What an honor to have CHILDREN of the CITY partner with The Historic Cocoa Village Playhouse for their production of “Miss Saigon.” During the show, books and shirts were sold, and thousands were made aware of human trafficking in America. The following was written in honor of that partnership, and to be used as an aid when viewing the show through the lens of human trafficking.
“MISS SAIGON” – ARTS in ACTION
A HUMAN TRAFFICKING AWARENESS TOOL
By Tiffany Pastor, Author of CHILDREN of the CITY
In 1989, Drury Lane, London heard the first echoes of harmonies that would have legendary effect on the theatre community and thousands of audience members. Masterfully composed by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boubil, MISS SAIGON portrays an exceptionally accurate view of the emotion and trauma experienced through war. While the writers, most assuredly would not have had an education on modern day slavery, the elements of this production give unique insight into the facets of this global issue.
As we look at the characters, set at the close of the Vietnam war, and song choice, we will find fullness in the message of awareness through artistic presentation.
ACT I // 1975 & 1978 // SAIGON
The opening of Act I presents a likely scenario for exploitation. With the terror of war on a community, many become high-risk targets. The Engineer plucks an innocent and terrified girl, Kim, out of one nightmarish situation and forces her into another. She is 17 years old, a virgin without family, and desperate. Throughout the entire opening, it is obvious that she is there against her will. Even though she doesn’t run, her brokenness renders her captive and thus submissive to her trafficker.
“Dreamland” is a reality for many women around the world. They might even be characterized as a typical prostitute, though the line between the ‘oldest business in history’ and human trafficking is a blurry one. Young girls don’t wake up and say “I want to sell my body to a stranger today.” It is never her dream job, never her ambition. It is likely a pit that she landed in after many seasons of abuse and hardship. She may wear a mask of false confidence, but the façade only covers a lifetime of pain that has resulted in the conclusion of prostitution.
>> 30 million people are enslaved worldwide. Half are children under the age of 18.
>> 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders.
As the bar girls dress for their night at “Dreamland”, The Engineer pushes Gigi down to the floor. Violence, force, mental battering, threats, and other fear tactics are most often the chains that bind a girl trapped in slavery. She could be standing in line next to you at the store, and you wouldn’t know a victim was in your midst. Her mental prison has locked her up.
“THE HEAT IS ON IN SAIGON” presents a jovial perspective of a massively destructive environment. The price tag of a woman is determined by her sex appeal. Men allow their carnal desires to drive the demand of sex slavery. It is perceived as the natural way honorable men should act, though this show does reveal the emotional pain experienced. The character Chris expresses the emptiness found when engaging in prostitution, and his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder throughout the show emanates the impact of war and sexual relationship ties. While in many ways, the bar scene reveals much truth, it also perpetuates the expectation that “men will be men” and apparently random sex with strangers is an accepted part of every man’s story. In the study of human trafficking, these G.I.’s are called “JOHNS,” not men. The camaraderie of the johns onstage actually mirrors the peer pressure in reality. It is often that men would encourage the use of prostitution, and in many circles, a group might all engage with the same woman and then compare the experience together. It is ironic that Chris’ best friend and army buddy is named John.
“THE MOVIE IN MY MIND” washes over the heart of the audience as the truth of sex slavery is revealed. When Gigi is “won” by the draw of a ticket, she immediately asks for help, but is thrown to the floor and threatened in return. The song she sings introduces her coping mechanism for the horror of her life. Kim sings along as though joining the story of these women for the first time. Her line “and when he hurts me I just close my eyes and see the movie in my mind.” It does not say “if he hurts me,” but “when.” For millions of people around the world, the movie in their mind, or the notion of hope, is a bitter tease they dare not engage in.
After sleeping with Kim, Chris belts the contemplative “WHY GOD?” ballad while processing the emotions and realities of this war-torn bed of sex slavery. In many ways, Chris almost becomes the compass of morality for the show because he is willing to acknowledge the depth of the issues.
After the swell of breathtaking love songs between the powerful duo of Chris and Kim, it almost seems too good to be true, and mainly because it is. What almost seemed like a “Pretty Woman” a.k.a “rescue the prostitute” story, quickly turns sour as the couple is forced to part because of the ending of war.
Kim is left in a dirty squalor. Three years later, her cries echo the theme song of possibly every victim trapped in slavery. “I STILL BELIEVE” is not simply a lovelorn lyric. It displays the last fibers of hope in a girl or boy caught in perverse oppression. The confusion portrayed by Ellen makes her quite relatable to the audience. Many people are left with more questions and little direction when they are arm’s length from human trafficking. If only we could hear the heart songs of those enslaved each day. We might come to the rescue without hesitation.
The Engineer serves as a storyteller, and comic relief, which is disturbingly different from a layman’s perception of a trafficker, though actually quite accurate. “IF YOU WANNA DIE IN BED” explains the nature of self-preservation in the mind of a trafficker. There is no real moral struggle. For the trafficker, exploitation is just business and cash in his pocket. The engineer sings “I got ‘em paying more for just another whore.” The dollar is his god, and he wants to be American, as though the love of money and American culture are synonymous.
