Gail Rosenblum
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Kendall Kent was “stunned into silence” when introduced to “Body and Sold,” a myth-busting play about the devastating impact of sex trafficking.

“This is happening in the suburbs?” said Kent, 22, who grew up in Minnetonka.

“Rich white men. People like my neighbors. People I’ve known my whole life. It’s shocking and disconcerting. It’s hard to handle because it’s close to home.”

Kent wasn’t in the audience for the play, which is being performed around the Twin Cities area by Chain Reaction Theatre Project.

She’s in the play.

Her teenage character, Karen, needs money, so she and a friend giddily and naively start dancing in bars. Their situation quickly escalates into tragedy.

Like all the characters portrayed, Karen is based on interviews with real survivors in five major cities, including Minneapolis.

Kent’s reaction was a common one among the 10 talented young actors playing various roles, including a small-town girl, a young gay man thrown out of his house, a college student whose dad has lost his job, and a smooth-talking pimp.

The fact that sex trafficking happens here “was pretty new to most of them,” said director Shelley Smith, noting that much of it has gone online.

Smith, who founded the Eden Prairie-based social justice theater company in 2011, provided her troupe with videos, literature and resources that quickly disabused them of the notion that this crime happens only in other countries to other people. Or that the girls, and boys, actually like the work. Or that all they have to do is walk away.

The average age of a victim in her first encounter is 13, according to the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, although victims are as young as 6. Boys and young men, too, are victims of sex trafficking.

Most are approached by pimps as many as three times within their first 36 to 48 hours on the street.

“They hang out where teenagers hang out,” Smith said.

While she doesn’t excuse the actions of pimps, she has gained understanding of their complex motivations.

“If you grow up in a non-well-to-do neighborhood and you’re seeing gang activity and drugs, and you’re always trying to survive, your brain never progresses to a place of building healthy relationships,” she said.

“That’s why they think of the girls as objects. I’m not excusing the guys who become pimps, but it’s kind of sad all around.”

She feels far differently about “johns,” whom she prefers to call perpetrators.

“The average perpetrator is 47,” Smith said. He’s typically white and from the suburbs. More than half make at least $75,000 a year. He’s likely married and has kids, “typically one daughter around the same age as the girl he pays,” she said.

Many in the cast found parallels between this story of invisible kids endangered at the hands of manipulative men of means and movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, whose decades of sexual harassment led to his downfall this month.

“He probably has a mentality similar to a pimp, but it’s socially acceptable,” said Justin Cervantes, 25, of Minneapolis, who plays a pimp named Billy.

“It’s the mind-set of being in power, in control — trying to influence to your advantage,” he said. “I’m pretty sure that’s what Harvey was doing — preying on someone just like a pimp does. ‘Hey, young up-and-coming actresses, I can fill that void for you.’ ”

Kayla Dvorak Feld, 30, of Bloomington, who plays initially innocent Dora, added: “It’s the idea that people are just seeing these women … as objects, not seeing them as equals, and taking advantage of that.”

The stark set features road signs to cities north, south, east and west, plus a few child-centric props that quickly take on darker meaning: a dress-up necklace, a driver’s wheel, dolls, backpacks, a wagon.

The script is performed in rapid-fire dialogue that doesn’t shy away from ugly truths nor the insidiousness of how faulty loyalties are built on the backs of the young and vulnerable.

“He told me I was very special to him. … ”

“He took me to. … ”

“He bought me. … ”

“He didn’t beat me — except when I did something wrong.”

“It’s a mental prison,” said Valencia Proctor, 26, of St. Paul. She plays Elaine, whose drug addiction lands her in prison, her daughters taken away.

“Most of the time, they aren’t getting that money, and a lot of times it isn’t even their choice,” she said of the victims, who may need four or five tries before successfully breaking free.

“They have been trained to do a thing and it’s hard to unlearn. The system isn’t set up for them. No one wants to hire you. You were in porn? No one wants to be associated with you. It’s hard to get housing: ‘You can’t stay here.’ ”

“Body and Sold” portrays a heartbreaking world of growing dependence on cruel people, emotional and physical abuse, self-blame and powerful drugs necessary to do what one is forced to do. It’s a world of progressively higher barriers that make it exceedingly difficult to walk away.

But many do walk away, with the help of good people and attentive police and organizations such as Breaking Free (breakingfree.net), which is co-sponsoring one performance in St. Paul.

Smith hopes that audiences walk away eager to take action, especially in the months leading up to the Feb. 4 Super Bowl, one of many times when sex trafficking ticks up.

“There’s a lot of media attention around the Super Bowl, but this is here all the time, and it will not go away after the Super Bowl,” Smith said. “I hope people spread the word and get involved somehow. Donate, volunteer, talk to other people, sign a petition, whatever you can do.”

Next up for Smith: A play tackling masculinity — from the demand side.

“If we get rid of the demand,” she said, “we get rid of the problem.”

‘Body and Sold’ remaining performances

The 80-minute play was written by Deborah Lake Fortson and is directed by Shelley Smith of Eden Prairie-based Chain Reaction Theatre Project (chainreactiontp.com). “Body and Sold” is an unflinching look at sex trafficking, based on interviews with survivors and pimps in five major cities, including Minneapolis.

Tickets: $15 and can be purchased at the door or at chainreactiontp.com. All performances start at 7 p.m.

Oct. 26: Eden Prairie City Center, 8080 Mitchell Road, No. 2, Eden Prairie.

Oct. 27: Trinity Presbyterian Church, 2125 Tower Dr., Woodbury.

Oct. 28: ARTS-Us (with Breaking Free), 1221 Marshall Av., St. Paul.

Nov. 2: Shepherd of the Lake Lutheran Church, 3611 N. Berens Road NW., Prior Lake.

Gail Rosenblum