By Robert Digitale
Getting strangers to share their stories takes perseverance, especially when the tales involve homelessness as well as hope, abuse as well as acceptance.
Over the last nine months, members of Santa Rosa Junior College’s Theatre Arts Department collected dozens of life stories from students and alumni. A 12-member cast now is presenting those interviews in a striking montage, an original production entitled “Leaving Home.”
The play, which premiered Friday, drives home two truths.
First, here is a generation that is globally connected. Among the students portrayed are those coming from or returning to families in Hong Kong, Mexico, South Africa, Eritrea, Palestine, Brazil, Iran, Cambodia and Ukraine.
Second, many of the students strolling college campuses are carrying weights far heavier than their backpacks. The mostly young interviewees (with a few elder returning students sprinkled in) shared struggles dealing with bulimia, divorce, alienation, physical and emotional abuse, molestation, incarceration, combat, bullying and living as a transgender person.
“Leaving Home” came about after a report that roughly 800 students at the junior college were homeless. Part of the play’s impetus was to learn some stories of those students, and the monologues from those interviews proved memorable.
“Without a home, you start to disappear,” says one character. People tend to view the homeless as a “subhuman segment of society.”
In shepherding this production, Director Laura Downing-Lee last January gathered a team of students and volunteers for a work of “devised theatre,” one in which the participants would collaborate in creating the script. The group met weekly and eventually gathered over 45 interviews. Actors started creating original scenes from those interviews and at the end of May gave a workshop performance.
Over the summer, four members of that team helped Downing-Lee shape the final play. An entire script was first made ready a little over two weeks ago, with a final script finished three days before the premiere, she told Friday’s audience.
The play’s 12 cast members portray students in a fictional humanities class starting in the fall semester of 2015. Their group assignment involves interviewing students on the theme of leaving home. The actors also take turns briefly portraying more than 30 students who have given the interviews.
During the course of the school year, outside events will touch the students, including the anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, the devastating Valley Fire in Lake County, a mass shooting at an Oregon community college, the Zika epidemic and the 2016 U.S. presidential primaries.
The play’s approach requires considerable narration in order to set up each of the quickly changing scenes, as well as to serve as the introduction for each student’s story. The payoff comes when the cast shifts into presenting those interviews. The actors convincingly embody a variety of characters. And their lines in these brief vignettes are crisp and thought provoking.
I came away feeling I had gotten a good glimpse into the struggles and hopes of a new generation.
A tip of the hat to the company, including Daniel Banales, Isiah Carter, Daniel Conner, Shea Dorrell, Sheila Farmer, Poliento Ico III, Alex Jimenez, Devon Keelty, Odalis Medianero, Siobhan O’Reilly, Julie Schuldt and Mika Shepherd.
I also want to highlight the team that last spring accomplished the initial groundwork for the production, including Daniel Banales, Brianna Bohnett, Daniel Connor, Poliento Ico III, James Johnson, Brett Mollard, Julie Schuldt, Alex Sterling, Howie Strandin, Petyon Victoria, Desmond Woodward, Coleton Wilson, Jack Yaeger and Molly Umhotz.
The play, recommended for ages 14 and above, continues Wednesday and runs through Oct 16 at the college’s Newman Auditorium in Emeritus Hall. For more information and tickets, click here.