DO YOU SEE WHAT I'M SAYING?
at Edgewater Theatre Center
There are half a million to five million homeless people in America, depending on whom we believe. And more and more, experts agree, the homeless are women. We see them daily, panhandling in subways, sleeping in deserted newsstands at night, idling on any corner on Broadway. We may feel sorry for them or we may feel threatened, but we rarely if ever get close enough to tell the difference. That ambiguity and our unsettledness about responsibility and guilt make the issue morally compelling, so it's not surprising to see Chameleon Productions, a self-described "culturally diverse women's theatre company," making a statement about it.
The group's current production of Megan Terry's Do You See What I'm Saying, an update of her earlier Ex-Miss Copper Queen on a Set of Pills, is earnest enough. Aside from the usual cast biographies and pleas for funds, the program includes literature on homelessness, most of it about services for women. The list of credits thanks caretakers at women's shelters and homeless women who shared stories with the playwright and producers. One dollar from every ticket sold is going to shelters in Chicago.
But for all this research and communing with the homeless, for all the attempts to include the voices of real homeless women, this new script is more a curiosity than a triumph. More than anything it's an uneasy and unfortunate blend of old and new stereotypes.
I suspect most of the old script is in the stories of B.A., a wizened old veteran of the streets who sees herself as a prospector among the ruins of the city; Crissie, her unstable but charming young protege; and Copper Queen herself, now a hooker.
These three trade in the old, often heartwarming version of homelessness, appropriate enough for a script that was written more than 20 years ago--back when homelessness meant quaint characters and hoboes who jumped trains. Because the characters are women, the stereotypes are less fixed--except for the whore-with-a-heart-of-gold Copper Queen. But they are still clearly recognizable. B.A. is the alcoholic, righteous old thief who's not to be trusted, even though she takes care of Crissie. Crissie is the mentally ill but benign child of an old, possibly well-to-do San Francisco family. (She's our earliest clue that this can happen to anyone, so we're supposed to be sympathetic.)
As pathetic as the lives of these three are, the playwright imbues them with a certain romance. None of the three--not even the proud B.A., who refuses to acknowledge that she has ever been hurt by another person--is dangerous or in danger in any way. The homeless life may be lonely, but it's also safe and complete--with its own routines, its own rhythm and reason.
Unfortunately, this wholeness allows us to walk away thinking that maybe this is all for the best. These characters may not function any other way, might not be able to function anyplace else, may never be able to find anyone but each other. They're sentimentalized until they're pitiful, but never salvageable.
Though these three are so stereotypical and safe, we care about them a great deal more than the two characters I suspect Terry is using to "update" her script: Mychelle, an accountant suddenly homeless because her coke habit got the better of her, and Himilce, the tough-as-nails babe who has rationalized her being on the street as a choice, a way to higher consciousness.
Both of these women seem much more vulnerable to danger (Mychelle is slapped around by a pusher), and both of them seem more capable of violence, to themselves if no one else. But despite these touches of reality, they are merely stereotypes of a more contemporary era--one in which Mychelle can eschew responsibility for her situation by righteously claiming that she's been victimized and Himilce can shake her hips and claim that she's the ultimate liberated woman.
B.A., Crissie, and Copper Queen are doomed from the start--they're innocents. But we know that Mychelle will be saved--she's beautiful, educated, a mother unnerved by the inconveniences of street life, and a sinner willing to repent. She's the contemporary version of who we might become after some unforeseen but entirely possible disaster. And we know that Himilce will disappear into the underground, following her spiritual calling wherever it leads her.
The problem with these two is that they are more caricatures than characters. And while they talk plenty, they don't interact much. Mychelle gives us monologues; Himilce quips or responds with her own speeches. They're talking at us, not to us or to each other.
This leaves Do You See What I'm Saying without an emotional center, without a human conflict, without even despair--an emotion that should come through easily, given the situations being presented. But the greatest problem may be that the playwright and producers relied too much on reporting what they brought back from the homeless shelters, and not enough on exploring the meaning of their material.
There's nothing as simple as a story here. The play's too literal, too cool and clean. It would have been better if, in seeking authenticity, Terry and the Chameleon gang had not just talked to homeless women in shelters but had also spent a few nights out on the streets. After all, when we see those blank faces, how many of us wonder not about them but about us? How many of us fear that if we were ever to find ourselves homeless, we might not have what it takes to survive?
There is an attempt here at anger and even at fear, but it never goes anywhere. You never get the sense that these women smell, or that their stomachs rumble, or that their bodies ache. Had the production acknowledged this, instead of trying to be so damned politically correct, it might have better captured the horror, the pathos, and even the dignity it so desperately wants to show.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Roger Lewin--Jennifer Girard Studio.