Street Sense Takes the Stage

Feature: Homeless writers share their stories

August 28, 2013

In a small room in the Church of the Epiphany in downtown Washington, D.C., a klatch of would-be playwrights sat in a circle and tried to hash out an ending.

One member of the group had an idea for a play with a "big reveal" at the end—the sort of moment that flips the viewers on their head.

"Alfred Hitchcock already did that," another said.

"Of course Alfred Hitchcock did that, because he was brilliant."

The group of 10 was predominantly black and skewed toward middle age, but beyond that they diverged in all manner of politics, dress, and experience. One was wearing a button-down shirt, another a "Justice for Trayvon" shirt.

The only common link: They struggle with homelessness. Some recently made it off the streets. Others are still working on it.

The theater group is a project of Street Sense, a D.C. newspaper written and sold by local homeless people. Once a week for an hour and a half, the group meets in the church to share and workshop their writing. Ostensibly, it’s a playwriting group, but the content often veers into poetry, monologues, open letters, etc.

Two professors from the George Washington University Department of Theater and Dance, Leslie Jacobson and Elizabeth Kitsos-Kang, steer the meetings and give writing prompts to the members.

The goal of the theater group is to stage a smattering of its work at an event near George Washington University sometime in October.

Jacobson said the event would be "one way of showing what Street Sense and the people who go here are about."

A George Washington theater student brought the idea to Jacobson and Kitsos-Kang, who in turn pitched Street Sense.

"Theater has a great opportunity to tell stories of people who don't always get their stories told," Jacobson said.

The writing prompt the week I attended was, "If you could change one thing about yourself or the world, what would it be?"

The group is tight knit and has been meeting since May. They all requested their comments during the meeting not be quoted by name because what they shared with each other is deeply personal.

"If I could change anything, I wish I hadn’t seen some of the things I’ve seen," one member said. "But those are my experiences. I had to live that."

Jacobson and Kitsos-Kang nudged the discussions along and offered nuggets of advice, but for the most part the meeting is freewheeling. The conversation ranges wide and deep, from identity to politics to nationalism.

When they weren’t talking, the members were busy scribbling into composition books. Many choose to approach the writing prompt with a monologue or poem.

"I want to know how my words will affect a crowd," one writes.

At the end of the meeting, everyone got up, held hands, and sang a short song about never giving up, swinging their arms to the beat.

Afterward, I caught up with two Street Sense vendors who are part of the group.

Jeffrey McNeil, 44, was wearing a button-down shirt and a tie. He writes columns on politics for Street Sense, most of them taking a hardline conservative stance, which makes him somewhat of an anomaly among the paper’s vendors.

Cynthia Mewborn is also a vendor and writes a column about environmental and health issues for the paper. Other than the professors, she was the only woman in the writing group. While the other members are prone to jabber, Mewborn is soft-spoken and talks with laconic precision.

According to his Street Sense biography, McNeil lived in Atlantic City, N.J. for a while and got into gambling, but the house kept on winning. He moved to D.C. for a fresh start but couldn’t find a job.

Likewise, Mewborn said she wasn’t able to find a job and lost her place. A friend told Mewborn about Street Sense a couple years ago.

Neither had any experience writing for a publication before joining Street Sense.

"Before I came to Street Sense I only had about a ninth grade education," McNeil said.

Now they both work with professional editors in the writers group that also meets once a week at the church.

I first learned about the playwriting project several months ago talking with Street Sense executive director Brian Carome for a profile of another of the paper’s vendors. Carome believes providing an outlet for writing is perhaps the most important service that Street Sense offers.

"It’s far more impactful than the money the paper puts in the vendors’ pockets—the sort of transformative opportunity to understand that your story has power and is engaging," Carome said.

I was interviewing Kitsos-Kang and Jacobson after the meeting when one of the vendors popped back in to talk briefly with the two professors. He was a baby boomer—white with thinning grey hair and walking with a chipped, wooden cane. Earlier, he had talked about being a young actor in New York City and his later battles with depression, bitterness, and homelessness.

He turned to me before he left. "She was my drama teacher back when I was in college," he said, gesturing toward Jacobson. In his northeastern accent, "drama" came out like the first half of "Dramamine."

He and Jacobson found each other back in class some 30 years later, in a stuffy room in the upstairs of an Episcopalian church, still hashing out the writing.

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