N Street Village takes the Kennedy Center
By Christina Mele Editorial Intern
“I feel famous!”
“I don’t want to do it.”
“I feel like acting!”
“This is where my story begins!”
The women of N Street Village reacted with elation and nervousness when they first glimpsed the Terrace Theater at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
The reality of the challenge ahead was hitting them. Together they were preparing for an April 30 production of “My Soul Look Back and Wonder: Life Stories from Women in Recovery.”
The one-night-only show would be woven out of poetry and gospel songs, and the women’s own painful and courageous stories: their journeys out of homelessness, addiction, domestic violence and sexual abuse.
Such stories are never easy to tell. But the act of telling them can be empowering, said Deb Gottesman, founder of the Theatre Lab School of Dramatic Arts. She helped direct and mount the production as part of Theatre Lab’s Life Stories at N Street Village, a drama program serving homeless women in substance abuse recovery.
“One of the things that we believe in Life Stories is that your life story isn’t just something that happens to you,” said Gottesman. “Its what you make of it.”
And that is how fifteen women from N Street Village became part of the production, serving as actors, playing themselves in their own stories or playing other people in each other’s stories.
“These are stories of women as mothers, daughters, wives and girlfriends, churchgoers,” said Ann McCreedy, director of programs at N Street Village. “They reflect on their spirituality. Some reflect on their HIV status. It is centered on the roles they have played, and it is their perspective looking back on things,” she added.
There are many such stories at N Street Village, founded in 1972 by members of Luther Place Memorial Church who saw a need to provide services for the growing homeless population in Washington, D.C. When N Street began, it offered simple sleeping mats on the floor of the church. But the program has since grown and evolved, providing emergency and long-term services to thousands of poor and homeless women out of a 150,000-square-foot facility at 14th and N Streets, NW in the Logan Circle neighborhood of D.C.
Women find their way to N Street for a “variety of reasons,” McCreedy said. But “most are in recovery programs for substance abuse, mental illness, or chronic physical illness.”
“Individuals experiencing homelessness have life experiences that folks can’t imagine,” added McCreedy. “They have choices to make that are very difficult.
” So a recurring theme at N Street Village is survival, and the narratives of the women who stay there found a perfect fit with the Theatre Lab goal, teaching “people from marginalized populations to create original dramatic works from real life experiences,” Gottesman said. The Theatre Lab School of Dramatic Arts includes
about 13,000 students, ranging in age from 6 to 99. The school is for people who want to learn about acting, and students learn about acting and storytelling. This year marks its twentieth anniversary.
“I don’t think you need to be a professional to give a really strong performance as long as you understand the craft,” said Gottesman. “ That part is really exciting and fun. A lot of these women have never seen a show on stage before.
” Work on the production began Feb. 9, with Gottesman and Theatre Lab instructor Thomas Workman serving as co-directors. Award-winning playwright Jennifer Nelson took the women’s words and “structured the words into stories” to create a script, Gottesman said.
“Surprisingly, it’s full of tremendous humor,” she added. “That comes from the women. Some of them are amazing storytellers. It’s an incredibly inspiring and moving production.”
Denise Nelson, one of the performers from N Street Village, plays the mother of a pregnant 13-year-old girl, whom she is taking to the doctor for an abortion. Nelson said it is a true story about a cast member.
“I was excited to be able to do it,” she said. “It’s a healing process. N Street Village has given me love and hope.”
Nelson, who is 17 years clean, said she feels blessed to be here. She said she believes that God offered her this opportunity in order to help someone else.
“I wanted to be able to reach someone, to let them know there’s a chance,” she said. “It’s a wonderful journey. There are so many people out there hiding all these feelings. I want them to know they don’t have to hide it. Through God they can overcome it.”
But participation has been challenging as well, she said. The hardest part of the experience “has been remembering the pain and sharing the pain.”
Another performer, Pertrina Thomas, said she found the chance to play a character in someone else’s story at the Kennedy Center was exciting and overwhelming.
“It has built up my esteem,” she said. “I was like ‘oh my God!’ What more can you ask for?”
Thomas said she was the last one to join the performance, and she is “really happy to be able to do this.”
“It’s just a lot of experiences that people have shared,” she said. “I had a lot of years in great darkness. This is going to bring the light out in me. Many years of darkness and my light is going to shine.”
Gottesman predicted the production would have a different impact on different people.
“For the women [in the show], it’s an opportunity to take the darkest points in their lives and inspire and educate people,” she said. “For us, it’s a culmination of everything we believe. It can help empower people, and teach us that there’s more to who we are than we think.”
McCreedy said she believed the play would endow the women’s experiences with dignity.
“There’s such a sense of grandeur and importance around it,” McCreedy said. “To them it means, ‘my experiences are important enough to other people that someone is renting a space at the Kennedy Center to hear my story’.”
Many family members of the women in the show have been invited to be part of the audience, said Gottesman. She said she hoped the show would give them a new way of looking at their loved ones.
As for McCreedy, she said she hopes that audience members will leave feeling new respect for homeless women and their struggles to transcend.
“This performance will open your mind to the strength and courage of women who experience homelessness,” McCreedy said. “You will be changed and you will see the world through a new lens.”
Tickets must be purchased in advance for the Monday, April 30 performance at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater. Show time is 7:30 p.m. The performance will be followed by a panel discussion featuring R. Gil Kerlikowske, director of the White House Office of National Drug Policy.