“Here is a wonderful business opportunity,” I said while watching a documentary about North Dakota’s oil boom. There were tens of thousands of men living in what they call “man caves” and walking around town like hungry lions ready to jump on the few women who work in bars and restaurants. “I wish they would legalize prostitution and open safe and secure brothels so that these men would get their fix.”
I thought of this half jokingly because I was also half serious. It may seem funny or ridiculous to us here in America, but there are some countries in the world – especially in Latin America – where, if the ratio of men is considerably higher than women, like in North Dakota, then the local government itself opens and operates brothels in that town. Filmmaker Werner Herzog has a very funny anecdote he tells in his autobiographical film, Portrait. He was shooting Fitzcaraldo in Brazil in the middle of a jungle and the shooting got delayed again and again. Finally, the local authorities told him that he had to hire two prostitutes, and have them on payroll and on set all the time for his all-men crew.
In an ideal world, sex would be the physical manifestation of mutual love, lust, desire and passion. But this is rarely the case. Like a lot of ugly things that exist in our world, it did not take much time for humans to turn this beautiful act of love into ugly business. Hence, prostitution is “the world’s oldest profession.” Since the beginning of civilization, women have been treated as a commodity being sold for money, and brothels are a big reality in many parts of the world – including my native Turkey. In a predominantly Muslim and very conservative society like Turkey, it may not make sense for legal brothels to exist, but they do exist in nearly every city, and these are the only places where single men can go, pay, and “get their fix.”
As a young man growing up in Turkey, I got to question this urge in men. Brothel is the product of this questioning. That is why it is a very personal play that comes from a very deep and dark place of extreme honesty. It explores the question of what is at the deepest core of men and women. The audience follows Valerie, an aging prostitute, and Hal, her good-natured pimp, as they navigate the shifting and sometimes brutal realities of their profession. It questions whether people are defined by work, or can be more than what they do for a living. The play takes an exacting look at human nature, while providing a grounded optimism that the past is something that can be, if not left entirely behind, perhaps grown past at any age. Characters grow older, confront hard truths, and endure callous betrayals against the often seedy, sometimes elegant backdrop of the world’s oldest profession.
But for me, Brothel is also about “freedom” that I have found in America and in English. I have always been a nice guy in Turkey, respecting all the institutions like family, village, government and God. I never swore, never argued, never fought with anybody. The stuff that I wrote in Turkish – poetry, short stories and a published novel – did not dare to ask hard questions. That is why I could never dream of writing a play like Brothel there.
Only after I immigrated to America in 2000 with a one-way ticket and 300 Deutchemark (it was not Euro back then) that I borrowed from a friend, did I realize that my mind is shackled. When I saw the great comedian George Carlin taking on God, religion, and politics, and criticizing these institutions so freely, I thought,”What a wonderful feeling it must be to be this free and be able to talk about anything.” It took me a long time to get to where I am, but I am very happy and proud to get rid of the shackles in my mind, to be free, and dive right into the hard questions with courage in my adopted country and language. I want to continue to do so in my future writing.
I know I am working with a fantastic cast because, during the rehearsal process, I have come to a point where I have nothing to add, have no notes to give because the play has gone beyond my imagination as its creator. The cast, Ned Read, Sally Roffman, Pimmie Juntranggur, Lauren Patton, Brian Lewandowski, and Adrian Iglesias, have been wonderful; from day one, they never judged their characters as good or bad, they embraced them as who they are, and dove right in with courage and passion. They worked really hard to understand and portray these characters who are so far away from themselves, and I hope the audience will respond to the intimate and passionate World Premiere of Brothel.
Isa Seyran is a playwright, actor and director. He was born and raised in Turkey. After having studied political science in Ankara, he immigrated to America with a one way ticket. He wrote poetry, short stories, translated poetry from Arabic and Spanish to Turkish and published a novel. Brothel is his first play in English.