It’s a Friday afternoon and a small group gathers on the steps of the DC Jewish Community Center’s Theater J. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are passed around as theater goers discuss their favorite plays in preparation for the matinee show they are about to attend. Theater J’s Director of Marketing Communications, Grace Overbeke, hands out programs as she gives a brief plot overview of the day’s show, “Andy and the Shadows.” “I think theater is a hugely important force in bringing people together,” she said. “It’s a really important part of community building.”
This is the idea between the partnership between Theater J and Miriam’s Kitchen, which offers guests of Miriam’s Kitchen the opportunity to engage in DC’s local theater scene free of charge. The collaboration began in August 2011 when Overbeke began working as a breakfast volunteer at Miriam’s Kitchen. Overbeke spoke with Deputy Director Catherine Crum about incorporating another aspect into Miriam’s art programming. “Miriam’s Kitchen already has a program called the studio series, but there wasn’t a theater division so Catherine and I were talking about how Miriam’s Kitchen guests could come to Theater J,” she said. Theater J began supplying 20 tickets to Friday matinee shows, which were available to any guest of Miriam’s Kitchen. Typically, two caseworkers attend the production in addition to the Miriam’s Kitchen guests and the group gathers before the show for lunch and discussion. According to Crum, Miriam’s Kitchen has attended every featured performance at Theater J for two season in a row. “We go to a lot of performances,” said theater goer and Miriam’s Kitchen guest Azar Jackson. “It’s just a way for the homeless to be able to experience something within the community.” On Friday May 3 guests attended a showing of “Andy and the Shadows,” a comedy being featured through Theater J’s Locally Grown festival which features work from local DC playwrights. “This is my first time seeing a play in a long time,” said Tariq Zayid El, who attended the show. “It was a very energizing and good experience; I got more out of it than I expected.”Guests of Miriam’s Kitchen were also able to attend a discussion with Theater J Artistic Director and playwright of the show, Ari Roth, when he visited the facility’s dining room on Monday. Veronica del-Cerro, one of the play’s actresses, attended as well.
“We had so many questions for them, and they were eager to hear our reactions to the play as well,” said Crum.
This represents another aspect of the Theater J and Miriam’s Kitchen partnership in which Overbeke brings in different actors, playwrights and directors from Theater J to lead a discussion. “That’s one of the many great things about our partnership – there’s a lot of give and take,” Crum said. “Our guests are definitely part of the dialogue on theater in DC.” Guests were able to sit down with Roth and discuss the play, asking questions and learning about his writing process.“It’s most valuable to me when it’s not just presenting a play to them; then there is no process,” said Roth. “When you get a chance to debrief and talk about it, people will reflect on the play.”
Roth also discussed his experience sharing such personal details of his own life through the character of Andy, which is roughly based on a younger version of himself.Some of the Miriam’s Kitchen guests were able to relate; Overbeke has held a writing program in which participants wrote their life stories which were later adapted for the stage and performed by actors at Theater J.“Grace asked us if we would mind having our life stories performed at a theater,” said El. “Writing helps me to open up and express myself.”
Perhaps the most important aspect of the partnership is the ability to provide all people with access to the theater, according to Roth.“It gives meaning to our production to know that we’re playing to all sectors of humanity,” he said. “Everyone is equal when they sit in that theater seat and they are just another member of the audience.”