By MICHAEL SMITH, 1/12/2005
More than just gypsies, tramps and thieves, these characters are vital and real
With her one-woman theater piece "Amazons, Gypsies and Wandering Minstrels," poet, playwright and spoken-word artist Deborah J. Hunter challenges stereotypes that people apply to the homeless and the mentally ill.
She hopes to enlighten a public that sees these people ambling around downtown and thinks not of their lives, dreams and hopes but of how to best stay out of their path, how to avoid a panhandling encounter.
In a preview performance of her show, which opens Thursday night, Hunter passionately spoke of "warrior women, survivors of great battles, who continue to survive even though they've been told they have no reason to."
Formerly a case manager at the Tulsa Day Center for the Homeless, Hunter spoke as someone who doesn't merely see a homeless woman on the streets -- she sees someone's daughter.
"A stranger in my daughter's skin comes through my door," says Hunter, playing the role of a mother who learns her daughter has been diagnosed as psychotic with paranoid tendencies. Hunter's delivery is at times rapid and energetic, then thoughtful and reflective. This moment is heartbreaking.
"I knew they meant schizophrenic. I can still remember the moment my heart ruptured . . . I still sometimes forget to breathe."
A heartbeat can be heard in the background of the Nightingale's intimate space as Hunter pauses, then takes on the role of the daughter, a ball of confusion speaking of "my mother who loves me" vs. "this woman who says she's my mother" and taking mind-altering medication "that erases my real mother." A new spotlight comes on, Hunter steps into it, and the mother re-enters.
"The last time she called me Mama was seven years ago, from the backseat of a deputy's vehicle," the mother says, recalling her daughter pleading, "Mama, I'll be good, just let me stay."
The emotions and memories seem real because many of them are. Hunter's daughter for many years lived on the streets of Tulsa, homeless and delusional, believing that Hunter was not her mother.
The poetry of Hunter's spoken-word theatrics is open to interpretation, but the ideas are in your face. If she could, Hunter would move her audience to action, hoping to seal some of the cracks through which the homeless can fall.
There are lighting and sound transitions as Hunter starts anew with talk of gypsies and minstrels of the streets, the homeless and mentally ill who go to so-called safe places only to be greeted with "shut up, don't talk back, do as you're told."
She speaks from experience as someone who's seen repeat customers in the system, someone who notices new bruises, who is immediately aware that a client has relapsed and is cranking once again.
Hunter transforms next into an indignant prostitute who's tired of all the free advice that shelter workers, priests, police and more want to provide. She makes it clear that now she's controlling the sex that she's having, unlike when she was 5 years old and being raped by her father.
This segment of Hunter's production runs a fiery 35 minutes and plays well in the Nightingale's intimate black box playhouse. The subject matter raises many concerns and questions, to which there are obviously no easy answers.
This show also includes "Feverish Whisper," Hunter's beautifully expressed short piece about the people at a mental health facility that debuted at SummerStage 2003's 24-Hour Play Festival. It stars four other women and offers some intriguing ideas about the difference between people considered to be "special" and people considered to be "normal."
Closing the show, which is directed by Nightingale Theater's John Cruncleton, is a change-up piece called "Bayou Stories," based on stories told to Hunter by a client of the Day Center.
A bit more theatrical, this journey back in time for stories of the black experience in Louisiana is a fond, humorous piece remembering people from the past, with extensive detail as to their looks, clothes, families, homes and manners.
It's a warm, familiar look at "the way things used to be." It's also a lot like listening to an interesting aunt or uncle tell largely forgotten family stories following Thanksgiving dinner -- in the hopes that a younger generation will tell these tales themselves someday.
Adding all the parts of this show together, the summation seems to be one of pushing people to pause, give thought to doing something of value for someone else, and then make it happen.
"AMAZONS, GYPSIES AND WANDERING MINSTRELS"
8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, also 8 p.m. Jan. 20-22
Nightingale Theater, 1416 E. Fourth St.
$8, 583-8487 [As of February 2007, 633-8666]