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St. Albert Catholic High students travel to Atlanta for experimental theatre program

Human trafficking stories told through theatre

Parents aren’t supposed to traffic their children for sex. It’s taboo. But it happened to six-year-old Dorsy, an Atlanta resident.

The family was desperately poor and black. As a matter of survival, Dorsy’s single mother, a cold practical woman, rented out her daughter in exchange for money to feed her children.

At age 12, Dorsy decided to escape the cycle of abuse by hitchhiking across the state to find her father. Life was vastly improved. Unfortunately, through acquaintances Dorsy heard her younger siblings were going hungry and suffering.

Feeling it was her job to protect and provide for them, she returned home. Only when certain individuals taunted her and stated she would never get a good job or amount to anything, did her stubborn sense of self-preservation kick in.

“She got into college. All the constant no’s motivated her and now she’s trying to help other women get out of the cycle,” said St. Albert Catholic High drama teacher Debbie Dyer.

Debbie was instrumental in connecting eight SACHS students with The National Center for Civil and Human Rights Museum in Atlanta. At the museum the students took part in a human trafficking experimental theatre program titled The Price of Freedom.

It was at the centre that students met Dorsy.

Since human trafficking is considered modern-day slavery, the theatrical installation was designed to educate and bring awareness to this crime through a call to action.

Nearly 100 students from across Jamaica, Canada, the United Kingdom, California and Atlanta participated in the project.

The eight SACHS students – Jillian Callbeck, Athena Arlinghaus, Jose Sanchez Acuña, Shaira Baldas, Matthew Rose, Declan Kelly, Sara Bonner and Lena Mah – jumped on a red eye and flew to Atlanta for a seven-day stay from March 14 to March 19.

While every member of the octet was enthused about visiting Atlanta, they signed up for different reasons.

“I was excited about creating a theatrical piece that raises awareness on human trafficking in a different way,” said Athena.

On the other hand, Jose noted his birthplace was a large factor in his decision.

“I’m from Mexico and from a seedy part. Our town was not a safe place. Before immigrating to Canada, I was aware of human trafficking. This was a chance to help. Maybe my speaking up would be something that would lead to change.”

Matthew instead was eager to educate himself on the topic.

“Equality is one of our rights and that inspired me to learn more about justice.”

Not only interested in advancing the cause, Lena, a shy SACHS theatre tech hoped to improve her confidence level by performing onstage.

“I wanted to learn more about human trafficking. It’s not talked about and it can happen anywhere. I also decided I wanted to be involved to help me be less introverted. We only had a couple of days to make a performance and during the process you get acquainted very quickly.”

Prior to the flight, the students watched a BBC documentary on human trafficking as emotional preparation for Atlanta.

“We would stop it often and talk about our own emotions and reactions. It was quite substantial and they wrote several reflections in journals. They discovered the stereotype of human trafficking as being only in the Third World was erased,” Debbie said.

During the students’ first evening at the centre, they met Dorsy, one of four human trafficking experts who took part in a panel discussion.

“Telling her story from her perspective was eye-opening. It was a reminder of the resilience of human beings. Despite her struggles, she was a survivor,” said Debbie.

The panel also included an FBI agent who discussed how traffickers groom unsuspecting targets on social media and how the U.S. agency forms sting operations.

A third panellist was a Georgia lawmaker heavily engaged in enacting major and stricter changes to the state’s laws. As of April 1, pickup traffickers (Johns) are considered instruments in perpetuating trafficking.

“There will be a huge penalty and they will feel the reverberations. You won’t just get a slap on the wrist. Georgia’s law is moving at a brisk pace.”

The fourth panellist worked for a rescue organization that lifts children as young as five out of trafficked environments.

The following day, the 100 students were divided into four groups. Under the leadership of an international artist, they were mentored and encouraged to create a collective piece in two days.

The three most common forms of human trafficking are sex trafficking which affects mainly women and girls, forced labour through involuntary service, and human bondage to pay a debt.

At a special gala night for an invited group of 300, the five-minute theatrical installations were presented in different parts of the centre.

As part of the first group to present, Athena and Shaira concocted Insecurity From Insecurity, mounted in front of a high wall.

“The wall was a manifestation of our different insecurities that lead us to build walls, and the wall binds us to it so we don’t have freedom,” said Shaira.

The second installation, Stand Up, an effort from the Jillian-Matthew group, confronted child labour. Featured in front of an art exhibit, the ensemble work had three separate parts including a human auction.

“People were treated like they weren’t human. We have to break the cycle and stand up,” noted Jillian.

Jose and Lena’s group developed Love, a physically demanding, movement-based work that focused on a racist-sexist-homophobic monster to deliver its message. In the theatrical piece, four girls are imprisoned in a cage struggling to escape.

“Hate can cage you into a certain set of beliefs or actions that work against everyone,” noted Jose.

Lastly, Sara and Declan’s group developed Breaking Free where the audience was placed at the bottom of staircase. Once the actors climbed the staircase via ropes, they dropped pieces of rags onto the crowd.

This octet is under no illusion they will change the world tomorrow. But in some ways this experience has given them a deeper connection to the real world and heightened their social justice resolve. 

In a moment of passion, Jose said, “Here in St. Albert we live in a bubble with people who have well-manicured lawns, and when we do that we ignore human trafficking. It takes place in the United States and Canada and people don’t want to think something that ugly is close to their world. If you peek out, you see other people, and why shouldn’t other people be in the bubble?”

Debbie is decidedly proud of her students for tackling a human issue head-on.

“They are eight powerful souls. They were just fearless and coming back from Atlanta, they’ve become even more fearless.”


Anna Borowiecki

About the Author: Anna Borowiecki

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