Few works of theater have the adrenaline-fueled urgency of “Roadkill.” But it’s not the familiar rush of exhilaration; it’s the primal clamor for survival that pulsates so fervently in this hopeless crypt. During this brusque, profoundly upsetting performance, the heartbeat quickens to prepare for a gutsy sprint away from your captors. Directed and conceived by Cora Bissett with a text by Stef Smith, “Roadkill” is truly that invasive. Sex trafficking, the subject of this British import, is typically resigned to the police blotter, in one ear and out the other. Knowing of the world’s emotional detachment to a rampant international crime with victims so forlornly voiceless, this team has dragged us screaming into an immersive space to tell their story, that of a young life destroyed by child prostitution. Late in this sickening tale, I found myself saying, “Oh, my God. Oh, my God.” in a hushed tone on repeat.
The bus is humid with anticipation and terror, for me anyway. We’ve boarded the relatively small charter vehicle at Navy Pier and are driving westward on Grand Avenue without any knowledge of our eventual destination. I engage in idle chitchat with those nearby, but can’t stop glancing out the window. In theater, typically the physical destination is predetermined. It’s your seat. And if you’re a regular subscriber, you probably know that seat like the cool side of your pillow. But even other run-amok immersive ventures like “Sleep No More” have an easily searchable street address. In “Roadkill,” an Olivier Award-winning work presented by Chicago Shakespeare Theater, though, we’re placed in the same uncertain mindset of Adeola (Mercy Ojelade), a young girl from Nigeria who, unbeknownst to her, is about to enter the invisible, destructive, demonic world of sex trafficking.
The fourteen-year-old girl and her “auntie” board the bus while we are stopped in traffic, and it catches the passengers off-guard. The little girl chats with those on the bus, asking where they’re from, if they go to church, what their occupation is. Her white-dressed peppiness for a moment makes you forget the tragicness of her eventuality. The unexpected outdoor visuals might help some with that too. As we drive along, I notice restaurants I’d like to pay a visit and hair stylists I could never afford. We’re zooming through a more-than-decent neighborhood, which illustrates “Roadkill”’s most resonant point: Sex slavery doesn’t look like what you think it looks like. Outwardly it’s neither glamorous nor particularly seedy. The reason the barbaric institution is able to continually thrive is its normalcy. The clients could be your next-cubicle neighbor and the shrouded apartment could be on your block.
We’re told of three other girls living here, but we only ever meet Martha (Adura Onashile), the woman Adeola dubbed “auntie.” Weeks earlier, Martha told Adeola’s parents in Nigeria that she was going to take their daughter to America where she’d have a fair grasp at success and an education. Of course, her parents’ gullibility and desperation caused them to agree. Once inside the apartment, after Adeola has her first horrific sexual encounter with the smarmy operator of the house (John Kazek, later finding sympathy as an unfathomably ignorant client), Martha renames her Mary, attempting to rob Adeola of her true identity. Mary’s journey through hell is accelerated by video projections—on the walls, on the ceiling, on her stomach—and colored lights appear in the average-though-conspicuous bedroom without warning. While an usher is present to guide the audience from room to room, I found the experience took over, leading me to listen to the actors’ commandments instead. After a violent party gone awry, Onashile shouted “Run!” And, if memory serves me right, like a shaken-up field mouse, I made a dash for it and bumped into Sun-Times critic Hedy Weiss, for which I apologize. My instincts told me the danger was real.
Theater that blends catharsis and information is an unwieldy challenge and relies on the honesty of performers to prevent the works from becoming a cable channel’s evening docudrama. Ojelade’s Mary transforms before our very eyes from giggling schoolgirl to hardened captive. There’s always a flickering flame of innocence burning beneath her deadening eyes, but she must work tirelessly to keep the flame lit. She does so with Olympian strength, and the play’s culmination, which dares be optimistic, still leaves a hanging thread of doubt and fear. Because while Mary is endlessly better off outside the morally unscrupulous rust, what lies beyond the gates of hell isn’t heaven. It’s the unforgiving streets of Chicago. (Johnny Oleksinski)
At Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 East Grand, (312)595-5600. Through May 26.