The young girl is a chatterbox, excitedly telling her fellow passengers about her arrival from Nigeria and interspersing questions about our lives in Chicago with her hopes for her own, while the "auntie" who accompanies her sits impassively a few rows ahead.
Not long after, in a dingy Bucktown walkup, she and we discover the truth about the life she's arrived to, consigned to a forcible, indentured prostitution. Dubbed "Mary" by the house mother who recruited her from Africa, the girl is subjected to painful weeks of indoctrination suggested by projections of "escort services" websites and voiceovers of johns rating her body like Yelp reviewers.
This site-specific look at human trafficking and the sex trade, imported from Scotland's Traverse Theatre as part of Chicago Shakespeare Theater's World's Stage program, is harrowing and immersive. The staging by Cora Bissett, who conceived the piece based on a range of case studies, is impressive in its adaptive, found-space stagecraft if not wholly successful.
The audience's transition from interacting with Mary and "auntie" Martha after they board the bus we've embarked on from Navy Pier to becoming silent observers upon arrival at the apartment is somewhat jarring. And the presence of a CST t-shirted usher who steps in to guide us from room to room, while surely meant to ease what will be a difficult experience for some viewers, may break the spell for others.
Still, the anguished performances by Mercy Ojelade and Adura Onashile, who've been portraying Mary and Martha respectively since 2010, aptly humanize a very real but little-seen ongoing tragedy. When you reboard the bus for the return trip to the pier, you'll be hard-pressed to shake the images of the eager girl who joined you two hours earlier, and what she was put through in the meantime.