By Donalevan Maines
Photos by Rod Todd
What if they threw a professional sports event without hookers and johns? It wouldn’t be the Super Bowl, that’s for sure, say the producers of The Johns, a play that sets the ugly stench of human trafficking in an upscale Houston neighborhood, with performances beginning in January—Human Trafficking Prevention Month—and ending on the eve of Super Bowl LI at NRG Stadium.
The Johns will be presented 12 times from January 19 to February 4 by Mildred’s Umbrella Theatre Company, in cooperation with United Against Human Trafficking and the National Council of Jewish Women, Greater Houston Section.
The latter two groups enlisted Mildred’s Umbrella to perform The Johns in connection with Super Bowl events, which human trafficking experts warn will exacerbate a problem that’s already prevalent here.
A recent study shows that 20 percent of all U.S. human trafficking takes place in Texas, says the play’s director, Jennifer Decker. “Any city on a coast spurs a lot of prostitution traffic. The Super Bowl makes it worse.”
“The Johns is a play about men who buy girls for sex, and what it costs,” says its author, Mary Bonnett of Chicago. By that, she counts the costs in human terms that might hit close to home.
“Some people have the saddest lives,” says the character of Grace, an affluent wife and mother who’s oblivious to the fact that both her husband, Chase, and son, CJ, frequent young prostitutes.
“Dad bought me a whore for my 16th birthday,” says CJ, who’s now in college. “Dad thought that was normal.”
“The Johns is an unflinching drama that explores our values raising boys to men, instant sexual gratification and its impact on women, the family, and those purchased,” says Decker.
Bonnett tells OutSmart that she based her script on hundreds of interviews with people involved in sex trafficking in the Chicago area. “By partnering with a couple of organizations, it really opened doors for me to interview undercover detectives, FBI, medical people, therapists, and pimps,” says Bonnett. “I also met some very young girls, including 12-year-olds who were too vulnerable to be interviewed, but just to be in their presence sent a powerful message to me. They looked like any other child.”
Baby Girl, the underage prostitute in the Houston production of The Johns, is played by Shelby Blocker. Decker says, “She’s American,” at Bonnett’s request, whereas Decker’s instinct was to portray the character as foreign, to underline the worldwide expanse of human trafficking. Bonnett insisted on making Baby Girl a wholesome All-American runaway whose parents had searched for her with “missing child” reports, Amber alerts, milk cartons, ribboned trees and light-pole pictures. Now tainted, and barely 15, Baby Girl cries, “I’m dead to my family.”
For the Mildred’s Umbrella production, the author changed the play’s setting to a Houston suburb—say, The Woodlands—to drive home how sex trafficking isn’t always someone else’s problem. “We hope to shed light on an issue that many Houstonians are not even aware is a problem,” says Decker.
“With these 12 public performances, we want to raise awareness that human trafficking is a violation of basic human rights and robs victims of their freedom,” adds Timeka Walker, executive director of United Against Human Trafficking, which works with 35 organizations on direct outreach, education, and advocacy through its Houston Rescue & Restore Coalition.
In addition, says UAHT community relations advocate Jessica Kim, “We train the Montrose Grace Place staff on human trafficking for social service providers. We also have worked with the Montrose Center. They are great and specifically work with the LGBTQ community. They do fantastic work.”
Another co-producer, the National Council of Jewish Women, Greater Houston Section, works to protect the rights and well-being of women, children, and families against harassment, violence, and abuse. “We felt that [The Johns] was extremely relevant for Houston audiences, and it works well with the city’s push on human-trafficking awareness,” says Bobbi Cohen, NCJW Texas state policy advocacy co-chair.
The Johns is the second play in a series of four that Bonnett has written as the producing artistic director for Chicago’s Her Story Theater, whose “mission through theater and the written word is to shine bright lights in dark places on women and children in need of social justice and community support.”
The series began with Shadow Town, about the supply side of sex trafficking, told from the point of view of pimps. It was followed by The Johns, then Mongers, about men online who buy sex-trafficked girls, and Money Make’m Smile, which is targeted to high school and college audiences.
Bonnett says she contemplates writing future plays about gay hustlers, abuse of the elderly, and addiction to pornography.
Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.