with an actress portraying a 13-year-old girl traveling from Africa with an "auntie" who's promised her English lessons and an education. The group disembarks at an actual Chicago apartment, where they witness at close quarters the destruction of the girl's dreams as the auntie forces her into captivity and the sex trade.
Is the play designed to make you uncomfortable? Absolutely. Here are five reasons to put your reservations aside and immerse yourself in the show.
1. The awards
At its 2010 Edinburgh Festival Fringe world premiere, "Roadkill" won every theater category award including the Amnesty International Award for Freedom of Expression; it's the only production in Festival Fringe history to do so. The 2012 London production won a "best play" Olivier Award—the British equivalent of Broadway's Tony Awards.
2. The performances
Mercy Ojelade plays the lead role of Mary. "We watch her transform from wide-eyed schoolgirl to experienced prostitute in the space of an hour and we believe it completely," said Bissett. "Adura Onashile plays the older madam, Martha, and is phenomenal. She appears very intimidating, and yet has this great ability to let us see just how fragile she is beneath." John Kazek plays a number of roles, said Bissett, "from the Albanian pimp to the friendly punter to the Nigerian father. John is a much-loved Scottish actor whom I saw perform in 'Wuthering Heights' when I was still at school. I knew then at 13 [that] I wanted to work with him when I grew up."
3. The site-specific setting
The location-scouting team for the Chicago Shakespeare Theater searched for a three-bedroom apartment to best fit the play's staging. "We needed the feel to be intimate—as the point is to feel as though you are in the world of our protagonist—but still large enough to fit an audience of twenty each night," said Chicago Shakespeare Theater project manager Kendall Karg. "Most importantly though, we wanted to make sure this felt like anyone could live there. That is Bissett's intent, to remind us that this is happening in our own backyards."
4. The multimedia elements supporting the story
"We convey the sheer density of men visiting Mary with projections [created by Kim Beveridge] of many men, over her body, hovering above her on the ceiling," said Bissett. The show also uses a cartoon sequence by artist Marta Mackova shown on a TV. "It conveys, through childlike animation, the rape of Mary in a room next door. You can hear Mary through the walls, but you are watching it unfold in animation in front of you. The idea was always to show it from inside Mary's head, as a child would process the event. It is strangely chilling and shocking."
5. The call to action
You know a show is all-consuming when audience members forget they're watching a play. "We had a woman in London who got so carried away with the story she forgot it was theater and at one point untied Mary from the bondage straps holding her to a bed, threw her over her shoulder and tried to run out the flat to save her!" said Bissett. "We give information to everyone at the end of the piece, letting them know how they can help. We were delighted when one of the organizations we listed told us they were inundated with calls and emails from audience members asking how to support the campaign against trafficking."
Go: 6:45 p.m. Saturday through May 26. A Navy Pier meeting location is provided upon ticket purchase.
Tickets: $45; 312-595-5600; chicagoshakes.com