Innocent Flesh: An Edge Magazine Theater Review
“I turned my first trick when I was 8 years old”, says one of the characters in Kenyetta Lethridge’s “Innocent Flesh” as she dives into a monologue about how her own mother forced her to have sex with men for money the same summer a serial rapist was on the loose. This is just one of the many heart wrenching stories intertwined to create a little over an hour of some of the most breathtaking theater this town has to offer.
The production begins with the 4 actresses basking in the innocence afforded to us as young children. Each woman takes her turn sharing her hopes and dreams for the future, each with an overarching goal: to be loved. The quartet then takes the audience through a series of hard to swallow, no holds-barred tales of life on the streets, the allure of human trafficking and their undying desire for the affection of their pimps. On this night at Hollywood’s Zephyr Theater, much sadness fills the playing space as audience members began to shed tears within the first two scenes. Perhaps more moving than the talented performances is the pure passion that seems to have accompanied the entire piece which can be attributed to Lethridge’s large investment in addressing the very real issue of under age prostitution in America. Having spent much time working in the Los Angeles public school district as well as being a product of one herself, she admits to having seen the beginnings of women heading towards living “the life”.
“I would leave work and see the young girls from my classes being approached by men far too old to be interested in them”, the writer/actress explains, “the girls were just happy to have the attention but these men knew what that their intentions weren’t good”. And this is something that Innocent Flesh delves deep into. The desire, the longing, the aching for affection from someone other than the person staring back at them in the mirror. The vulnerability that makes us love children also makes them a prime target for men (and women) looking to capitalize on free labor, underdeveloped mental capacity and the grim attraction of American citizens willing to share in the destruction. What struck me most about the production was its inclusivity. Each of the women standing boldly in her culture: one black, one white, one Latina, one racially ambiguous…all experiencing the same ill-fated life path. But it didn’t end at race. Present also was the often forgotten dichotomy of the class system–one of the characters actually comes from family of well to do doctors.
With no stone left unturned, one would be hard pressed to find a way to separate one’s self from the harsh reality of the matter: it could happen to anyone of us. Any young woman or man that we love could find themselves in the hands of someone waiting to exploit their innocence. None of us are exempt or above, so what will we do to stop it? If there’s one blinding lesson to take away from Innocent Flesh is that there is no ready made, after school special cure for this epidemic. The solution lies somewhere between a reconstruction of the family value system in America and uprooting the evil that lies in the quest for financial gain by any means possible. It will undoubtedly be a long road to ridding the streets of underage and legal street workers but this production shines a powerful light on a dark corner of our country. Modern in its approach, the gritty tales cut deep and the references to pop culture carefully chosen by Lethridge causes one to consider responsibility, power to affect change and the dire need for conversation as the growing number of preteen and teenage pregnancies sky rocket alongside the percentage of human trafficking arrests ranging from the ages of 13-18 years old.
Innocent Flesh is the first, in what I hope, will be an ongoing call to arms by the artistic community surrounding this subject. It’s awakening and terrifying in its power. And when it leaves Los Angeles to open off Broadway later this year there is no doubt that the world will take to it the same way everyone in that overlooked theater in Hollywood did on its opening night.
Kenyetta Innocent Flesh <—click here for the entire interview with director Kenyetta Lethridge