Vanguard’s ‘Runaways’ builds empathy
Concert version of the musical by Elizabeth Swados
Presented by Vanguard Theater Company
Saturday, March 30, 8 p.m.
First Congregational Church,
40 South Fullerton Ave.
In partnership with Covenant House, Toni’s Kitchen, the Human Needs Food Pantry, Montclair Film and other Essex County partners.
Suggested donation of $10 plus a can or box of food.
By GWEN OREL
Being homeless as a teenager is rough.
Being a homeless teenager with a cello is especially rough.
“Other people who were homeless would try to rob me. They’d ask me, ‘What’s that in the case?’” said Jessie Edwards. He’d say “It’s nothing, it’s nothing, it’s just my clothes.”
Edwards, who is now 26, will play that cello in Vanguard Theater Company’s concert presentation of “Runaways” on Saturday, March 30.
Montclair’s Township Council issued a proclamation March 19 honoring Vanguard and naming March 30 Teen Homeless Awareness Day.
“Runaways,” by Elizabeth Swados, is a collage of voices of runaway teens, first presented in 1978.
VTC’s concert version is a sung-through presentation of the show they presented in New York City this past January. The production is part of DREAM VTC, a program supported by grants from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, and TeeRico by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Managing Director Jessica Sporn explained that DREAM VTC pairs theater with social issues, to give back to the community in some way.
VTC Dream partnered early on with Covenant House, a large nonprofit agency in the Americas that provides services to homeless and runaway youth. Covenant House has homes around the world, including Newark and New York City. It also has a location in Montclair, Nancy’s House, for young people with mental issues.
Edwards used to live at Covenant House, which connected him to “Runaways.” He became homeless when his father kicked him out of the house on his 18th birthday. He had stepped in to protect his aunt when his father was trying to hit her.
“I went over to my best friend’s house to cool down for two hours. When I came back, I tried to use the key, and couldn’t get in,” Edwards said.
His father had changed the lock. Although he was still in high school, Edwards was now homeless. “It was like getting kicked out behind my back.” His mother was deceased. Edwards was on the streets for almost a year.
“I still practiced when the day was beautiful,” he said. Sometimes he was able to stay with a friend or family member. It was hard to get enough sleep, worrying about his instrument.
“Runaways” is the fifth show that Maya Joyce, 17, of Montclair has performed with Vanguard Theater Company.
“Everyone’s run away from something at sometime in their lives,” she said. “I think everyone can relate to the show in some capacity.” The show brings attention to the issue of youth homelessness, but it’s also about “being lost, and finding a home in a place where you wouldn’t expect it.”
She has a small monologue from the point of view of a homeless 10-year-old.
The cast did research together, and she did some on her own, to find a way to be truthful to her character, she said.
Director Janeece Freeman Clark (co-founder and artistic director of VTC) provided the cast with a packet about homelessness on the first day of rehearsal.
Among the things the cast learned:
- One in seven youths between the ages of 10 and 18 will run away from home at some point;
- 12 percent of New Jersey’s 18-to-24-year-olds live in poverty; and
- Over 5,000 unaccompanied youth die each year on the streets.
Alexandra Polimeni, development associate at Covenant House, Newark, said that VTC had reached out several months ago.
“One of the things I love about this work is seeing kids helping kids,” she said. “It builds empathy in every student that participates. It opens their eyes, and makes them grateful for what they have.”
Sporn said the cast didn’t just want to sing about the issue, they also wanted to do something about it.
On Saturday, they will: the concert version will be followed by the teens doing a sleep out overnight following the concert, on the grounds of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, 73 South Fullerton Ave., and they will raise money for a number of different organizations including Toni’s Kitchen and the Human Needs Food Pantry.
ENTERING A WORLD
The 45-strong cast began rehearsing one day a week in October, at the Montclair Co-op school.
“We created a whole gallery of photographs of kids from Covenant House,” said Sporn. Joyce said that another thing that helped her understand what it might be like to be homeless was the way the cast were onstage in “neighborhoods” as the audience walks in, staying in character. “It was a good idea to show the audience that it isn’t just a play and you leave and don’t have to think about it anymore. It’s an issue that you always have to address,” she said. “It helps the audience come in to the world that we’re creating.”
Olivia Ridley, 16, of West Orange, said she learned from her research that a lot of New York runaways are not born in New York. “These are still people with personalities, and emotions, and they hurt,” she said. Staying on stage provided a feeling of authenticity to the show, she said. It’s not a place you can leave.
Edwards is now a music major at Montclair State University.
He wants to teach music, and to perform. When he was homeless, it was hard to get enough sleep because he would be watching his instrument.
He hopes “Runaways” will help people see beyond the stereotype of a homeless person as an older drunk or addict. “There are many shapes of homelessness,” he said. “People lose somebody, or can’t pay the rent, and become homeless. Peope have an argument. Or get pregnant.” If people learn more about homelessness, they won’t be so quick to judge, he said.
For director Freeman Clark, presenting “Runaways” with teen actors is a way to help them build their own activism. “These performers may not become professional actors,” she said, “but they will know they can use their art form to create change and bring awareness to issues.