Some of the actors who will perform in the staged reading of “The Last Girl,” a play by sex trafficking survivor and advocate Dee Clarke, who died last year. From left, René Goddess Johnson (who is also co-director), Lynn Teo, Lala Drew, Christina Richardson and Ashanti Williams. Photo by Katie Day, courtesy of Portland Ovations

It took a long time for Dee Clarke to share her story of trauma and survival with the world.

Once she did, she couldn’t stop.

For years, Clarke used her voice to become a fierce advocate in Greater Portland, not just for people like her who overcame a childhood of exploitation and sex trafficking, but for all marginalized groups. People without permanent homes. People in recovery. People struggling with mental illness.

Drawing on her past and her love of performing arts, Clarke also began writing a play, “The Last Girl,” several years ago. It was based in part on her powerful 2014 testimony before the Maine Human Rights Commission on sex trafficking, but also on her own experience and experiences of many other survivors she helped empower to speak out, particularly about the root causes – systemic poverty, racism and misogyny.

The play got a boost in 2020 when Portland Ovations, a local nonprofit arts organization, awarded her a commission in hopes that the money might help bring her work before audiences.

Clarke, whose given first name was Dianne but who is known widely simply as Dee, died unexpectedly last year at age 64 before that could happen, but dozens of performing artists, friends and family members have carried it forward. A full staged reading of “The Last Girl” will be performed for the first time at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Westbrook Performing Arts Center.


“She was always asking me to push the timelines so we could get it to the stage,” said Rene Goddess Johnson, the play’s co-director and one of its actors. “The thing about survivor brain, you don’t want to let go. When I took the gig, I said I’d work as far as my skills could get it.”

The play’s other co-director, Linda Louise Nelson, was working as deputy director of Portland Ovations until recently and helped create the commission program during the early days of the pandemic to support artists who struggled to find paying work.

“What was always most interesting to me was working with local communities and professional actors and finding ways to support more diversity in performing arts,” Nelson said. Nearly all of the parts in “The Last Girl” are played by Black, brown or Indigenous actors.

“I think all of us feel a real sense of duty,” she said. “Dee wanted this story in the world. She wanted everyone talking about the issues demonstrated through this play.”

Amanda Place is one of the actors in “The Last Girl.” She also works at the nonprofit that Clarke founded and is a survivor as well.

“One thing that I think is important to acknowledge: There is a lot of trauma, yes, but also resilience and hope,” she said. “I remember being at Dee’s (memorial) service, you got to see, tangibly, the change that she created, and it was a reminder that anyone can create change.”


Dianne “Dee” Clarke used her own story of surviving sex trafficking and exploitation as a child to become a fierce advocate for many marginalized communities. She wrote a play, “The Last Girl,” about her experiences but didn’t get to see it fully performed before her death last year. It will be on stage for the first time Thursday. Photo by Katie Day, courtesy of Portland Ovations


Clarke grew up in foster homes and was at high risk for exploitation early on. She was just 12 when she was first trafficked for sex on the streets of Boston. She came to Maine in her 20s after escaping that life.

It’s a story she would tell many times later in her life, often in unsparing detail, not to engender sympathy, but to make change. She believed strongly that people with lived experiences had the best insights on solutions, and she spent much of her adult life on solutions, first through her work with nonprofits like Preble Street and Homeless Voices for Justice, and then through Survivor Speak USA, a nonprofit she founded in 2015, led by people who are survivors of trafficking.

When she first met Clarke, Johnson was a young girl who had recently emigrated from South Africa with her grandmother and landed in Maine. It was the early ’90s, and Johnson was at a social gathering for new immigrants.

“It was just families getting together, through food. Children were playing and adults were talking,” Johnson said. “And Dee, she was the only adult who was out there with the kids dancing and being silly. So, I said, ‘I’mma go dance with that one.’”

Clarke became a hero and mentor to Johnson. She called her “Auntie.”


“She was the kind of adult I appreciated because she felt like home,” she said.

Johnson said she knew a little about Clarke’s past, but it wasn’t until she was much older that she understood they had some shared experiences. Johnson was sexually abused as a child, too.

The term “last girl,” was used by Indian activist Ruchira Gupta in a 1996 documentary film, “The Selling of Innocents,” to describe girls and women of color who have been ignored or forgotten in the fight to combat sex trafficking. Clarke went to India in 2017 to meet Gupta and talk about her own work.

Place said Clarke came to fully understand the degree to which Black, brown and Indigenous survivors of trafficking have been marginalized.

“There is a lot of shame around being trafficked or exploited,” she said. “Through working with Dee and my own recovery process, I am pretty much free of that shame and guilt today. And that’s where Dee was. She was really able to own her story.”

It was Johnson, a performer for most of her life, who helped persuade Clarke to turn that into a play.


“I think in addition to everything thing else that she was, she really was a remarkable artist,” Johnson said.


The narrative style of the “The Last Girl” mirrors Clarke’s life. At its core is her own story, but intertwined are many other survivors whose stories she helped elevate.

The cast features more than 40 parts.

As Clarke was writing it, she leaned on Johnson and others to recruit actors who might bring it to life. Johnson is one of the co-founders of Ensemble of Color, a local nonprofit theater and performance collective.

“Before she passed, she talked a lot about her vision for the play and all of it coming together,” said Place, who will be performing on stage for the first time alongside professional actors. “I think she would be happy with the cast. She wanted survivors to be involved. She wanted the play to be something that generates conversation.”


Without the backing of a theater company, though, “The Last Girl” didn’t have a home.

Portland Ovations came along at the right time.

In early 2020, when the pandemic shut down performing arts for months, Ovations established a commission program to support artists. So far, the organization has supported five distinct projects created by Maine artists.

“Ovations is honored to play this small role in bringing Dee’s words and legacy to the stage,” said Aimee Petrin, Ovations’ director.

Johnson said the commission provides “The Last Girl” with visibility it didn’t have before. It allows the actors, who had been spending a lot of free hours sitting in rooms developing characters without pay, to be paid for their work on the reading.

What happens next is uncertain but exciting. Bringing Clarke’s work to full production will take another investment.


“I know she wanted full costumes and full music and everything, but I think the journey is the win,” Johnson said.

Even when her health started to fail and she was trying to finish her play, Clarke was still elevating survivors’ voices.

In early 2021, she testified in support of a bill, An Act to Support Survivors of Sex Trafficking and Exploitation, that was signed into law on June 21. It allows for the defense of the crime of engaging in prostitution if the person is doing so “to prevent bodily injury, serious economic hardship or another threat to the person or another person.”

Nelson said Clarke didn’t draw any distinction between testifying before lawmakers and writing her play. It was all advocacy.

“Telling her own story helped to heal her,” she said. “I think it speaks to the power of story to heal our lives and make the world a better place.”

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