The first act closes with Kim’s song to her “little snip of a little man,” “I’D GIVE MY LIFE FOR YOU.” This song marks every decision she will make for the rest of the show. She no longer lives merely for herself, and that determination is a strength, which must rise up among all people in order to end human slavery. The chorus sings as the lights dim. The doom of their words rattles a common threat that most victims hear from their traffickers. “No place, no home, no life, no hope, no chance, no change.” The good thing is… that’s just the end of Act I. It’s not the finale. There are still more days for us to make a difference.
ACT II // 1978 // ATLANTA & SAIGON
It’s touching that John, who once was a ‘john’, rises up as a freedom fighter. He leads a non-profit advocating for the “BUI- DOI,” orphans of the war with military fathers. “They are the living reminder of all the good we failed to do,” but John does not choose to ignore them. Their faces are ingrained in his heart. These little ones represent the “CHILDREN OF THE CITY” found not only in the pages of a novel, but the corners of America as well.
>> It is estimated that 300,000 prostituted children live on the streets in the U.S.
>> Each day, 2300 children go missing in America, and half are expected to end in the forced sex trade.
>> The average age of a girl entering forced prostitution is 11-12 years old.
John sings the personal conviction that “we know deep in our hearts, they are all our children, too.” It is that very epiphany which will change our world. The victims are not a “them,” but one of “us,” and we would stop at nothing to protect one of us.
“THE NIGHTMARE:” Thuy, Kim’s formerly betrothed cousin, adds to the dimension of mental torture she endures. While it is not her trafficker giving these nightmares, in reality, many victims suffer from similar torturous thoughts that paralyze them from ever trying to escape.
“NOW THAT I’VE SEEN HER,” sung by Ellen, is a pinnacle piece for the banner of awareness. After meeting Kim, a victim who is still servicing men in Asia, Ellen’s whole perspective shifts, and she can’t return to life as usual.
“THE CONFRONTATION” between Chris, John, and Ellen wrestles over how to respond to injustice. Chris and Ellen choose to give financial support, but still maintain their easy American life. This is a first step, but John remains steadfastly concerned for Tam, the Bui-Doi in question.
The Engineer has used all options possible. He wants to get out of the country, and swim in the glory of “THE AMERICAN DREAM.” He lied on the foreign paperwork, posing as uncle to little Tam. His lust for America is sung through shallow, fleshly desires, but begins with the tale of his childhood. He was raised bringing “red-face monsieurs” to his single mother who prostituted herself to survive. From a young age, he was taught to view women as objects, and men as paying customers. Such is the disfunctional childhood and horror that many involved in human trafficking have experienced. Everyone has a story that shapes him or her. His plan: “to the Johns there, I’ll sell blondes there, they can charge on a card.” As long as the American Dream symbolizes excessive cash flow no matter the cost, then our country will fall deeper in slavery.
>> The average sex trafficker makes $250,000 a year on each girl he owns.
>> An global estimate of $34 billion is made off of slavery each year.
The Engineer spins a dazzling delight over the image of sex slavery. He almost appears trustworthy, as he helps Kim and Tam. He is resourceful, entrepreneurial. In the late 1980’s, the skilled writers of MISS SAIGON could not have known how succinctly they depicted a trafficker. Traffickers are relational manipulators who can talk their way out of any situation and win over girls and johns. Even law enforcement doing investigation must be especially shrewd because they can easily been swindled by traffickers. All traffickers are not the scary, dark “mafia-types.” In fact, many traffickers are women, who build unhealthy relationships with susceptible people. Others are handsome young adults who woo young girls with the bait of romance.
At the curtain bow, The Engineer walks out last with a standing ovation, and such is the situation of society. Most traffickers are not afraid of prosecution. They can hire a sleazy lawyer. Most traffickers are not afraid of the judicial sentences; many loopholes lie in our system. And most traffickers are banking on the fact that we are unaware, selfish, and fearful.
“Silence was their greatest ally.” – Page One, #COTCbook
The curtain has not fallen on human trafficking. The FINALE of “MISS SAIGON” does not predict the end of our story. There IS still HOPE as long as compassion lives in the hearts of people around our world. Might we be a generation who says, “The Trafficker will not take the last bow.”
Every girl, every child matters. Our finances, our prayers, our activism, and collaboration all matter. Even the voices raised in “MISS SAIGON” allow the arts to stand for justice. The victories of today are worth the sacrifices of yesterday. The dreams of tomorrow are waiting for our action right now.
BRAVO and Thanks to all involved in the 2014 production of “MISS SAIGON” at the Historic Cocoa Village Playhouse! Thousands of audience members were made aware that modern slavery exists today because of the volunteers, cast, production crew, and artistic direction of this show. Thank you, Staci, for pioneering the heart of justice and community effort through the arts.