No one thinks that they’ll end up homeless.
A few years ago a friend of mine came to the conclusion that that was in fact what she was. A single mother, living with friends, without an end in sight. When she had to explain her situation to those in a position to help her, they labeled her: homeless. The title shocked her. She never thought she’d end up there.
When Gregg D. Garner, writer and director of HOMELESS, purposed to explore the issue of homelessness in his last production, he had a specific angle in mind: as human beings, we’re more similar than different. As he stated in the Q&A after the final showing, “Having never been homeless, it would have been hard to [write this] from the first-person perspective. I wanted to close the gap. How are we more similar to people that are homeless, than different? For many of us, it doesn’t take much to wind up on a bench, or on someone’s couch, or moving city to city, trying to find ourselves.”
Everyone can relate to life not being what you expected, intended, or imagined it to be. One small turn to the right or the left can lead you winding down an unknown path, with no exit in sight. It’s like we are driving the car, but there are other cars on every side, bumping and thrusting and honking and slamming on their brakes, making the way we drive more a response to the traffic jam all around us than a peaceful drive on an open road.
Garner’s production was anything but simple or cliche. In fact, one local critic called it an amazing intellectual achievement. HOMELESS dealt with the lack of distance with which we all walk from a life on the streets. The play explores that we are more than just the sum of our choices. We are also the result of the choices of others, that find their way into our own stories, taking us places we didn’t expect we would go.
One of the more startling realizations I faced when watching HOMELESS is that it isn’t just a person’s parents, or spouse, or siblings that have this immense ability to affect that person so deeply. It can be a first love, a momentary acquaintance, a peer. In HOMELESS, each of these people were absorbed into the life of the main character, Nod (Hebrew for ‘wandering’), causing him to question who he was, perpetually. The audience learns that a lot of questions root back to his parents, who were only steps ahead of their parents. Flashbacks and familiar lines help the audience see that some experiences are stuck on repeat, for generations at a time. But the parents’ story was only one narrative, interwoven with several others, with significant characters and others strikingly not, all of them bearing an impression upon Nod’s identity.
Though all of us are born a blank slate, full of potential and possibility, a story begins to be written on the tablet as soon as we cry, and our parents don’t know what to do. “Why’s he crying?” the father yells, and the mother cries back, “I don’t know!” He continues, “Is he hungry?” “I don’t know!” “Are you stupid?” “I don’t know!”--the chilling scene exposes that the baby isn’t the only one in need of growth. So often, life begins with adults who don’t know where they’re headed. This baby did not ask to be born into this story. Yet, he is here, being written upon before he is able to write. And because the frontal cortex takes so long to develop (as the witty character Bowman comments at one point), the impressions expand even into young adulthood, where you want to trust a person’s choices, but still can’t.
In the play, everyone is a writer. An allusion, Gregg reflected in the Q&A, of the story each life tells. “Writing is living life,” he said, “so everyone is a writer.” The parallel has depth. The block that a writer endures as they attempt to create their masterful work is the same stumbling process we go through as we attempt to make this life something beautiful, but can feel like everything is standing in our way.
“At a certain point, there is too much to rewrite, you can’t do it,” Garner said.
But, it also depends on perspective. As Alfred, a professorial character that has synthesized the good parts of Nod’s life explains, we live twice--once as it happened, and again through memory. And sometimes, the second time through allows us to release the pain we went through as a child. A second look allows us to make amends that though our dad’s smack on the head initially bruised our psyche, it was better than his dad’s fist, and therefore in the long run, a sign of progress. We are all making small steps, and it’s marked in the rhythm of the play. “One step forward, two steps back,” or one glance forward and 20 stumbles back, questioning if redemption from a mess of a life is even possible.
The play’s verdict: it is.
Settling with the blows life has dealt you, and forgiving those who wrote less than ideal impressions on your life, is a tough one. For Nod, it’s one he’s not even confident he can do as he whacks both sides of his head and screams at the confusion life has brought him.
But in Act Two, you see the option between the blue editing pen and the red one. Blue: the option to synthesize a mature reflection and all of the good intentions, in order to find good in dark places. Red: cutting oneself off from every impression that isn’t connected to cold, hard logic. We each have to pick a pen. Unless we choose the blue, it’s a dark and lonely path where the past is fought rather than befriended.
If we choose to re-read the story, rather than edit out the pain through any variety of anesthesia, there’s a possibility for a new start.
Again, it’s not cliche. The play gives evidence to the work of redemption written by someone who is obviously acquainted with the process. HOMELESS helped audiences acknowledge that homelessness is not just about a lack of shelter, but a lack of peace. It brought back to mind the friend of mine, who didn’t come out of homelessness through a shelter or soup kitchen, but in the presence of caring individuals who helped her live a second time, this time through memory, as the play prescribes.
Benjamin Reese, who played Nod, said in the Q&A: “One of the interesting things about this play is that most plays have an end point, but this play’s end is its beginning. I think it’s an accomplishment for someone to reach a true beginning, to feel like the future is not determined by the patterns that they’ve set in the past. If I’ve failed one relationship, that doesn’t mean I’m going to fail every one... When Nod reaches the end of this play, I think he finds a healthy beginning, which is to ask “Who am I?”
As an audience member, I felt a sigh of relief. No more fighting. No more wishing things were different. No more guilt from the father and no more anger from the son. Both are able to say, “It’s not what I would have chosen, but it’s what I have, and that’s ok.” Then, they can both walk in peace. They can find a home.
Picking up your bags requires you lay down your baggage, to make friends with your past. Though not many of us would choose what we’ve been given, perhaps it’s not as bad as we think, upon a second viewing. Perhaps there is wisdom to be gleaned. That wisdom--a gift--is our ticket out of the ever-present loop, allowing us to walk into the future, making this place home.
It’s an accomplishment for someone to reach a true beginning.