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Street prophets and poets depict ‘A Day in the Life’ of the homeless in new play by Portia Love


 

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Portia Vivienne Love

 

Street prophets and poets depict ‘A Day in the Life’ of the homeless in new play by Portia Love

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the August 2019 edition of The Reader (thereader.com)

 

A new play by Omaha writer Portia Vivienne Love gives voice and face to a subject she has first-hand experience with – homelessness.

She actually wrote A Day in the Life before she was a resident of Stephen Center shelter in 2018. She wound up there, she said, through “life circumstances” that “could happen to anyone.” The reality of homelessness being only a crisis away for many average Americans is a key message of her work, which shows August  4 and 5 at B Side of Benson Theatre.

“I hope this play will help audiences see not all homeless people are at fault,” said Love, a poet. short story author and murder mystery novelist. “The majority of homeless people are not lazy. Many have mental health issues that perpetuate their homelessness.

“It is my wish everyone would spend one night in a shelter. A number of myths and misguided opinions about the homeless would be changed.”

Dispelling stereotypes is personal for Love, too, as she once regarded the homeless as shiftless bums unwilling to work. She even said so in the presence of a friend, who promptly schooled her on the myriad life situations that force folks to live on society’s margins.

“I was one of those people who said, ‘Why don’t they just get a job?’ I was an idiot.”

Her education took many forms. She worked as a vocational rehabilitation counselor in Omaha and Los Angeles with clients recently released from prison. They introduced her to their challenge of making it on the outside amidst employment, education, housing and healthcare barriers.

As homelessness became a big story, she heard and read more tales of people’s struggles.

“I started to find out who these people were through their stories and it impacted me very strongly.”

Love’s wired to care for those in need. She invites into her home strangers to celebrate the holidays.

“I can’t stand to see people alone on the holidays. so I have them over my place. I get that from my mother. We always had somebody else living with us because she could not stand to see any child without.”

Love’s the daughter of the late Betty Love and Omaha musician great Preston Love Sr.  She sang with her father’s band. Her brothers Norman and Richie Love are also musicians. So is her half-sister Laura Love. Portia’s surname befits her nature.

“I have deep empathy for people. I just hate to see people hurting and going through some of the things they go through. I have a heart for people in crisis. I always have, I always will, and I’m glad I’m that way.”

Writing for her is also a matter of the heart.

“In every writing workshop I do, I say, ‘Write from the heart.’  You’re not going to affect anybody if you don’t write from the heart and with passion.”

She wrote A Day in the Life a decade ago. She didn’t set out to write it as a play. “But,” she said, “in the end the best way I thought to approach this was as a play and to have chatacters step forward to tell you what has happened in their life to make them homeless.

It remains her only play.

Though her own brush with homelessness is not specifically referenced, it resonates with real-life woes depicted in the drama.

“My play is about life circumstances creating homelessness,” she said, whether through loss of job, loved one, a divorce or medical emergency.

“In my case, both of my daughters were in transition. I was out here floundering and didn’t have a place to stay, so I was going from one friend’s house to my daughters’ house, and here and there. Then someone told me Stephen Center would help me get housing, so I called there. They didn’t have a bed that night but said they said to call in the morning. I did and they had a bed.

“It’s not a situation you want to be in. The feeling I had while there was, I have my own space, I’m not in  anybody’s way, and I’m going to follow the rules necessary for me to be here right now. The 6 p.m. curfew was hard for me.”

On the other hand, she loved “living with this group of people and learning their stories. “

Center staff helped find her a low-rent apartment.

The fact someone as accomplished as Love (she has bachelor’s and master’s degrees) found herself homeless is emblematic of her plays’s theme. It’s why she designed the piece with homeless characters emerging from a street crowded with people of every walk of life to reveal their truth.

“My play takes place on a street corner. People are on their way to work, to the store, and some step up to the front of the stage from the crowd to tell their story.”

The characters include men, women and children. Some adults lament lost careers and families. Others rue losing themselves to addiction. These street prophets and poets riff to the beat of distant drums. A poem Love wrote well before the play is the show’s first soliloquy. It speaks to shattered dreams and the dichotomy of so much want amidst so much plenty.

“I decided it needs to be in this play because it speaks to what this play is all about. I think it really captures people that live in ghettos and impoverished areas.”

Long after writing the play, Love intersected with homelessness in ways that gave a point of comparison.

“Once I had the experience of living in a homeless shelter under my belt, I went back to the play to see if it was realistic, and I was kind of amazed how on track I was. I don’t know how, but I was really on the money.”

She’s also compared notes by gauging what she with what she lived driving a van for a homeless ministry.

“I formed relationships with these homeless men.” she said. “They loved me because I treated them like people.”

Again, she discovered that she’d gotten it right.

Today, she doesn’t need to look far to find people adrift. “Down the street from where I live a lot of homeless people stand with signs.” She sometimes talks to them and shares a hot meal.

Satisfied she painted an accurate interpretation, she heeded a mandate B Side director Amy Ryan, also known for her big heart, gave to produce the play there. Love then reached out to Jessica Scheuerman, who ran the Carver Bank where she did a residency, to help fundraise and market. Love also got the Nebraska Writers Collective, for whom she’s done workshops, to serve as her fiscal agent.

Casting the show, Love wanted authenticity, not training.

“I didn’t want actors. I wanted people who feel these parts because they’ve been there, identify with it, and will make the audience feel it. In readings and rehearsals it’s been powerful to see them execute their parts. Several people were silent after reading their parts before sharing how what’s in the script resonated with something that happened in their lives.”

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D. Kevin William, among the few professional actors in the piece, delivers the” Under the Rainbow” speech.

“He just captures all the right rhythms and inflections and feelings,” Love said.

Prepping the play has consumed most of Love’s time. It’s taken her away from marketing her new book of poetry, That’s All I Have to Say. She leads youth and adult writing workshops. When not writing for publication, she creates original works of art with her poems and sells them through her own Just Write 4 Me.

But for now, the play’s the thing.

“My whole focus has been on this and I don’t want to take the focus off. This play has been such a weight on my heart. I am so glad I finally have the opportunity to share it.”

Shows are at 7 p.m. at the B Side, 6054 Maple Street.

Tickets are $15. Bring a food or clothing donation for a $1 ticket discount at the door. Proceeds and donations will benefit Stephen Center, Siena Francis House and MICAH House.

Follow the writer at https://www.facebook.com/portia.v.love.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

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