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'Live Bodies For Sale' Tackles Sex Trafficking On Stage

The cast and creative team assemble for a reading of "Live Bodies for Sale" [Playwrights Local]

As a journalist, Christopher Johnston has written about sex trafficking in Northeast Ohio for Fresh Water Cleveland and the Christian Science Monitor.

As an author, he published a book on the subject last year, " Shattering Silences: Strategies to Prevent Sexual Assault, Heal Survivors, and Bring Assailants to Justice."

Now as a playwright, Johnston takes his extensive research on local sex trafficking to the stage.

Friday night Playwrights Local opens Johnston's new docudrama, "Live Bodies for Sale," at Waterloo Arts in Cleveland's Collinwood neighborhood.

Johnston began writing about sexual violence in 2009 during the Anthony Sowell trial for a series of murders in Cleveland's Mt. Pleasant neighborhood.

"But I really found that I didn't want to write about the crime and the criminal," Johnston said. Along the way he met, "some really amazing people who were providing solutions, which is what I prefer to write about."

His play features a few of those real life Clevelanders, including activist Renee Jones of the Renee Jones Empowerment Center and Cleveland detective John Morgan, who heads the Cuyahoga County Regional Human Trafficking Task Force.

Ohio is susceptible to sex trafficking because of its interstate system and a significant number of gentleman's clubs where Johnston says a lot of the recruiting of young women occurs.

Renee Jones Empowerment Center

"The heart of the play is built around the stories of five survivors at the Renee Jones Empowerment Center. Five women who very kindly, very generously gave me their time and told me their stories," he said.

Johnston sees some common themes that lead these women into a life of prostitution.

"They are all people who are vulnerable and so the pimps, the traffickers, identify those vulnerabilities," he said. "If they have an addiction already to heroin, [the traffickers] get them even more deeply addicted."

One of the characters in the play is based on a woman Johnston never met.

"She overdosed about a week before I was supposed to meet her," he said. "She was addicted, and they took advantage of that and got her more down to the point where she needed a hit every two hours."

One of the heroes of the play is Renee Jones, who began helping the homeless in downtown Cleveland on her own time.

In 2002, Jones opened her Empowerment Center, which soon evolved into a place for sex workers to find a new life.

Renee Jones Empowerment Center (Renee Jones seated)

"She goes to the gentleman's clubs, she goes to truck stops," he said. "She's right in the thick of it and that's where she wants to be. She's pretty fearless."

The other hero is Detective Morgan, who's challenged by the local motels where much of the sex trafficking takes place in Cuyahoga County.

"Some of the motels that are willing to, just for the money, let this happen right under their eyes and not say anything don't always cooperate with the police task force," he said.

Johnston wants "Live Bodies for Sale" to raise awareness of the sex trafficking problem in Northeast Ohio.

Christopher Johnston [ideastream]

"That's exactly the reason that I did it, not only for the people who come see the play but we are going to have a whole slate of speakers from the various experts I've worked with who are going to talk after the shows," he said.

Playwrights Local stages "Live Bodies for Sale" at Waterloo Arts November 22 - December 15.

Listen to Mike McIntyre's interview with Renee Jones:


Dave DeOreo is coordinating producer for Ideastream Public Media’s arts and culture team.