Mary Bonnett’s new play “Monger: The Awakening of J.B. Benton” subscribes to the Janelle Monae school of sexual Marxism: everything is sex, except sex, which is power. The fourth play in Her Story Theatre’s “Chicago Sex Trafficking Cycle,” it draws from research, interviews and the case of Desiree Robinson, a Chicago teenager who was forced into sex trafficking and then murdered. “Monger” might be ineffective as a drama, but it’s harrowing nonetheless.
‘Monger: The Awakening of J.B. Benton’
When: Through Sep. 30
Where: Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln
Run time: 1 hour, 20 minutes, no intermission
The titular J.B. Benton (Ira Amyx) is a high-powered attorney living the suburban American dream. He’s also a brute and a cad, although that old-fashioned, gentlemanly term is really far too good for him. The grossly engrossing Amyx drains Benton of almost any charisma, reveling in Benton’s childish disregard for others. He’s not even a monster; he’s too small and petty for that.
Directed by John Mossman, “Monger” opens with Benton lionizing an act of violence. His sensitive, artsy son Eddie (Joshua Zambrano, believably angsty) has gotten into a fight with a schoolyard bully … and absolutely beaten the tar out of him. Despite the possibly horrendous consequences of Eddie’s actions, which have left him “homebound” for two weeks, Benton brags to a colleague about the manly ferocity his son displayed. He even lauds the connection between Eddie’s rage and his own father’s booze-fueled beatings.
Once the phone call ends, Benton logs onto his computer to indulge his little “hobby.” He’s a monger, you see. Which is to say a frequent user of teenage prostitutes. He also participates in several online monger groups, with their messages (many of which Bonnett has lifted from real-life examples) being projected for everyone to see. While the show’s set is typical “Chicago barebones,” the multi-panel projections from designer Parker Langvardt are an evocative highlight.
And then there’s Benton’s assignment for the day. Appearing via video call, and with no real context for what he’s stepping into, Benton conducts a pre-trial witness interview with an African-American woman named Ruth Edwards (the superb Jamise Wright). Her 16-year-old daughter, Diamond Jones, was (like Robinson) forced into sex trafficking and then murdered — found beaten, strangled and with her throat slit, in a garage in suburban Markham.
Unmoored with grief, Edwards wanders through her testimony like a ghost, reliving memories of her daughter’s life and death and raging against the cruel injustices that have led her to this moment. She promises Benton her “new God,” the god of “Justice and Revenge,” will punish the men responsible. Ruth talks about her daughter’s death as an amputation, a touch that recurs throughout her dialogue: the physical effects of male violence on women’s bodies.
Benton spends the play pinging back and forth between Ruth and Eddie, whose teenage sullenness is supercharged with fury. With his mother out of town (and kept in the dark about his fight), Eddie has no one but his distant, crude, and unfeeling father to fight with. It maybe shouldn’t be surprising, then, when he quickly reveals that he knows exactly what his dad’s been up to during all those late nights “at the office.”
How Eddie found this out is not exactly clear, but his forthrightness in making these accusations actually drains these scenes of their tension. Although Eddie threatens to tell his mother, this threat does not really inform their interactions, which become a series of shouty confrontations with nowhere to go and, even more crucially, little to say. That lack of insight makes Eddie superfluous. One can’t help but wonder why the play isn’t a two-hander.
Those scenes also speak to the greater problem with “Monger” as a dramatic piece. Despite Bonnett’s careful preparation and research into her subject matter, she isn’t able to mold that work into a compelling story. The play is mostly expressions of outrage and ugliness, with Ruth and Eddie handling the former and Benton providing the latter. There are too few narrative threads to string it all together. The characters are angry, yes, but anger is not conflict.
Until the play’s final minutes, that is, when Ruth’s all-consuming rage finally coalesces into a single moment of divine wrath. Lit forcefully by designer Blake Cordell, and staring out over the heads of the audience, Wright transforms from a grieving mother into a colossus. Finally, it would seem, Ruth’s new god, the god of Justice and Revenge, has answered her prayers. When she screams “It is a crime to have sex with a child, ” the line might be devoid of poetry, but it lands with a crushing (and factually supported) weight.
Alex Huntsberger is a local freelance writer.