Money Make’M Smile is a new play that will open in theaters this weekend that focuses on domestic sex trafficking in Chicago. It is the journey of Butterfly Jackson and Robert Whitmore whose lives cross paths in the world of sex trafficking, and end tragically. The play was written and produced by Mary Bonnett, a retired teacher and playwright. Bonnett created Her Story Theater, whose mission is to shine bright lights in dark places on women and children in need of social justice and community support. A few facts on domestic trafficking: Chicago is the third largest hub. The average entry is 12 years old and the average life span is 7 years. It is modern day slavery. Chicago News spoke with the passionate educator and artist who has helped champion the issue of sex trafficking which she hopes will educate today’s youth about the perils of this exploitative and dangerous illegal industry.
Chicago News: Can you tell us about your background?
Mary Bonnett: I have BFAs in Theater Arts, English Literature and MA Creative Writing. Before working for CPS, I did professional theater. My last job before coming to Chicago was as a production stage manager for the National Theater of the Deaf in New York City. Once here, I was on the ground floor in developing the theater program for Franklin Fine Arts Center, a CPS school for the arts and integration. Our theater students went on to win local, state and national awards, were featured in films and television. One won an Emmy. It was nationally recognized as a role model for the Kennedy Center. After retirement from CPS, I created Her Story Theater.
CN: Tell us more about Her Story Theater.
MB: All plays are based on interviews with Chicagoans. They are steeped in truth though fictionalized for the stage. We have three goals: 1. Raise awareness on a social issue. 2. Get people pro-active. 3. Financially support a partner. In 2011, the issue was homeless women. We partnered with Deborah’s Place. Myself and Helen Ramirez O’Dell interviewed over 30 homeless women. Out of those interviews, the play Gloss Over evolved, a series of monologues representing homeless women on our Chicago streets – from domestic violence to alcohol/drugs, runaways, ex-cons, migrants with children and the mentally ill. From ticket sales, we raised $8,000 for Deborah’s Place. In 2012, Her Story Theater focused on domestic sex trafficking and have been working on it ever since. We are on our 4th production which opens February 11, 2017.
CN: What did you learn about domestic sex trafficking?
MB: Sex trafficking is in every state in America. It plagues big cities to rural settings. Our target was Chicago, the third-largest trafficking hub in the nation. To prepare in writing the play, I interviewed Chicago FBI agents, health care workers, social workers, undercover detectives, vice squad, therapists, DCFS, numerous prostitutes, service organizations along with pimps, former trafficked victims and buyers. Our first production was Shadow Town, a play told from the pimp’s point of view exploring the exploited lives of trafficked victims from four Chicagoland neighborhoods. The journey revealed the girls’ early childhoods, how they all intersected at the crossroads of a trafficker, their induction into ‘the life’ and its impact. Shadow Town was recognized as one of the ‘Top Ten Best Shows of The Year’ by some Chicago critics. We partnered with Anne’s House and the Dreamcatcher Foundation, raising $10,000 for each charity plus the generous contributions from our audience members.
CN: What did you learn about the traffickers?
MB: To clarify, trafficking is where the victim is forced or coerced to work against their will. They have no rights and in essence are held captive, enslaved. It is a form of modern-day slavery. In that sense, a pimp can be a trafficker, so the two names are often synonymous. Much has changed for the better since I started these interviews in 2012. At that time a pimp who was trafficking a girl was not recognized as such. The laws were on the trafficker’s side. $100 misdemeanor for pimping. The felony charges and arrests were enforced on the victims who took the money. However, the money ended up in the pimp’s hands. In the dawn of 2017, much has changed. It is illegal to traffick. A 50-year sentence is not uncommon. One pimp received life, another 150 years for the cruelty inflicted upon his victims. If you are under the age of 18 and someone is selling your body for profit, by law, you are automatically considered a sex-trafficked victim. Trafficking is an extremely violent world where victims are severely abused both psychologically and physically. It is a game of control all in an effort to make money off another human’s sufferings. Like any slave, rules are to be followed, when broken punishment follows. Victims are profiled, systematically recruited, groomed, seasoned and turned out. The average entry age is between 12-13 years old. The average life span once in ‘the life’ is 7 years. Runaways are picked up within 48 hours by a trafficker. Money and identity are confiscated, the victim is at the mercy of their trafficker. Victims are often branded or tattooed with a symbol or name of the trafficker, often accompanied by a phone number. Within the last 6 years gangs have become involved with this crime.
