John Kazek, Mercy Ojelade, and Adura Onashile in <I>Roadkill</I>.
John Kazek, Mercy Ojelade, and Adura Onashile in Roadkill.
(© Pavel Antonov)

There are more slaves today than at any other point in history. This startling fact is revealed after 90 minutes of grueling, intense theater that brings us into the life of one such modern-day slave. Scottish director Cora Bissett and playwright Stef Smith first presented Roadkill at the 2010 Edinburgh Fringe where it swept the festival awards. An unforgettable immersive drama, not for the faint of heart, it now makes its American premiere at St. Ann's Warehouse.

Based on real events, Roadkill is the story of Mary (Mercy Ojelade) a precocious 14-year-old Nigerian girl who has been brought to live in New York City by her "Auntie" Martha (Adura Onashile). The audience rides on a bus with the two women from St. Ann's Warehouse in DUMBO to an unassuming row house in Clinton Hill. On the ride, Mary chats with the audience about her aspirations to go to school and makes lots of money. She is positively thrilled by the prospect of her new life in the States. "I'm going to meet Obama and I'm going to be American just like you," she tells one audience member from Washington, D.C.

Martha is not Mary's real aunt, however. She is a human trafficker and sex worker who traveled to Nigeria to find new girls to work in her employer's brothel. Mary's family traded her to Martha for some kerosene and the promise of future remittance checks from America. Once she is within the confines of the house in Clinton Hill, Mary is disavowed of her ambition and introduced to her new life as a sex worker when sleazy Eastern European pimp Djall (John Kazek) rapes her on the first night.

Most of the play takes place in Mary's bedroom. It is a horror house, exacerbated by Kim Beveridge's overwhelming projections that draw from online forums in which johns rate sex workers as if they are restaurants or hotels. They show the parade of men that come into Mary's room, use her, and then leave. The little bottles of water that the theater management thoughtfully leave on each seat underline our bourgeois comfort in the face of such rampant exploitation. I couldn't drink mine.

Bissett has succeeded in making the whole event feel terrifyingly real. Ojelade (who is actually 30) looks like she is 14. She delivers an emotionally raw performance from which you cannot escape. At one point, Mary dances around a filthy room adorned only by a mattress, condom wrappers, and empty beer cans. Wearing a suggestive red dress and a "too old for her" wig, Ojelade moved toward me, pelvis gyrating. As she leaned in, she whispered in my ear, "Take me away." How can we remain spectators in the midst of all this? I did, and it was devastating.

Onashile deftly navigates Martha's dual roles as enforcer of Djall's rule and victim of his tyranny. She is just another cog in the machine and you leave the show feeling genuinely sorry for her, despite everything she has done to Mary.

With the exception of an NYPD officer (Michael Bradley Cohen) who appears near the play's end, Kazek plays all of the men, switching on a dime from the cruel pimp Djall to a kind-hearted but clueless Scottish john. His mastery of dialects and physical demeanor had me questioning whether they were actually two different actors. As Djall swept past me on the staircase, I felt a tinge of fear and hoped he wouldn't notice me.

That ever present fear is the heart of this production. Stranded in a strange land, her passport confiscated, Mary doesn't seem to have any option but to stay in the brothel. She doesn't know she has rights. She doesn't know she is eligible for a U Visa. And even if she did, would she want to put her faith in America's painfully slow and broken immigration bureaucracy? As she cries into a grey Minnie Mouse sweatshirt, you can feel the desperation as her American dream turns into a nightmare.

Roadkill is a must-see event that demands action. The eerie silence on the bus as the audience poured over literature about how to help end the slave trade speaks volumes. This is what theater can and should be in the 21st century.