By Mike Schulte

When the lights come up on Kenyetta Lethridge’s Innocent Flesh, the all-female cast is pantomiming a skipping rhyme, squealing and girlishly cartwheeling across the Zephyr’s barren stage. Just as you begin to wish you had lingered longer at the bar, the scene abruptly shifts: the playground becomes “the track” and the girls swerve from playful to darkly lascivious—taunting the audience as though they’re eyeing a line of tricks. It’s the first of many late-breaking curve balls that writer/director Lethridge throws throughout this stark one act exploration of underage prostitution and the abuse and neglect that often drives its victims.

Innocent Flesh’s wounded protagonists dream of unattainable futures that will fill the void of damaged childhood with the anonymous adulation of fame. It’s not an original conceit, but Lethridge synthesizes confrontational drama with survivor’s humor and the result is both disturbing and uncomfortably funny.

The four girls are pulled toward their fates in similar ways—most memorably Lisa (an electric Jameelah Nuriddin). Terrified by a killer stalking the neighborhood, she locks her bedroom window just as the real threat emerges from within her own family. Her betrayal, brokered by her own mother, is the kind of moment that could easily be overplayed. Here, it’s handled with a naked subtlety that freezes the air in the room.

As the girls are driven into the streets, their stories unfold in shifting character vignettes, interspersed with a kind of Greek chorus narrative, which occasionally tosses a spike strip into the production’s otherwise brisk pacing. The writing is at its best when the play’s harrowing situations are underpinned with gritty humor—and there are plenty of both.

Each actress deftly flips characterizations to portray the pimps and johns that prey upon them. Nuriddin cries her way through a low-down monologue as victim before speed shifting into a swaggering pimp before her eyes dry under the lights. You laugh, but the laugh catches in your throat.

The no-nonsense pacing and whipsaw emotional transitions are evidence of Lethridge’s command as a writer/director, but the real engine of Innocent Flesh is the skill and courage displayed by the cast. Angelina Prendergast’s Lupita is a streetwise, lovelorn poet whose pain is visible just beneath her wisecracking, tinfoil surface. Daphne Gabriel gives Candace a moist-eyed innocence that never strays toward cliché. Clara Gabriele’s Danna stalks the stage like a lanky older sister until her story of a gang rape—half-remembered during a self-induced drug blackout—gets the blood flowing from the script. The pain in her eyes nails the audience to their seats; it is the play’s most wrenchingly uncomfortable scene.

Innocent Flesh ends as it began, the girls as unsoiled children again, pleading for love in a reprise of the opening. The intention may have been to sound a hopeful concluding note, but as the lights go out, it rings as a bitter admonition of all that has been lost.