‘Broken Dolls’ dramatizes human trafficking narratives

The Vassar Underground collaborated with the New York City-based Mirage Theater Company to present the developing production “Broken Dolls” on April 26 and 27. The performance was supplemented by a panel discussion that concerned the modern, global systems of human trafficking. Courtesy of Abby Tarwater

Weaving between reality and memories of coping and longing, playwright Melisa Tien and director June Prager’s developing production “Broken Dolls” made its debut in the Aula this weekend in the form of a staged reading.

Set in a shelter for human trafficking survivors in the United States, the play was developed in collaboration with the New York City-based Mirage Theatre Company and the Vassar Underground. The Underground is a student-based coalition that aims to spread awareness about human trafficking, or those that have “fallen through the cracks of society,” as expressed by founder Grace Roebuck ’20.

So, what does trafficking in the post-modern, 21st century world look like? To provide insight about human trafficking in the United States and abroad, co-founders of the Maya Gold Foundation Elise Gold and Matthew Swerdloff hosted a panel before the play. Swerdloff said the foundation has visited Nepal four times now. He spoke about how the statuses of girls and women in Nepal are much lower than those of boys and men, and how girls are seen as burdens. Sometimes, parents will sell their girls to traffickers, and due to the deeply entrenched religious and cultural customs tied to gender inequality, this is extremely difficult to combat.

Yet, there are ways to take action against trafficking. Safe Homes of Orange County Executive Director Kellyann Kostyal-Larrier explained that trafficking is a man-made disaster, as the root cause is the traffickers themselves. She then asserted that trafficking is not something out of our control as long as we learn to identify the signs that lead to coercion.

A main takeaway from the panel was that technology has created a growing supply and demand for trafficking. “Social media is increasingly used to lure, engage, entrench and entrap victims,” said Koystal-Larrier. Traffickers often come across as harmless on the internet, especially when they communicate through Tinder or Facebook messages. She also explained how the dark web is a common site for trafficking, as it is easily accessible and untraceable. Thus, the digitalization of human trafficking has become increasingly psychological and even harder to criminalize.

After the informative panel came time for an emotional production: a dramatized narrative of four survivors of sex and labor trafficking. In contrast to the formality of the panel, the production tapped more into the feelings and memories of survivors. Each character stumbled onto the stage in their own respective stupor, symbolizing the years they spent in a psychological and physical cage.

Though Prager and Tien devised the script with basis on literature written about or authored by survivors themselves, “Broken Dolls” does not depict any one homogeneous victim account. Rather, the play shows the multifaceted experiences inherent to trafficking, as not every human story is the same. “It’s all kind of sewn together,” said Broken Dolls Initiative Leader Lindsay Irwin ’21.

In one scene, “Good girl, smart girl, so pretty” is a line repeated to portray how victims are subjugated so they will sexually perform. The play also grapples with the question, “Are you a slave if you never want to leave?” Oftentimes, trafficked victims have little money and connections for proper escape, which is why they have little option but to remain trapped. Yet, dreaming can help victims escape within themselves, at least for a little while until reality hits and another client has arrived.

For example, one of the victims in the play has always aspired to become a dancer. This character, who was sex trafficked in Russia, took her sweater off to dance in an attempt at bodily liberation. However, she then accidentally revealed to the audience her branding tattoo “Property of 4097.” This exposition triggered embarrassment and retreat that then prompted her to wallow in shame, dismissing a dream suspended in a better life.

Above, members of the Mirage Theatre Company perform a staged reading of
the harrowing drama “Broken Dolls” in the Aula. The play expresses the trauma
that human trafficking victims cope with through words, music and movement. Courtesy of Abby Tarwater

False promises of upward mobility and otherwise better lives are often mechanisms traffickers use to entrap vulnerable women. One victim’s story began with a stranger’s promise of a good job and a flight out of India. When she arrived to board the plane, the wrong name was written on her boarding pass and a man approached the information desk saying, “I know this girl.” But she didn’t know him. He told her, “You will get your passport when we arrive.” This entrapment was the beginning of years spent in sharing a room and a single bed with other women trafficked for sex.

Music was integral to the production, as the victims used it to recall good times left behind. Actor Yanzi Ding sang a haunting rendition of the aboriginal Taiwanese song, “Standing on the High Peak.” The quiet that followed encouraged the audience to empathize with the victim’s pain.

Roebuck said the play has been in the works since Prager, the director, approached her two years ago when she was a first-year. Roebuck gushed, “I’m excited for the dialogue I think the play can foster, and I’m excited to see it travel and evolve over time.” For Roebuck, this is just the beginning of “Broken Dolls.”

Roebuck spoke more about why the Underground’s message is vital: “I think we need to teach people that these issues are more interconnected than we think. Though trafficking is largely absent from conversations about inequality, it has become a present part of everyone’s lives, even if most are not aware of it.” She continued, “I think a lot of people think the 13th Amendment ended slavery and that’s that. But the persistence of trafficking proves otherwise, and that is the message the Underground hopes to impress upon the community by hosting events like ‘Broken Dolls.’”

Irwin similarly articulated her goal for the production: “What I want to do is create art that inspires people to make change. Not just as a piece for entertainment, but one that makes an impact.”

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