Theater helps make human trafficking crisis very real in Las Vegas

The 250-person lunch crowd went silent. Knives and forks stopped clinking. Hungry people stopped eating. A few bowed their heads in embarrassment.

The teenager in front of them broke out crying, telling them how her mother had pimped her out on the mean streets of Las Vegas and how she eventually contracted HIV.

No one knew how to react until she started to explain the circumstances of her violent death by the hands of a pimp.

A huge sigh of relief ensued. She was only an actress participating in a Southern Nevada Human Trafficking Task Force conference Wednesday at the Monte Carlo. The event was co-sponsored by MGM Resorts International, which operates the hotel-casino.

Moments later, the teenager lay on the stage and another actor put a toe tag on her, the kind of thing they do at morgues before they place the dead into the darkness.

Called the “Toe Tag Monologues,” the re-enactment might have been a theatrical production, but before you start to feel better about yourselves, the story is real. It’s by retired police officer Byron Stringer, who wrote about some of the bad things he encountered in 26 years on the Metropolitan Police Department.

Stringer takes his troupe — including his opening act, 19-year-old Camille Naco — to schools, churches and other places where he can get the message out: Human trafficking exists in Sin City. He knows because he has seen it upfront.

They are sad stories, and they must be told, even if only by actors, he said.

“I make it look real on purpose,” Stringer said after the performance. “That way, they will listen.”

The theatrics was just one facet of the one-day human trafficking conference, which also featured real victims. One of them was Brenda Myers-Powell, who said she was kidnapped by a pair of pimps in downtown Chicago at age 14 while she was turning tricks to help support her two children.

She said the kidnapping led to a life of forced prostitution until she was 39.

She said she obeyed her pimp or suffered the consequences. “I’d rather break your law than break his,” she told the audience, referring to the dilemma of pimp versus cop.

These days, she has appeared on numerous talk shows as the co-founder and chief operating officer of The Dreamcatcher Foundation, which is trying to stop human trafficking in Chicago.

Nevada and Las Vegas also are trying to end the sex trafficking scourge. A new law took effect this summer aimed at giving the pimps who deal in minors harsher prison sentences. Suspects can be charged with sex trafficking if the victim is a minor even if there’s no proof of force, fraud or coercion.

So far, the law hasn’t produced many sex trafficking prosecutions, but state Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto hopes it will over time. She has been touring rural areas of Northern Nevada, telling truckers that their help is needed.

Lou Pascoe, the task force’s director, is asking the public for its help. Five billboards of the national human trafficking hotline are being put up in the Las Vegas Valley, she said. The task force was formed a year ago with a half-million-dollar grant from the federal government.

Pascoe said that human trafficking is a form of “modern day slavery,” and that the motto these days is “See Something, Say Something.”

In the end, the real solution doesn’t lie in prosecutions and arrests; it lies in conscience, many say.

Harry Fagel, a Las Vegas police officer, wrote a poem, which he read to the audience:

“Pull back the curtain Mister so and so from Idaho or wherever/See the real truth painted in the bruises and tracked up arms and blistered heels of a girl owned by some guy who collects all the cash while she does all the work/See it for what it is and next time you pick up the phone know/You are part of the problem/You are John the human trafficker.”

Phyllis James, executive vice president and chief diversity officer for MGM Resorts, said the conference was “a call to action to each of us to do more to combat on all fronts this intolerable blight on humanity. Raising awareness is vital to mobilizing public sentiment and building a movement against human trafficking, and we were happy to play a role in this.”