CN:-How big is human trafficking here?
MB: Human Trafficking is a $32 billion illegal business. It is the third-largest illegal business in the world. It is very close to tying with weapons which is second. Sex trafficking is around $9 billion of that $32 billion. A majority of victims sent to sex trafficking are women and children. Individuals, organized crime and gangs are all involved with trafficking. The internet and the cell phone have exploded the criminal business giving it access to anyone and everyone. A person may be ordered and delivered in 30 minutes like a pizza. 70% of the recruitment of victims is done online. Recruitment is also done in shopping malls, schools, group homes, playgrounds and youth activities. Anywhere youth are and adults are not paying attention or in the know, traffickers are lurking.
CN: What can you tell us about the clients, the Johns who purchase prostitutes?
MB: 97% of the buyers are men. If these men stopped buying tomorrow, trafficking would end. It is an issue of supply and demand. The demand is obviously high. I wrote The Johns, a play about a man who bought young girls and the impact on his family, community and children in response to this aspect of the issue. Interviews were conducted anonymously by phone. I also interviewed over a hundred prostitutes either in a group or individually with questions focused on the impact of the buyer on the victim. The males interviewed ranged from criminals to trust fund babies, North Shore wealthy to rural poor. All had their reasons but one common theme among the buyers was their lack of responsibility in recognizing they were a major component of the problem, most saw it as the responsibility of the seller and/or victim. There are current laws making these buyers accountable. However, they are often not enforced. Once the public recognizes the purchasing of our youth for sexual purposes is inhumane then perhaps accountability will be pursued by law enforcement and this crime against humanity will be contained. Currently, we have the largest number of people enslaved in the history of the world. Of those enslaved, 84% are women and children sold for sex. On any given day in Chicago, 16,000 children are being sexually exploited. These numbers should outrage our citizens and move them to action to get legislation signed, laws enforced and purchasers arrested.
CN: Tell us about Money Make’M Smile.
MB: Our third play, Money Make’M Smile, is written for 7th-12th graders, which is the target age group of the traffickers. It was written for prevention and awareness for educators and students. It was originally presented last spring, 2016 at Victory Gardens Theater. 1600 students attended our two-week pilot run. This year Money Make’M Smile opens on February 14, 2017, Valentine’s Day, at the Greenhouse Theater for a four-week run until March 10, 2017. 10 a.m. matinees run Tuesday through Saturday. We are partnering with the Chicago Teachers Union and have developed a teacher-created curriculum along with study guide and Saturday workshops for educators. There are 6 CTU professional credits added if all components are achieved. Go to HerStoryTheater.org for further information and forms, or email email@example.com for questions. It is free to Chicago Public School teachers and students, busing is free on a first-come first-served basis. We currently have available seating on February 15, 21, 25 and March 9th. Greenhouse Theater address is 2257 N. Lincoln Ave, Chicago, IL. You must make reservations for schools and individuals. For individual tickets go to: brownpapertickets.com/event/2604340
CN: What do you have planned in the future?
MB: Mongers is the fourth play I will have written for the Chicago Sex Trafficking Cycle. It will be performed next year and focus on the online community of men who rate, evaluate and trade numbers of purchased girls and women. Their online fantasy versus their offline reality. It will be the last play in the cycle. We also have customized plays for judges, lawyers, law enforcement and the medical profession. These plays are written for those on the frontline, like teachers, who can make a difference in saving the lives of countless young victims. If anyone believes that an individual is being trafficked, held against their will and forced to sell themselves for labor or sex, please contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888. The call is anonymous.