I’m an actor and I also teach at many schools around New York City, from BMCC to Queensborough College to Manhattan International High School (for newly arrived immigrants). I feel fortunate to have jobs that put bread on the table and inform me as an actor. I never stop learning. Last week I took my students to the Holocaust Resource Center where we learned about Korean “Comfort Women” — teenage Korean girls who were kidnapped and enslaved by Japan during WWII. When not teaching, I’m out on commercial auditions, usually at Beth Melsky Casting. Last time I went, I saw a little handwritten sign on the bulletin board asking people to volunteer for a PSA (Public Service Announcement) to address human trafficking. Someone mentioned it was an issue very important to Beth, so I signed up. (I thought it would be a way to show gratitude for the commercials she’d cast me in.) Beth’s office called and said they wanted me to play the auctioneer in a live auction of people on Wall Street. I went to a rehearsal with the director, Kim Dempster. As Kim talked about human trafficking, about what this PSA was really for, my idea of doing this for Beth Melsky’s approval or as an act of gratitude began to change. I started to think of my daughters, of my nieces and nephews and the students I work with. I realized that I was supposed to do this. Performing, working crowds–the things I’m good at–these skills should be used to make change.
The next day in a bakery on Broad Street, I met the actors who would be playing the “units” I’d be selling. I asked them if it would be okay if I touched them, or commanded them to remove their coats, or turn so I could direct the audience’s eyes to take a good look at the merchandise. At about 11:15 am we walked out of the bakery and stood single file on the cobblestones of Broad Street. It was bitter cold. As I stood there, the director next to me, looking up Broad Street toward the Federal Building steps, I felt terribly sad and sorry for the act that I was about to do, selling humans, someone’s children, to be raped, terrorized and enslaved. We started our walk to the steps. A sickening sense of power began to radiate through me. I grabbed the mic and bellowed “Ladies and gentlemen, gather around, we are selling people here today.” Tourists stopped, and watched. No one protested or heckled us. Many took pictures with their phones. I began by auctioning off a young woman–perfect for work in a brothel or a massage parlor, I said. I sold a woman for domestic work, or private use, and then a couple of young men for factory or farm work. I threw in passports to guarantee they’d never run away. I felt evil and ugly and unstoppable. When it was over and the actors were giving human trafficking statistics over the microphone, I was handed a sign that said #stopthenightmare. I stretched my arms as far as they could reach, and held the sign as high as I could, silently begging forgiveness for my unspeakable crime. One of the actors, the one sold for brothel use, was in tears. Kim held her close. I felt so sorry. I still feel sorry.
—Matt Higgins is a founding member of the Up Theater Company in New York City. One of the original members of the seminal improv group Burn Manhattan, and an Andy Kaufman Award finalist, Matt has made numerous film and TV appearances.
The video was produced by Freedom for All, a non-profit organization fighting against modern day slavery.