Sunday, April 1, 2012

In 'Innocent Flesh,' Youth Stolen/Lives Torn Asunder

Jameelah Nuriddin, Angelina Prendergast, director and playwright Kenyetta Lethridge, Clara Gabrielle and Daphne Gabriel after the New York premiere of "Innocent Flesh." Photo by Edward Callaghan/Alchimia Public Relations & Marketing.

PRETTY woman, walking down the street/Pretty woman, the kind I like to meet/Pretty woman, Roy Orbison croons as Julia Roberts’ "Pretty Woman" character, Vivian Ward, shops to her heart’s delight along Rodeo Drive.

Vivian is shopping for suitable clothes to wear to the places she will be squired by billionaire businessman Edward Lewis (Richard Gere). Edward has hired her as his companion for a week; her temporary home is the presidential suite of the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Vivian is a street prostitute.

When prostitution is the main subject of an entertainment – TV, film, stage – far more often than not the world’s oldest profession is glamorized as it is in “Pretty Woman.” And “Mayflower Madame," "Secret Diary of a Call Girl," "The Client List" (both the movie and forthcoming series);” likewise for “Butterfield 8” until the bitter, tragic end.

Not so for “Innocent Flesh,” in an unlimited run off-Broadway at Actors Temple Theatre after a successful debut in Los Angeles. Writer/director Kenyetta Lethridge’s poignant, disturbing one-act play relies on poetry, dance, song and a Greek chorus format to breathe life into the stories of four girls – girls, not women; children! – who explain rather casually how they came to be in the life. According to statistics, 13 is the average age that girls in the United States enter the profession. This is the case, too, for most of the characters in “Innocent Flesh,” which is based on true stories.

A poster for Kenyetta Lethridge's "Innocent Flesh."

Josh Iacovelli’s set is a very minimalist affair, which is just as well. The audience’s attention is riveted on the actresses. It opens on them dancing around Play-Doh-like seats. One by one they disclose what they want to be when they grow up. Such a normal, innocent activity with such childlike props, symbolic of innocence not quite lost. Or a reminder that children will be children, life's hard knocks notwithstanding. One wants to be a doctor; another a model. Their dreams are so regular compared with their actual lives.

The actresses are uniformly good and gave strong opening night performances. Though in their 20s, they are utterly believable as teenagers who have been plying their trade for a few years.

The most touching of the stories is Lisa’s (Jameelah Nuriddin). Her mother was also a prostitute. In her drug-addled mind she sold her daughter's favors to any number of her suitors. It is depressing to think that prostitution is the family business for some. Lupita’s (Angelina Prendergast) story is heartbreaking, too. Her father, a former war-weary veteran, kills himself as well as Lupita's mother and siblings. She is left alone in the world until one day a pimp rolls up sporting a wide smile, fancy clothes, a bankroll and making empty promises. A heart can't help but go out to anyone who has suffered thus. But what makes this business truly heartbreaking is that these experiences are recounted with not one whit of anger or self-pity. Look into the eyes of the storyteller, though, and a hollowness is visible.

KL, also an award-winning actress, wisely and subtly makes the statement that not all girl-prostitutes are poor, urban and from single-parent homes – a common misconception. Lupita’s father and mother were married; Danna (Clara Gabrielle) is the daughter of a housewife and doctor who live in the suburbs. She once tried to leave the life but was forced back because she was an embarrassment to her family. She had nowhere else to go; she knew no other life.

Once you’re in the life it is not easy to leave, the audience learns through the girls' stories. In the real world, “Pretty Woman’s” Vivian would have as much of a chance at winning the more than half billion dollar New York Mega Millions lottery as she would hooking up on the scale she does with Edward.

Not only do these girls have nowhere to go, they often don’t know how to do anything other than turn tricks. Had they skills, they are not living in supportive environments. In fact, just about everyone and everything in their immediate surroundings tell them in no uncertain terms that they are nobody, worthless, unloved and unwanted.

The cast of "Innocent Flesh," clockwise from top left, Clara Gabrielle, understudy Crystal Boyd, Jameelah Nuriddin, Angelina Prendergast and Daphne Gabriel. Photo courtesy of "Innocent Flesh."

Of course, pimps also use coercion in the form of drugs and beatings or both to keep the girls in check. Further, bureaucratic hurdles exist such as proof of citizenship documents, work record, work references and a home address; a judgmental world and so on.

Unfortunately, most girls are not aware of places to get help such as Rachel Lloyd’s Gems Girls ( RL – who is prominently featured in the Showtime documentary “Very Young Girls” (see the trailer above), itself a spiritual sister of “Innocent Flesh" – is a former girl-prostitute who helps many get out of the life. Alas, she can’t save all who pass through her door; some leave and return to their pimps.

“Innocent Flesh” ends as it begins, with each girl disclosing what she wants to be when she grows up. There is no happy ending on the order of Vivian Ward’s. The audience is left to fill in the blanks. Will Candace (Daphne Gabriel) become a model? Maybe. First, she has to break the emotional hold her pimp has on her. She’s young and has big dreams, so it’s possible.

It won’t be easy, though.

Visit to learn more about “Innocent Flesh.”

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