Saturday, February 25, 2023

Silent Trade – bearing powerful witness to silenced voices of trafficking and abuse (Kabosh in Lyric Theatre until Sunday 26 February followed by Irish tour)

Furious rain was pouring out of the heavens and running down the street in torrents just outside the building’s door. Inside, the converted clothes shop was now home to a range of young women and children who had made their way to the shores of Italy and claimed asylum. A local church in the town of Scicli (in the south of Sicily) had bought the unused retail unit which had a set of apartments in its top storeys. Six years ago in April 2017, I led a team from across the UK and Ireland who visited some of the projects run by the Mediterranean Hope charity.

Esther walked down the stairs from the teenagers’ common room on the first floor. We knew not to ask people to tell their stories: retraumatising people is not an act of charity. But Esther (not her real name) volunteered and in nonchalant manner that I’ll never forget, this remarkable seventeen-year-old girl reduced a group of men mostly in their early twenties to tears as she somewhat offhandedly recounted her journey from Nigeria, through Niger, into Libya and across to Italy. At the time, I wrote:

I was prepared to hear about a hazardous sea crossing. That’s that part of the passage that is most frequently recounted in broadcast and print media. But what caught me off guard was the scale of the serial trafficking and abuse suffered by this orphaned seventeen year old.

The journey to the coast of Libya was a relay race, with Esther the human baton being passed – sold – from one person to another. She showed a scar on her shoulder, the result of a beating.

She spoke of three weeks spent with little food. She was told to pay back twice the amount that she had been bought for in order to be set free by one captor. Attempts were made to extort money from family back home, not possible in her case.

Clothes bought and hair styled, she realised what was ahead. “I can’t do this kind of job.” Her master showed her into a room, she was given condoms and tissues and assured “Don’t worry, the other girls will help you”. Initially reluctant, six months later, she cleared her ‘debt’ …

It’s not dissimilar to Rosemary Jenkinson’s new play Silent Trade gets under the skin of the human trafficking trade and the associated scourge domestic servitude, abuse that often happens right under our eyes in Northern Ireland. The dramatic action is staged in a long rectangular shape with corrugated walls, the size of a shipping container, set designer Tracey Lindsay’s visual aide-mémoire of how many people cross Europe, or die trying.

Precious (played by Lizzy Akinbami) is 26, working as a cleaner/nanny/skivvy. She’s from Nigeria and she’s trapped in Belfast. Trapped at the beck and call of posh-sounding Erin (Louise Parker) who has many needs but little impetus to look after herself when slave labour is on hand. Trapped without a passport and needing to pay off a promised visa. Trapped in her own company, forbidden from giving neighbours or mums at the school gate any notion of her true background. Trapped without any control over her future because when her domestic job abruptly ends, she’s faced with humiliation and even greater exploitation, working in an anonymous brothel run by roguish Rab (James Doran). Trapped by religion that values keeping promises and a culture back home that cannot wipe out her feeling of shame. Trapped by interpreters who might remember what they hear and pass it on. Trapped by the state authorities who might step in to ‘help’.

Jenkinson’s trademark sharp wit places funny lines in the mouths of evil characters. The audience chuckle the first few times, before the laughing stops. Doran’s Rab has a funny exterior that loosely disguises his deadly nature. There’s a swift realisation that everything Erin says has a cruel and demeaning barb. Parker shows remarkable poise and stamina as she exposes the haughtiness of the Belfast woman, seeking sympathy for her own middle class angst, while blackmailing and coercively controlling Precious. Parker also takes on the role of Suzanne, another ‘worker’ in the brothel who takes Precious under her wing and shows her the ropes. The character transition takes place in the time it takes to put her hair into a ponytail. Suzanne’s a more subtle figure, one who is chummy, but also needs to survive her own incarceration and internal trafficking.

Kabosh’s intention is to educate as much as to entertain. Precious’ tale is based on gathered stories from Nigerian women living in Belfast. And the take-home learning isn’t confined to Precious’ detention at the hand of racketeer. Later we see how Precious becomes trapped by the criminal justice system – ably brought to life by Seamus O’Hara – a pawn in their process to bring traffickers to justice at considerable cost to those who have been trafficked. Throughout, Akinbami portrays a woman who is without power, who looks down rather than up, who has to internalise her fear and what’s left of her hope.

There’s a deftness to the writing that demonstrates how many of the ‘bad guys’ are also trapped, without ever demeaning or diminishing the abuse suffered by Precious. Paula McFetridge directs boldly, never pulling back from introducing further discomfort. As the play hits its final scenes, Precious demonstrates a pleasing, plucky boldness emerges, and we are rewarded with signs that Precious has developed a resilience that will well be key to her self-saving.

Sitting in the stalls watching Silent Trade took my mind back to Scicli and Esther. She was pregnant when she spoke to us, with just 8 weeks left. Her grandmother in Nigeria knew that she was safe in Europe. But Esther hadn’t told her about her pregnancy, nor had she mentioned about being raped. This June, a little girl or boy may be turning six. I can hope that Esther’s abuse and trafficking was over. We saw lots of evidence of how Mediterranean Hope were caring for and equipping the women in their projects. But Silent Trade is a reminder that many people aren’t as lucky.

Silent Trade’s run finishes at the Lyric Theatre on Sunday 26 February and then tours through Antrim (Tuesday 28), Armagh (Thursday 2 March), Dundalk (Friday 3) and Dungannon (Saturday 4). Like other plays that give voice to people whose voice is suppressed or ignored, Silent Trade is a powerful introduction to a type of abuse that is prevalent in Northern Ireland. Abuse that should not be ignored. If enough people lack curiosity or deliberately turn a blind eye to what seems unusual, human trafficking and domestic servitude will continue.

Photo credit: Johnny Frazer

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