Home is a Beautiful Word
A play collected and edited by Joel Bernbaum
Directed by Michael Shamata
The Belfry Theatre, Victoria
January 7-19, 2014
Reviewed by Joy Fisher
The complexity of homelessness in Victoria B.C. shines like a multifaceted gemstone catching the sun one facet at a time in the world premiere production of Home is a Beautiful Word now playing at the Belfry Theatre.
Commissioned and directed by the Belfry’s artistic director, Michael Shamata, the play is the product of two years of hard work, most notably by playwright/journalist Joel Bernbaum, who interviewed more than 500 people from all walks of life and perspectives, including many homeless people, and then edited the resulting 3,000 pages of transcript into a two-act play that holds its own as both a work of art and an exploration of a persistent social problem.
Five actors, two women and three men, give voice to 58 individuals in this production of “verbatim theatre”—where all the lines are taken exactly from the transcripts of the interviews. The actors leaned heavily on their dramatic skills to distinguish one speaker from another, and this effort was augmented by changes in costume, positioning on stage and the timing of entrances and exits. One particularly effective example of stagecraft was the use of a rotating stage to simulate a car tour of the downtown neighbourhood conducted by one interviewee.
In spite of this careful attention to craft, however, it was sometimes difficult for the audience to keep track of changes in speakers, although some stood out more clearly than others.
The expressed intention of the play is to allow theatregoers to see homelessness from a “new perspective.” For this reviewer, that new perspective came from an interviewee whose story emerged gradually as the play progressed. This person had opened a beauty school, but unanticipated incursions of street people into his facility eventually ruined his business and he lost his own home after he defaulted on his business loan. He emerged from this experience with his own perspective changed, considering the possibility of a new career in the helping professions. What set him apart from the homeless, he believed, was that he still had his “pride.”
Other vignettes that stood out included a monologue by the mother of a homeless woman who described the anguish she experienced because of her daughter’s precarious situation and another of a homeless woman who felt shamed in her daughter’s eyes when she didn’t have enough money to pay for her groceries and had to leave them at the counter.
The play provides no easy solutions to homelessness, but it offers an opportunity to encounter the problem in all its complicated thorniness.
The theme of “pride” and “shame” emerged more strongly in the “afterplay” discussion, when two people rose to share their experiences of homelessness. The woman complained that the play didn’t depict the “positive” aspects of homelessness. She had been banned from many hostels because of her outspokenness, she said, but had found acceptance among her homeless compatriots. When she voiced criticism of some in the homeless “industry,” a number of audience members, presumably working in that industry, rose en masse and left.
The man, who said he suffered from a brain injury, spoke at length about his personal travails. In both cases, members of the audience grew restless at what they clearly considered disruptive behavior and eventually drove these speakers from the hall.
In the play program, Michael Shamata compliments Joel Bernbaum for his “humanity and generosity.” He “made it possible for everyone to feel safe enough to share their most intimate stories,” Shamata said. The interactions during the afterplay discussion stood out in sharp contrast.
Joy Fisher graduated from the University of Victoria in 2013 with a BFA in writing; she is a member of the Playwright’s Guild of Canada.