Shelter Me

Photo Credit: Den Sweeney
Roughly Speaking
Written by Shara Ashley Zeiger
Directed by Celine Rosenthal
Presented by The Platform Group at TADA! Youth Theater, NYC
October 29-November 20, 2016

A recent article on Gothamist discussing strident local opposition to converting a hotel into a homeless shelter -- opposition based, according to one quoted resident, on the idea that shelters destroy communities with drugs, violence, and prostitution -- pointed out that New York City reached a record high in September of this year of 60,000 adults and children sleeping in shelters (a number, that article notes, that doesn't count certain kinds of specialized shelters). In the program for the new play Roughly Speaking, the playwright and founder of The Platform Group, Shara Ashley Geiger, admits that she herself regarded the homeless with a mixture of uneasiness and fear after first moving to the City. Volunteering at the Xavier Mission Welcome Table and hearing the stories of the other volunteers and the guests fostered a change in perspective, which in turn helped eventually to produce Roughly Speaking, a work born out of more than 200 interviews with homeless individuals.  

The play takes place over the course of one Sunday at a soup kitchen, on a stage on where milk crates and boards form tables and benches (and, occasionally, walls). A metatheatrical frame, in which we see the unsurprising treatment of one shelter user as a nuisance, transitions us into the main narrative, which distills Zeiger's hundreds of interviews into a dozen characters. Lightning.Bolt (Steven J. Michel) -- pronounce the dot -- is both an aspiring rapper whose shelter used to let him stay out late to perform at the Nuyorican Cafe and the direct bridge between the audience and the stage; it is "his" play, and he provides the rap interludes that are interspersed throughout.  Diana (Shara Ashley Zeiger), burdened by struggles with addiction and a foreclosure, wants to be a social worker one day.  She accuses W. (Christopher Michael McLamb), former Riker's inmate and product of the traumas of prison and of an abusive foster family, of having taken sexual advantage of her desperation. Trans woman Trudy (Troy Valjean Rucker) talks a lot about food, love, and family to Proper (Franz Jones), who was abandoned, along with his four brothers, as a child by his mother; but Trudy has some dark spots in her own familial past.  Proud Danny (Michael Twaine) and sunny Richie (McLamb again, playing a sharp contrast to W.) are both veterans, of different generations and with different significant health issues. Jose (also Jones) used to be a doctor, and Lester (also Valjean Rucker) used to be a jazz musician. Lester explains that being a jazz-man also meant being a ladies' man, but his conversational companion, Melissa (Joanie Anderson), is not interested in, as she puts it, a new baby daddy.  Melissa, a domestic abuse victim, wants to be a musician, too, and she is also a community college student who sleep on trains before going to class and showers in the school gym.  At the center of this enclosed world are Alicia (Madeline McCray), who cooks for the kitchen, and Tiny (Danny Bolero), her husband and the janitor in name, but much more in practice.   

We first meet most of these characters while they are waiting on line in the cold outside the soup kitchen, and learn about them through their relationships, whether new or established, with one another.  Along the way, we hear about the obstacles facing these individuals: having a job conflicts with being in "the system"; the kitchen faces a shrinking budget, with no money for security; having any kind of record makes gainful employment next-to-impossible to secure, even for veterans.  We do see some of the good, too, however: the formation of community, of interpersonal support, the fact that these people are more than the sum total of their respective pasts. Richie even recounts a story of generosity by an "angel."

One of the takeaways articulated by Roughly Speaking is that life is unpredictable. And, indeed, more of us than we like to think are one terrible event, mistake, or medical issue away from needing the shelter system.  Both of us writing this review teach at NYC community colleges, and both of us have students like Melissa just about every semester. Sometimes, we don't even know it, which points to another important facet of Zeiger's play: puncturing the myth that the homeless just aren't "trying." Without having to say so directly, the production makes the audience aware of the extent to which homelessness is a systemic rather than an individual problem. Our systems -- for education, veterans, foster children, health and psychiatric care -- are insufficiently effective, and while our social safety net may still exist, it is pretty frayed and has a lot of person-sized holes in it. Small-scale solutions instead of large-scale reform are band aids on a vast structural deficiency, and while they are valuable band aids, it is an approach that doesn't make it less difficult to get out of "the system" once someone is in it. Even Tiny and Alicia, generous and warm-hearted as they are, won't take one of the kitchen guests home. Alicia also feels burned out by her current job, but she hasn't yet managed to conquer the GED test, which remains a system-imposed barrier to her changing her life.  

Don't get the idea that this is presented as some sort of didactic lesson: it all comes organically from rounded characters who have friendships, aspirations, and humor. The production keeps the audience invested in them throughout before building to, following a stretch of separate but overlapping conversation, a climactic twist that packs a real emotional punch. Michael Twaine and Danny Bolero in particular excel at lending an impressive depth to their performances, and Madeline McCray's Alicia is equal parts optimism and despair; given that every character is thoroughly well-developed,  one might be forgiven for not noticing without the program that many actors play multiple guests. Finally, Lightning.Bolt is one of the anchor points of the show, and Steven J. Michel, forgive the pun, shines in the role.

One of the characters in Roughly Speaking remarks on always hearing the same story in different variations. The play allows its characters' stories to retain their uniqueness while drawing attention to their commonalities, but equally important is the very fact of its drawing attention to them.  A majority of New Yorkers' interactions with people in the shelter system positions them as panhandlers to be ignored or evaded rather than multidimensional individuals to be engaged with. Roughly Speaking gives voice to those who are not usually given a platform to speak, and it highlights our dependence on human connections. In the tradition of theater as activism, a portion of every ticket goes towards buying backpacks for the homeless. What else happens after we leave the theater is up to us. - Leah Richard & John Ziegler