Christmas brings entertainments designed to stir our compassion and generosity, God bless us every one. But with a show at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre this weekend, a group of local women who’ve known homelessness just want to be heard and understood.
“Writing Home” features songs, poems, and stories from members of the On the Rise day program for homeless women in Cambridge. They’ve known hunger and fear, violence and sexual assault, loneliness and sorrow. All are on the upswing to a degree, whether still in a shelter or moving on to homes of their own. And for nearly a year they’ve been part of the Stories Without Roofs program, hoping to make people understand the complexity of their lives, the forces that brought them down and the ones that lift them up.
The idea is to “give voice to the voiceless,” says participant Alexandria Victoria Long.
The “social justice arts program” was created by Misch Whitaker, 31, a local actress and comedy performer by night who works by day as a registered nurse with Boston Healthcare for the Homeless Program.
“I had been there for seven years, and the stories of my patients were amazing and incredible stories that only I was getting the privilege of hearing,” she says. “But they weren’t my stories to share.”
Several conversations led her to bring the two parts of her life together. One was with famous doctor/activist/clown “Patch” Adams. Another was with local producer and production manager Pablo Rojas of Ministry of Theater, who remembered a London homelessness project she had admired.
“[Rojas] said, ‘What about the story thing in London you told me about? We could do something like that here.’ And we started putting all the pieces together.”
This is the second Stories Without Roofs production, after last year’s “Transitions,” written by men receiving assistance from the Salvation Army. Last year, Whitaker says, only one actor turned up for her first casting call. This year, she did a better job of publicizing it and ended up with several nights of auditions and a cast of five: actresses Kathleen Burke, Meagan Dilworth, Aaluk Edwardson, Jasmine Rush, and Marjorie Tatum. Rojas signed on to produce. A crowd-funding campaign raised $2,000 to support this year’s production.
“We are all in different stages and all have different writing capabilities,” says Long, 33, of Cambridge. “We have homelessness in common. Some of us are still homeless and some of us are not, but we [also share] this desire to share our stories.”
“For me, I find that writing is really healing,” said a 42-year-old woman who asked not to identified, in part because of what she’s been through, “tumbling out” of a solid life and landing in a domestic violence shelter, shocked by what she has experienced. (In the production’s credits, she uses the pseudonym Pris Olivia.) “I don’t use a lot of vocabulary. But I do show vividly the transition from one [life] to another.”
For many such women, sharing their stories is a fraught process, Long says. “Now they’re here in complete control. They dictate how they want it to come across. We’re able to talk among ourselves and support each other. That’s the point of On the Rise, to be a safe haven. And now you have a safe artistic haven.”
Long has her own place now and her GED, and is studying at Bunker Hill Community College, but she had been homeless on and off since her late teens, a life that took her from the pit in Harvard Square to all over the country. She has long thought of herself as a writer, though, which is not what people expect from homeless women, she says.
“I want to thank [Whitaker] on the record,” Long says with a smile. “Never once did she ever go, ‘Oh! You’re so articulate!’ ” They both laugh. “That is the deepest insult. It’s basically someone saying how wonderful that you are able to speak coherently.”
“Writing Home” is an interwoven series of scenes, songs, and monologues, edited by Whitaker after months of working with the women weekly to encourage and shape their writing.
“Telling your own story in your words is something that most people don’t realize is a privilege. Like Facebook. ‘I’m eating a sandwich right now,’ ” says Whitaker. “But when you get down to it, people who don’t have the access to that, they’re just telling their story to themselves, and maybe that story becomes very self-defeating, maybe other voices have started telling them what their story is, like a judge in court or a partner who wasn’t that great or the shelter system. You get told these stories about yourself, and you don’t have the power to shape your own story.
“We talk a lot in the beginning about your story is up to you,” she says. “You can say whatever you want because it’s your story. . . . When you structure your own narrative, you can gain a little more insight into your own identity. And once you’ve framed it the way you want to, you can look past that frame and go, ‘OK, what’s next?’”