“Write what you know.” Attributed to Mark Twain, this advice is adhered to by many a playwright, including a local one, William Leary. His Forsaken Angels, a joint production of Wolf Pack Theatre Company and Community Crisis Services, Inc. (Leary’s primary employer, hence the knowledge base for this story) and interestingly, the First Baptist Church of Hyattsville.
This psychological drama is very secular in nature, so don’t let its title or the church venue fool you. It has explicit language throughout and a significant amount of physical violence. This epic tale takes audiences on three separate, yet interconnected journeys through a dark underbelly of society: the world of sexual trafficking. It happens to more young people than you’d imagine: according to Leary’s notes in the program, roughly 200,000 children under the age of 18 – in the U.S. alone – are being trafficked at any given time.
The characters are composites based on interviews from CCSI clients. The three primary characters share their compelling stories which arc from prior to being sucked into this hellish existence, to a dramatic break from the cycle of violence and degradation. A fitting epilogue finishes out the evening.
Forsaken Angels, which Leary also directs in an unflinching style, is narrated by adult versions of Audrey, Samantha, and Alex. They sum up their very different trajectories with a riveting, brutal honesty. Prepare to be uncomfortable, this intense drama gets in your face and stays etched in your mind long after the curtain call.
Tayna Washington is Adult Audrey, with a matter of fact mentality about her loving, upper middle class family which didn’t save her from being abducted. Her naiveté is a near fatal mistake, put in motion by an online romance with a predator. Elizabeth A. Weiss, as the Adult Samantha, seethes with red hot anger and hostility towards her prostitute mother, Jolene, who was cut loose from her pimp when Samantha was born. Then there’s Michael Fowle’s portrayal of the conflicted and confused Alex, who at 15 came out to his parents as gay, got a brutal beating from his Dad, and whose Mom handed him $100 as he walked out the door for good. It hurts to see them get so hurt, and meet a collectively tragic end.
All three of these older, wiser perspectives bridge the scenes, filling in the gaps with sage observations about their horrific experiences at the cruel hands of very depraved villains, including the sinister “Gorilla Pimps,” Keith (Michael Fowle) and cross-dressing Queenie (Stephen Price, who in real life is the Pastor of the church venue of this play!) Rounding out the trio of the truly terrible is Joel (Jordan Lucas Clifford) who pounces on the impressionable runaway, Alex. Detesting them all comes easy.
The Young/Teen Samantha, in a stand out performance by Sarah Luckadoo, is at first rightfully cowering and fearful of her mother’s maniacal mood swings. Over time her wildly dysfunctional life hardens her, and in the later scenes Luckadoo’s Samantha finds a heroic inner strength that cannot be deterred, even by her “Romeo Pimp,” played by Sec (Chaka) Con.
Luckadoo’s earlier scenes with Joanna Matthews, as Jolene, take the concept of Worst Mother of the Century to a whole new level. Matthews is reprising the role in this second production of the play, and the physical and emotional violence she creates here left me cringing more than once. This mother/daughter relationship makes Young/Teen Samantha the character that grabbed my deepest sympathy.
Kelly Richards captures the high energy of spirited Young/Teen Audrey and then guides us through the transition to her deadened soul, ready to give up the ghost, quite a painful sight to watch. Miriam Bowden plays her unsuspecting mother, Gloria, at the top of the show and returns to deliver a heartbreaking message about their family at the play’s conclusion. Also noteworthy is Brigid Lally as Kayla, Audrey’s best friend and blood sister in the opening scenes, whose own life is forever changed by the play’s events – but in one of the its rare emotional “lifts”- it is a life choice for the good.
The action of the play jumps back and forth in time and locale, and the stage area has been elongated and centered in the space, permitting audiences to sit on either side. Some scenes benefit from fast changes, with actors freezing in place on a darkened spot of the stage and ready to hit their mark as soon as the lights come up again. The husband and wife duo, Stephen and Dannielle Beitzell, designed the lights/ tech and costumes, respectively. Lots of creativity at work here. The fights onstage looks dangerously real, but rest assured they are impressively choreographed by the director and cast and are safely executed.
The gritty and largely unexplored theatrical territory of sexual trafficking, particularly of teens, gets the full treatment in Forsaken Angels. It is a significant, provocative production. On Sunday, June 25th at 7pm, the First Baptist Church (theater venue) is hosting a “Community Conversation on Human Trafficking” according to an insert in the program. There is a ray of hope in how, as the insert says, “knowledge and awareness makes us part of the solution.”
Running Time: Two hours and 35 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
Forsaken Angels plays through Saturday, June 26, 2017, at Wolf Pack Theatre Company performing at the First Baptist Church of Hyattsville, MD – 5701 42nd Avenue, in Hyattsville, MD. Buy tickets at the door 0r purchase them.online.