Riding the Turnpike
By Cindy Martinez and Debra Walsh, Through May 18
HartBeat Ensemble, Carriage House Theater, 360 Farmington Ave., Hartford, (860) 548-9144, hartbeatensemble.org
Not far from wherever you read this, the sex trade is thriving. It's a $32 billion business in the US, according to some researchers — and well over 90 percent of it is domestic, not international. Locally, the Berlin Turnpike is infamous, with some 1200 motel rooms available near several legal strip clubs. In the winter of 2011, the media picked up this story, in part because of a Hartford court case at the center of local author Raymond Bechard's book The Berlin Turnpike: A True Story of Human Trafficking in America.
Since then, the story has fallen off the front pages — though ads for phone sex and strip clubs can still be found in many publications, including this one, and the web contains countless sites where escort services and thinly veiled prostitution can be found. But Hartford's professional "theater for a change" group HartBeat Ensemble did not lose track of the issue. Instead, they've been working for two years to research, write, and produce an original play about the sex trade in our backyard.
We spoke with one of the co-authors (Cindy Martinez) and the director (Steven Raider-Ginsburg) of Riding the Turnpike as it went into final technical rehearsals before opening on April 26. The play is set in a legal strip club with connections to an illegal escort service. There's an obligatory dance pole bathed in varied projections and lighting; a complicated sound score; and shadow play that makes creative use of rolling set units featuring window blinds to hide and reveal the women at the center of the story. The show is performed without intermission in 90 minutes.
Four of the six actors are women. The characters they portray function as the collective protagonist of the piece. Each of the four leads is involved in prostitution for different reasons and took a different route into the scene. They are composite characters based on interviews with some 20 informants, mostly local women working the turnpike. The play offers an array of perspectives as to why and how women enter the sex trade: some are trafficked, some do so because they can't find any other way to survive economically, and some are sex workers by choice.
Playwright and actor Cindy Martinez conducted some of these interviews and pursued other kinds of rigorous research, as well. She notes, "For someone to be trafficked, their sense of self worth has to be subject to manipulation. There is a kind of 'hollow gaze' in such people — male or female — that pimps find easy to notice. And pimps tend to call themselves 'managers.'" By contrast, voluntary sex workers see themselves as entrepreneurs running a business that doesn't involve feelings. It's an economic transaction: they are simply providing a service.
HartBeat deliberately chose to hire an all-female design team for Riding the Turnpike: sets, projections, sound, lights, costumes, and stage management are all run by women. Director Ginsburg says, "it's been important to all of us to raise the conversation about sex work locally without repeating the genre of pimp- or john-centered stories that prevails in popular culture treatments of the sex trade. In Riding the Turnpike we are working to understand the problem by getting some of the untold stories out into the light, so that we can be part of the conversation toward next steps and solutions."
As to what those might be, Riding the Turnpike takes no position. But Ginsburg says he's become convinced that, "When a woman is involved in this business, even for a brief amount of time, it's an emotionally, physically, and spiritually scarring experience. My hope is that we can reduce the numbers of people who go through that with this play."
This show takes place on selected nights in the 77-seat Carriage House Theater, which used to belong to Hartford Children's Theater, before the demise of that long-standing institution this past winter. It's HartBeat's first mainstage production in the space. Local wit and culture maven Jacques Lamarre points out that Riding the Turnpike provides "an exorcism of tone: this is no longer a children's theater!" In fact, the show is recommended only for those over 17; people 16 or under who want to get in need to be accompanied by their parent.