When Kenyetta Lethridge wrote the play Innocent Flesh, I doubt she even realized the strong and gripping impact it would have on her audience. After playing in Los Angeles for several months, it is now set to be featured in New York City off Broadway, as well. With a bare set and minimal visuals to distract the viewers from this poignant story, four strong and brilliant actresses mesmerized us into the lives and horrors of human trafficking.
The story starts with four women who are character playing as small girls, dancing and laughing during recess, and then morphs into the chilling reality of their lives later, as young teenagers forced into sexual slave labor. We get a glimpse of young innocence that is manipulated into a world of prostitution, child molestation, and sexual battery. The actresses managed to play dual roles throughout the performance that were not only flawless but so well done that you actually forgot you were watching fiction.
When the play ended and the lights came up, I sat unable to speak, silent. I was mesmerized by the performances and horrified by the reality that this world was based on very real stories that happen everyday in our own backyards.
Kenyetta not only wrote the play but directed it, as well. She managed to weave the story between the perfect group of characters. Each girl represented an emotional preciousness that everyone could relate to. They were innocent, strong, vulnerable, and damaged, but all looking for the same very real need: "I just want someone to love me," was a line said by each character at the beginning and at the closing of the narrative.
The vulnerable and naïve character who thought prostitution wasn't "so bad" was played by the very brilliant Daphne Gabriel. Angelina Prendergas, who also choreographed the dance sequences, flawlessly played the strong, rough-and-tough young teen who ran away from an abusive father that murdered her family. When asked how she manages to morph into this abused young woman and still stay sane off the stage, she said, "Other girls are living through this right now; I can do it for an hour."
Jameelah Nuriddin gave a flawless performance that left me speechless when she portrayed a 9-year-old girl forced into prostitution by her drug-addicted mother. "Where does the blame land? ... It's up to us to care for our youth today, because they are our future," Jameelah said after the play.
Of course, the most riveting and disturbing scene was flawlessly played by the brilliant Clara Gabrielle when her character was gang raped, and then her middle-class parents turned her away as a result of their shame. Her vulnerability on stage was naked and bare, and she managed to draw us in with an authenticity that created depth and a glimpse into the world of abuse and exploitation. "Clara, if you could say one thing to a young girl struggling in the world of human trafficking, what would it be?" I asked. "Hang on. Don't let people take away faith in yourself. Hang on, hang on."
Shame is for the silent and scared. Kennyetta, Clara, Angelina, Jameelah, and Daphne, along with producers Diana C. Zollicoffer and Michael Mann, remind us that pain is meant to be transformed through action rather than hidden away from with inaction. Art is not just meant to entertain us; it is meant to teach us and give us something to think about. It is meant to inspire change and give us a glimpse into unthinkable worlds so that we take initiative and ignite conversation and action.
Innocent Flesh opens March 15 at the Actor's Temple Theater in New York City.