The Johns Tackles Sex Slavery with Unfortunate Cliche

Shelby Blocker and Miranda Herbert in The Johns
Photo by Pin Lim
Shelby Blocker and Miranda Herbert in The Johns
The setup:

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary tells us that sex trafficking is the “illegal business of recruiting, harboring, transporting, obtaining, or providing a person and especially a minor for the purpose of sex.” The International Labour Organization estimates that there are 20.9 million victims of human trafficking globally and that it is a $150 billion industry worldwide.

For many of us, we see the statistics, acknowledge what a tragedy it is, assume this is something that happens “over there” to “other countries or cities” and then we get on with our day.

But what if those numbers cut a little closer to home? According to the Texas Department of Public Safety, “sex trafficking is the fastest growing business of organized crime, and the third-largest criminal enterprise in the world.” That agency should know, because Texas boasts the ignoble title of having the highest number of trafficking victims in the nation.

Between our major interstate highways, busy bus stations, airports, shipping channels through the Gulf of Mexico and our shared border with Mexico, Texas has become a hub for international human trafficking and North America’s No. 1 supply site for young children used in sex and labor trafficking.

Got your attention now?

It certainly got the attention of Mary Bonnett, who agreed to change the setting of her 2014 play, The Johns, from Chicago to The Woodlands for its present run at Mildred’s Umbrella. The show, produced in collaboration with the National Council of Jewish Women, Greater Houston Section, and United Against Human Trafficking, went right to the source for its inspiration. Interviews with hundreds of people involved in sex trafficking in the Chicagoland area make up the meat of Bonnett’s play, which is meant to show us all that sex trafficking is by no means an “over there” problem but instead something that can affect and infect us right here in our tidy affluent Western lives.

The execution:

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. It’s as clichéd a maxim as you can get. And normally a terribly lazy and unimaginative way for a critic to describe a play that means well but fails miserably. But since Bonnett herself relies almost solely on musty characters and situations in her play, it seemed an apt way to begin the discussion.

The first cliché is the family at the heart of the story. A wealthy suburban Houston clan that’s dysfunctional in all the ways we expect them to be. Chase, the dad (Seán Patrick Judge), is a cold and absent workaholic who treats his children like stereotypes and his wife as if he wishes she weren’t there. Grace (Sara Gaston) is a mother who spends her days shopping at expensive stores, ignoring the fact that her husband is cheating on her and thinking that simply saying "I love you" to her children means she’s an involved parent. Son CJ (Bobby Haworth), the screw-up, has been kicked out of Harvard for his party-animal ways and poor grades, and good-girl daughter Jules (Haley Hussey), the almost full-fledged doctor, is engaged to…you guessed it…a sensitive poet named Jacob (Benjamin McLaughlin), whom her father detests.

But this doesn’t even come close to the tsunami of triteness that wallops the play, and us, once you add the sex trafficking element to the plot. Never mind that old chestnut, “the family that plays together, stays together.” Bonnet takes the idea to a whole new platitudinous level by giving not one, not two but all three of the men in her play occasions to independently visit the same prostitute. What are the odds, right? Whoever said that Houston was a big town obviously never tried to pay a pro to get laid. But then Babygirl (Shelby Blocker) isn’t just any prostitute; she’s a doe-eyed 14-year-old girl who belongs to an unseen but nasty pimp. How she came to find herself in this situation, we really don’t know. Bonnett gives us some quickly spewed, hazy lines about a missing girl and milk carton campaigns, but that’s about all we get.

Not that the men care anyway, as each one finds himself with her for his own tediously written, one-dimensional reasons – violent fantasy sex, sex to help forget a flailing life, and sex to live up to what other men expect. And once the women find out about this poor, tragic girl? Well, they don’t care about her either, too willing are they to either forgive and forget or use the information for their own power-hungry revenge. One absolving seraph and one vengeful witch is what Bonnett gives us, and we cringe at the convention.

Or possibly we’re too busy cringing at Babygirl’s imaginary friend to care about how insultingly drawn the family narrative is. Looking like Mama Cass in her flowing caftan and head scarf, Betty (Miranda Herbert) sits onstage and watches Babygirl with her clients, sometimes talking to her, sometimes oh so earnestly lecturing us on the dismal life of a sex slave. Babygirl talks to her too. Mostly to complain about being ill with some unidentified but dire sickness. Sure, we find the guardian angel trope tired, but maybe we could accept Betty as a narrative necessity if she’d just drop the microphone and stop singing.

Yes, you read that correctly. There is singing in this play. Lots of it. And if you manage not to laugh or at least roll your eyes at these musical interludes, you are made of tougher stuff than I. How could you not unwillingly snicker when Betty stands upstage and sings Sam The Sham & The Pharaohs’ "Li'l Red Riding Hood" as an intro to Chase in a wolf costume having rough sex with a red-caped Babygirl. How could you not groan with impatience when Betty croons “My love is real, as real as can be” as a send-off after one of Chase and Grace’s fights. Bonnett herself wrote the lyrics to these mercifully short interludes that pepper the entire play, lyrics that are just as hackneyed as her story. As for the music, it’s all woe-is-me bluesy and comes to us courtesy of William vonReichbauer specifically for this production.

The verdict:

With narrative cliché this egregious, the other elements of the play seem of little importance. Yes, we notice that none of the cast are actually talking or listening to each other; instead they simply (and for the most part woodenly) say their unfortunate lines as if hoping to be done with them. Director Jennifer Decker pushes the short scenes about as if they're soggy appetizers no one ordered or wants to eat. Lights go up and go dim without any feeling being imparted from the time in between. Then there is the stuff in The Johns that is just plain wrong.

For brevity's sake, I’ll keep it to three mentions – one plot, one set and one dialogue.

Plot – In the play, Jacob has a bachelor party, yet Jules has not yet bought a dress or planned her wedding, nor have the couple bought rings yet. I ask you, in what North American city…anywhere would this be the order of things?

Set – This is a family that's willing and able to send their daughter to Paris to go ring shopping. Grace names every big design house as a possible contender for the dress. A new house, car and financial support are in the offering for the new couple. So then why does the family’s home, designed by Claire A. “Jac” Jones, look as if it was rescued from a garage sale?

Plot – You just find out that your fiancé has been arrested for participating in a heinous sexual situation. Is this the time that you are willing to sit quietly and listen to an almost eight-minute, holier-than-thou lecture from him on the anguish of growing up with the “bro-code”? Is this the time any woman wants to hear how hard it is to be a man in this world with so many conflicting expectations of him? Yeah, I didn’t think so.

In the end, the most upsetting thing about this play is not all that they got wrong. It’s just a play, after all. What is upsetting is that it dealt with subject matter that deserved so much better. And now was the time to do it justice.

January is Human Trafficking Prevention Month and in addition to the everyday sex slave issues Houston faces, we are just weeks away from the Super Bowl, a time when many feel trafficking numbers could go up. Or at least a time when more girls already enslaved in these nefarious situations will be on offer.

Mildred’s Umbrella and its partnering sponsors were right to want to present a play to shed light on the subject. Bonnett was right to want to address these issues on the stage. And yet here we are, back again where we started this review. Intentions, roads and hell. Let’s hope it’s the last time we ever need to utter "sex slavery/human trafficking" and "cliché" in the same sentence again.

The Johns runs through February 4, 2017 at Studio 101, 1824 Spring Street. For tickets visit $25-$15.