Turn your head; can you see us?

We’ve settled into our seats for Theatre Network’s first play of the season, the world premiere of Colleen Murphy‘s Pig Girl. The stage is dimly lit, but we can see the interior of a wooden shed, its floorboards and roof jutting jaggedly towards us.  Bare bulbed light fixtures, coils of rope, chains, and a large hook on a pulley dangle from the ceiling. A rusted oil drum, a tool box, and a plastic crate litter the background.

My stomach clenches and my heart accelerates as the house lights go to black. When they brighten, four characters have appeared on stage. A man and a woman, whom the program calls only ” Killer” and “Dying Woman” now inhabit the shed. In the empty spaces on either side of the shed stand “Dying Woman’s Sister” and ” Police Officer.”

What we experience during the next 90 minutes is rawer than any theatre performance I have ever attended. The play, although largely a work of imagination, is based on events that occurred in British Columbia’s lower mainland during the 1990s. Sex trade workers from Vancouver’s East Side were disappearing with alarming regularity. Their families’ and friends’ desperate pleas for action from the Vancouver police department were met mostly with indifference.  Even after reports began to surface of women never returning from “parties” at a Port Coquitlam pig farm, it took years for the Vancouver police to investigate and eventually arrest Robert Pickton. He confessed to killing 49 women, and subjecting their bodies to revolting indignities. However, he was only convicted of 6 counts of murder. Twenty other charges against him were stayed by the Crown.

Colleen Murphy’s rage at this decision, and her determination to give a voice to all sex trade workers whose lives or spirits are lost to violence, fuelled her writing of Pig Girl. As the play begins, we listen in on the start of a nine year dialogue  between the Dying Woman’s  Sister and the Police Officer. The Sister is consumed by  frustration with the Police Officer’s assertion that “people who live transient lifestyles sometimes leave town and don’t want to be found.” In the early days of her sister’s disappearance, she puts up posters,  attempts to  shield their mother from the  news, and listens frequently to the last message her sister left on her cell phone. As the years pass, the  Sister lights anniversary candles for her sister, fondly remembers incidents from their childhood, and confronts her own guilt over the times she turned her back  as her sister disappeared into addiction and prostitution. The Police Officer at first defends the official response of his department, but gradually begins to realize and regret his bigotry, his lack of empathy, and  his inaction.

Far harder to witness on stage is the interaction between the Dying Woman and the Killer. It is sickeningly clear what the last hours of her life will involve. He has brought her to the shed  to degrade her,  to crush her spirit, and take her life. What he does not anticipate is her fierce courage and her refusal to allow him to victimize her.  Realizing her considerable intellectual advantage over him, she tries to negotiate her release in whatever way she can. He shrieks at her to be quiet, but she will not be silenced. Even as his violence escalates,  she defies him. In the gut-wrenching final moments of the play, her body broken and her life ebbing away, she vows not to become the next missing woman.

It is difficult to describe the first minutes following our re-emergence into the theatre from the world of this play.  A woman behind us is quietly crying. My neck and shoulders are stiff with tension.  I’m dazed by the houselights, and grateful for the appearance of the panel members who will help us work through what we’ve just experienced:   the playwright; Brad Moss, the play’s director and artistic director of Theatre Network; the actors, and representatives from three social agencies: Project Kare, an RCMP initiative that investigates and prosecutes cases of missing and murdered “high risk” women;  Kindred House, which offers respite, resources, and friendship to sex trade workers, and CEASE, the Centre to End All Sexual Exploitation.

The moderator, Paula Simons, an Edmonton Journal columnist, asks Colleen Murphy how it feels to witness audience members both walking out of the play part way through, and staying to give it a standing ovation.”Whatever people feel when they see this play is real,” Murphy says. “There is no right way to respond.” When the audience is invited to join the dialogue, their reactions show the depth and complexity of emotion that the play has stirred. An Aboriginal woman protests the play’s title as a  further exploitation of Robert Pickton’s victims. Two Aboriginal men speak, one saying that it is “too soon” for these events to be dramatized, the other criticizing Colleen Murphy for appropriating a story that is “not hers to tell,” since many of Pickton’s victims were Aboriginal. Brad Moss reveals that he had been called to a meeting that afternoon in which Aboriginal representatives asked him to close the play and remove its title from the Theatre Network marquee. “If you’re angry, well, so am I,” he says. A young woman identifies herself as a former sex trade worker who is non-Aboriginal. In a quavering voice, she reminds us that sexual exploitation is a human issue, transcending racial boundaries. “I’m sorry that the Aboriginal community is hurting,” she says, “but I’m hurting too.”

I’ve spent the last several days  processing everything I saw and heard last Friday, both during the play and after it. I’ve followed the continued discussions on race,  sexual exploitation, appropriation of voice, and violence in dramatic productions on Theatre Network’s Facebook page , and on Paula Simon’s blog. I can’t say that I’ve come to any definite conclusions on any of these issues: I want to keep listening to all viewpoints as they are offered. But among the controversy and the competing voices, I remembered one of the Dying Woman’s stories from late in the play. She recalls how, as children, she and her sister stood outside an elderly neighbor’s window and tried to get the old woman to look up and notice them. “We’d say, ‘Hey. Turn your head. Can you see us?'” For me, the play’s most urgent message is that we truly see all women whose daily realities involve sexual exploitation and violence, and remember they are mothers and sisters, daughters and cousins, nieces and friends.  In whatever ways we can, we need to hold out our hands and offer them our fiercest and most compassionate support.

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