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Play personalizes an industry that strips away identity

She is called Number 18. All we know about her is she’s very young, and was abducted and forced into prostitution.

Red Deer playwright Andrew Kooman was inspired to write She Has A Name, a suspense-filled drama about a victim of human trafficking, after hearing of a real-life tragedy in Thailand.

“Fifty people died in a water truck when it ran out of gas and was left by the driver,” said Kooman, who recalled that the people being smuggled in a locked tanker truck across the Malay/Thai border included women and children.

Whether any of them were destined for backstreet brothels is unknown, but hundreds of people are trafficked for exploitation each year. And Kooman remembered thinking, “It’s a really ugly world — really dark. A lot of light needs to be shed on it.”

His gritty play She Has a Name, which is being premiered at the Scott Block in Red Deer from March 9 by Calgary’s Burnt Thicket Theatre, is his attempt to draw more public attention to the ongoing problem of human trafficking for the sex trade.

Kooman said some cases of this have come to light in Edmonton and Calgary, and he believes some trafficked sex workers could have been brought to work in Red Deer, too, since the city is along the Hwy 2 corridor.

“Sometimes hearing about these things is almost too much for people to deal with,” added Kooman, who spent time overseas working with a Christian youth mission.

He tried to imagine the story of one girl as a way of shrinking what is a massive problem down to workable proportions.

Kooman, who’s always been drawn to human justice issues, imagined what life would be like for a teenager who was either duped into the sex trade by people who promised her legitimate employment, or sold by her family.

He originally spun the story of Number 18 into a one-act play that he wrote with guidance from a dramaturge through a local Scripts at Work workshop.

It went on to win a SAW/ Alberta Playwright’s Network Award in 2009, and readings of the script led to hushed and stunned audience reactions.

“People responded to it quite deeply,” said Kooman, who always meant to flesh out the story into a two-act play — which he did over the past year with input from Burnt Thicket Theatre members, including the play’s director, Stephen Waldschmidt.

While Waldschmidt cares about the ruthless, inhuman aspect of human trafficking, he said he was primarily interested in staging She has a Name because it’s gripping theatre. “It was one of two scripts that I read that I could not put down — the soles of my feet were sweating.”

The emotional play has some lighter moments, said Waldschmidt — which are necessary in order to keep the audience engaged.

“The challenge was, how to we navigate the story? If it becomes too intense, the audience will become numbed to it and will detach.”

The drama, written after 31-year-old Kooman researched real-life incidents, starts with a young Canadian lawyer named Jason (played by Red Deer’s Aaron Krogman). He’s looking into cases of human trafficking in Thailand.

“He’s investigating a brothel and is convinced there are trafficked girls there,” said Kooman.

Although the five actor/10 role play incorporates both pimps and human rights workers, it largely centres on Jason’s conversations with Number 18 (played by Calgary’s Denise Wong), who initially distrusts his motives and is reluctant to share her story.

“He tries to convince her to testify for the sake of justice, even though it’s putting her life at risk,” said Kooman.

But the traumatized girl doesn’t know who he is or what he wants from her — since it’s not sex.

“She’s haunted by four female voices of women who were trafficked before her and they are ushering her to her fate,” said Kooman, who uses this dramatic device much like a Greek chorus in classical tragedies.

He hopes the play, which runs from Feb. 23 to March 5 at Calgary’s Epcor Centre’s Motel (205 8th Ave. S.E.) before coming to Red Deer’s Scott Block, will do more than entertain crowds.

“It’s important for people’s imagination and hearts to be captured, so they can get past the statistics and learn all they can about this (trafficking) problem . . . I hope it’s a great way to start a conversation.”

For those who later wonder what they can do to help, Burnt Thicket Theatre intends to supply the names of global organizations that assist victims of human trafficking.

What: Calgary’s Burnt Thicket Theatre presents She Has A Name, the premiere of an original play by Red Deer’s Andrew Kooman

When: 8 p.m., March 9 to 12

Where: The Scott Block, Red Deer

Tickets: $20 at the door or from

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