By Shara Ashley Zeiger; Directed by Celine Rosenthal
Produced by Platform Group
Off Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 11.20.16
TADA Theater, 15 West 28th Street
by Ran Xia on 11.6.16
Shara Ashley Zeiger and Christopher Michael McLamb in Roughly Speaking. Photo by Den Sweeney.
BOTTOM LINE: A documentary play with rap about the homeless of NYC sheds new lights on the love, loss, joy, and sorrow of the people who are lost in the cracks of society.
Roughly Speaking is a play sprung directly from the trenches of a battle that thousands of New Yorkers find themselves an unwilling part of. Writer/performer Shara Ashley Zeiger bases her play on over 200 interviews with the NYC homeless. It zooms in on the invisible corners of the sidewalk, and brings into the spotlight the often deliberately forgotten members of our society. The stories take place at Xavier Mission’s Welcome Table Soup Kitchen where an eclectic group of characters share with the audience, as well as each other, their joys, sorrows, regrets, and their struggles to figure out what’s next. Their slices of life are tied together by the spirit of Lightning Bolt (Steven J. Michel), a former guest of the soup kitchen, a rapper bound to his wheelchair. With rhymes of his own, Lightning Bolt (L.B.) half narrates, half stitches the stories of various characters together in an attempt to shed light on the reality he has experienced.
Through L.B., Roughly Speaking introduces several guests at Xavier. There's Diana (Zeiger), who lost everything after the passing of her partner and her subsequent substance abuse, and is trying to start anew and possibly pursue a career as a social worker. Melissa (Joanie Anderson) is a student who sleeps on the subway with a dream of becoming a musician. Then there's Proper (Franz Jones), who wears a bowtie and talks of his childhood with such nostalgia and charm; Jose (Jones), a former doctor who fell into depression; and many more. Each character offers a different perspective into the life of New York's homeless population; they are, indeed, ordinary people who are faced with extraordinary obstacles.
One of the guests is Trudy (Troy Valjean Rucker), a gay man with AIDS who lights up whenever he talks about his mother’s cooking: "Food is life; food is family; food is love." These simple sentiments are what bind these people together. Soup kitchen chef Alicia (Madeline McCray) and her husband Tiny (Danny Bolero) offer a different perspective and insight into the homeless community. Coming from the deep end themselves, Alicia and Tiny represent the people who truly care about the differences a soup kitchen can make. Together they create, or at least attempt to create, a safe haven where the rejected members of society can share with one another a sense of community. The play also exposes the flaws in the system: the shelters and soup kitchens don't solve the problems of the homeless, but rather maintain the status quo.
Because of its documentary nature, Roughly Speaking is like a collage of various portraits of people from the streets; it's like a staged version of the Humans of New York project, or Elo Film’s 50 Moments, which is a series of films documenting personal accounts of the homeless. Zeiger is able to capture with great clarity the characters’ unique ways of communication, and develops a wide range of heartfelt stories.
Set Designer Jonathan Wetjen creates a simple yet effective set, making cafeteria tables and benches out of plastic crates and boards. Another important component is Willie Baronet’s WE ARE ALL HOMELESS art installation that the production sets up in the theatre lobby. The team also gives out street sheets—a mini pamphlet containing helpful information for the homeless—made by Coalition for the Homeless.
Roughly Speaking is a theatrical event with a goal to create positive change in our society. It is truly the most important kind of theatre, and deserves much attention.
(Roughly Speaking plays at TADA Theater, 15 West 28th Street, through November 20, 2016. Running time is 1 hour 30 minutes without an intermission. Show times are Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8, and Sundays at 2. There will be an additional performance on Monday November 14 at 8, and no performance on Wednesday November 16. Tickets are $25, with $3 from each ticket going towards purchasing backpacks for the homeless. Tickets are available at theplatformgroup.org or by calling 212-868-4444.)
Roughly Speaking is by Shara Rosenthal Zeiger. Directed by Celine Rosenthal. Set Design is by Jonathan Wetjen. Lighting Design is by Sophie Talmadge Silleck. Costume Design is by Shirlee Idzakovich.
The cast is Franz Jones, Danny Bolero, Christopher Michael McLamb, Steven J. Michel, Michael Twain, Madeline McCray, Troy Valjean Rucker, Shara Ashley Zeiger, and Joanie Anderson.