The homeless population in Norristown, Pennsylvania, has been asked to participate in a theater production of "In the Blood," a 1999 play loosely based on "The Scarlet Letter."
Instead of a story about shame and adultery in 17th century Boston, Suzan-Lori Parks' "In The Blood" is about a woman with five children -- each from a different absentee father -- living beneath a freeway overpass.
"Woman on the fringes because of expectations society has put on her, about what a woman is allowed to be, and still be respectable," said Rebecca May Flowers, artistic associate at Theatre Horizon. "We do deal with the letter 'A' and adultery, and Hester's other sins, having several children, not having a job."
For this production, Flowers produced an ancillary program called "Imagining No Homelessness," in which actors from the play went to homeless shelters – HopeWorx and the Coordinated Homeless Outreach Center (CHOC) – to perform selected scenes from the play and spur conversation with residents about homelessness.
CHOC founder Genny O'Donnell said the cast did not want to talk about the issues surrounding homelessness, but about people who are actually homeless.
"They loved the fact that people wanted to talk about them, about their life, and they had something to offer," said O'Donnell. She said when people normally talk about homelessness, they prefer to talk about social issues instead of the people who are actually homeless.
"People have a picture of an alcoholic man who won't work. 'People are lazy,' or 'Get a job,'" said O'Donnell. "There's so much more to it than that – so much more to people than that. Homelessness is not a result of laziness."
After seeing scenes from "In The Blood," the homeless partners at CHOC and HopeWorx were invited to participate in discussions and workshops about their experiences.
Tom Nance, whose arthritis makes him unable to continue working in factories, lost his apartment a year ago and is now a resident of CHOC. He likes the play, but says it is dated. "In the Blood" debuted 16 years ago, when it was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
"It's not as bleak as it was then. People are no longer in a position where, if they want a bigger check, they have another baby," said Nance. "Mental health is not something you can push away. There is an understanding that individual counseling is a much more conducive approach to recovery."
Nance will soon be going back to school to be a peer resource counselor, to help others in recovery. As a resident of CHOC, he is one of the "housing unstable" people invited by Theatre Horizon to see the full production of "In the Blood."
Another is Lynn Rivera. She has been homeless for 10 years, and the day she came to Theatre Horizon to see the play is the same day she got the keys to her first apartment.
"I just moved into my place today," said Rivera, still giggling at her good fortune. "It's considered a studio, but a spacious studio. It's nice and quaint, and just me."
Rivera had collaborated in workshops with Theatre Horizon and art students at Montgomery County Community College to make a collective art piece answering the questions, "What Is Home?" It is installed in the lobby of Theatre Horizon.
Rivera contributed a bamboo placemat with a handwritten note: Home is a sanctuary, your own Eden. Your heart of hearts. In essence, your home is your dreams.
"I can now go into my place with a new feeling of this is what home is," said Rivera. "Tranquility, the heart of your heart. You can decorate it any way you want. It's a sanctuary."
"In The Blood" continues through Saturday.
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