Staging Hope: a Creative Escape


September 5, 2013

It’s as if someone turned on the stereo in the middle of an office meeting. The playwriting group is on fire. Jeffery McNeil has just performed a script about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and racism within the black community. Racism is a touchy and important topic to participants and McNeil’s script has a strong, controversial agenda. Instructor Elizabeth Kitsos-Kang needs to use a louder voice this time. “Hey, hey, hey! Everybody is allowed to have his or her own opinions. Now, let’s take this to the theater!”

The theme changes from racism to post-apocalypse in the blink of an eye. The heat from the discussion disperses, replaced by a new kind of seriousness.

“We got nothing. We’re at the end of the world. We’re all of races here together,” says Kitsos-Kang helping everyone to focus on the new theme.

“How did we end up here?”

Arguing melts into cooperation and teamwork. The turnover is magical. Kitsos-Kang starts to pass around imaginary water and the actors drink it as if it were their last opportunity to do so. Carried away to the end of the world, these homeless people can act.

Staging Hope

The weekly workshop takes place in a meeting room downstairs from the Street Sense offices at the Church of the Epiphany on G Street NW. Every Thursday at 11a.m. a group of newspaper vendors gathers with three instructors: Leslie Jacobson, Elizabeth Kitsos-Kang and Roy Barber. They are the first iteration of Street Sense’s theater program “Staging Hope.” Participants simply call themselves “the playwriting group.” Among the most active of them are Chris Shaw, Carlton Johnson, Robert Warren, Cynthia Mewborn, Harold Bomar and Reginald Black.

Group members share ideas,  play roles, break out into song. Often it’s all about improvisation. The group got started after Shira Hereld, a student at The George Washington University (GWU), approached Kitsos-Kang and Jacobson with the idea of doing a workshop with Street Sense. Hereld had participated in a program with Kitsos-Kang through her nonprofit company, Educational Theatre Company. One of the company’s projects, Creative Age, paired students with elderly adults in independent living facilities. Young and old met  weekly and discussed different topics. The students then created scenes and monologues out of those conversations. Hereld had met some Street Sense vendors near the GW campus and because she had enjoyed  the Creative Age project,  she thought that perhaps that group could try something similar with Street Sense.

The playwriting group has been active since mid-May. On Nov. 13 they will have their first public performance at the university.

According to Kitsos-Kang, music, improvisation, role-playing, singing and writing are great tools for creating a bond among group members.

“They learn to support each other and express themselves through their exposure to the arts,” she said. “Sometimes when discussions get heated, we can bring them to the world of an improvisation or a song to express those same feelings and it helps people gain perspective.”


 Mewborn has been coming to the class since the beginning, and eagerly looks forward to the meetings.  “I like all of it,” she says. “I like writing down my thoughts, the acting part, getting up and acting. That’s fun. I like how we close: we join our hands together, and we sing ‘we’re never gonna give up’.

“The creativity helps to keep you grounded and focused. In addition you have that human connection. There’s therapy in it, there’s healing in it. It’s a lot of frustration and displaced anger when you’re living on the street.”

Mewborn has many deep thoughts on her mind, and her engaged eyes show that this is something important to her.  “Here you can yell, you can curse,” she says. “In the end of the day you don’t feel like you should be angry with yourself or anybody else. It’s just – it is what it is.”

September 26

 The group begins with all the members sharing their experience from the previous week. Some vendors have had a rough week; others have experienced positive developments.

One has been working on her poems for Street Sense while another has tried to find a job or new place to stay. While someone is eating, another person is leaning on a chair and closing his eyes for a moment or two. The instructors accept it. A rough week for these people is different from a rough week for Johnson, Kitsos-Kang and Barber. Those three are very aware of their actors’ situation as homeless people.

Today Barber has brought a keyboard. He is the musician in the group and has experience from a similar project with vendors in South Africa. His hat screams summer, even though fall began four days earlier. The group cheers up when Barber starts to play.

Johnson hands out the lyrics. “Lean on me, when you’re not strong.  I’ll be your friend, I’ll help you carry on. For it won’t be long, till we all need something to lean on.”

The group moves to the joyful melody.

”I believe that music is the language of the heart, and that this musical play make their stories more accessible,” Barber says.


 Despite the free flow of creativity, the group operates with certain “rules.” Mewborn explains that theater is more than fun and games.

“Theatre is a control of the environment, just like in life” she says. “There are limits, structure and discipline. There’s also an open stage of creativity, which makes it a good balance. Every week the group gets assignments,” explains Mewborn. She thinks the drama group adds structure to participants’ lives.

“It keeps your mind thinking, and it’s therapeutic,” she continues. “I’ve seen people change because of this, from being bitter to becoming more responsive to the group. It just takes you out of the complete element of homelessness. It takes you to a different world, to a regular world, where everything is normal. We get the opportunity to perform on a stage.”

Jacobson has been doing social action theatre for the past 40 years.  Mewborn describes her as the ‘mother’ of the group. Since 1984, Jacobson and Barber have worked together with underserved populations. According to Barber, their focus has always been to give voice to unheard people. Johnson and Kitsos-Kang have been friends and colleagues for almost 20 years, and they both teach in GWU’s theater  department.

The experienced professors give the Street Sense vendors the same instruction that  George Washington students receive–but the vendors don’t pay. There’s no chalkboard, but there is an oral structure to the teaching. If the group gets too loud or out of control, the instructors will stop the show. The vendors are there to learn techniques to captivate the audience.

“Theatre and music offer means of self-expression, which is important to people who are often told by society that their lives – that they – don’t matter,” Jacobson says. “Theatre is the art of storytelling, so it provides a way for the participants to share their stories – their lives – which are of great value.”

She further explains that improvisational skills are important because they permit actors to explore and experience different lives.

Both Kitsos-Kang and Jacobson think they have seen the playwriting group participants grow as writers, actors and as people during the last six months. Jacobson cites, “their willingness to be open to us and to each other.”

October 24

 The construction work outside the church is so loud that Jacobson has trouble hearing her own voice. She starts the day’s workshop with a pep talk.

“It’s been a privilege to me to get to know you. We’ve been working on this project since May. You guys rock. We need you. I deeply respect the things that you do. I know life is complicated, but I really appreciate you.”

With only three sessions left before the big show, Jacobson needs to rely on her actors. She needs to be assured that her group members show up precisely and keep focused during the workshop.  “Can everybody come here at eleven next time? And not 15 minutes later.” The excitement in the group is palpable; it’s almost showtime. During the session, no one recognizes the noise outside.

“What’s your best memory so far?” “All of them have been good memories. I think my best memory will be when I’m getting on stage.”

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We believe ending homelessness begins with listening to the stories of those who have experienced it.