The Street Sense theatre group, Staging Hope, was invited to The George Washington University (GWU)’s Marvin Center last month, expressing through monologues, poems and songs the physical and emotional challenges of being homeless.
‘Straight Talk from the Streets’ prosaw vendors Reginald Black, Chon Gotti, Cynthia Mewborn, Robert Warren, Angelyn Whitehurst, and Robert Williams perform for 45 minutes in front of a near ly packed house. “Theatre performance gives us the opportunity to empathize with others, especially those whose circumstances seem different from our own—people often marginalized by the dominant culture,” Leslie Jacobson, GWU Theater professor and creative instructor for the production, said. “That empathy can translate into action if people become sufficiently moved.”
For weeks, Jacobson had been working with the Street Sense players to prepare scripts to highlight, through theatre and performance, their personal stories and poignant observations of homelessness. The powerful production challenged audience members to confront their own attitudes and preconceptions.
“Please don’t give me the back of your hand, please wave. Smile. and please say hello. Just walk up won’t you? All I need is a hand up – not a hand out,” — just one of the resonating takeaway messages.
Angelyn Whitehurst questioned another passerby, “How do you know someone is homeless? Is it the way we dress, a hairstyle, a particular aroma? What exactly makes you know we are home AND less?”
A particularly vivid sequence of scenes was set at the Mayor’s office. The interaction involved a mayor’s aid interviewing homeless advocates about what the Mayor should do to fight homelessness in D.C.
“One major concern is that the majority of veterans here in D.C., in Chicago, in Boston are homeless…people who fought life and limb for the security that everyone, everyone in America, enjoys today,” Robert Williams begins.
“I understand, it is a travesty. We have to do something about this. I’ll pass this on to the Mayor,” the assistant responds.
“I’m a veteran myself and we come back home in ample need of housing, employment, affordable health care…the media says there are so many services out there….if so, then why are there so many veterans homeless?” Williams continued.
“I’m sorry but I have a meeting to go to now, thank you” the assistant said as she exited.
The pattern of an impassioned plea for change met with a bureaucratic empty promise was repeated with each vendor. The scene clearly depicted the struggle to put policy change on the discussion table.
The final scenes returned to more empowered images. Each performer stood tall and proud as they outlined what they had found since joining Street Sense.
“I’ve lost many things since being homeless – my identity, my self-respect, my self-esteem, but I found myself again at Street Sense. It awoke dormant qualities within me and has bought the best out of me,” said one.
“I’m not a nobody anymore,” offered another.
“I used to sell drugs, now I sell ideas,” another still.
“People need love and support and that’s what I find there.”
If student perspectives following the production were any indication, Staging Hope succeeded in leaving lasting impressions.
“There are conversations starting among the students – some of them are looking into going into public policy or similar field.” Black remarked after the performance. “Whether its local or federal, these are some of the things they are going to encounter. To be able to connect with those departments, that is a key thing.”
Black believes reaching out to future lawmakers is an essential part of raising awareness. The event was part of GWU’s participation in Hunger and Homelessness Awareness week. Other campus activities included a food drive, a food budget challenge and several panel discussions on issues regarding hunger and homelessness, including a panel discussion following the theater performance.
“Everybody knows that homelessness is a problem But no one really knows what it is like to be In the shoes of the person. Tonight really brought it together – The real troubles and hardships that homeless people go through,” said student, Regina Park. “I definitely want to see more people, students and non students get involved in this cause.”