The March 2006 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee

 
 

National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website

 

 

In this issue:

Epidemic of Hate Crimes in U.S.

Radical Dream of Economic Rights

Bush's Budget Harms the Poor

Coretta Scott King's Fight for Equality

Disabled Tenant Faces Eviction in Marin County

Bob Mills: An Activist for the Long Haul

"Song of the Magpie": A Review

How Journalists Sanitize Deaths and Executions

"Ten Minutes, Then Jail" in Santa Cruz

Artists Help Homeless Children

"Warmth in Giving": Art of Elizabeth King

A New Book of Street Spirit Poetry

Homeless Youth Learns Empathy on the Streets

U.S. Is Truly an Orwellian Society

Stories and Fables from the Streets

Homelessness and Survival

Poor Leonard's Almanack: On Art and Artists

March Poetry of the Streets


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March 2005

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Street Spirit is published by American Friends Service Committee.

All works are copyrighted by the authors.

The views expressed in Street Spirit are those of the individual authors alone, and not necessarily that of the American Friends Service Committee.

"Song of the Magpie" Is a Masterpiece of Homeless Drama

Martha Boesing's new one-woman play about the Faithful Fools portrays the dangers, hardships and unexpected humanity that is found on the mean streets.

Review by Ellen Danchik and Terry Messman

Faithful Fools members sit in Civic Center Plaza for reflection on the streets. From left, J.D. Benson, ra Mu Aki, and Martha Boesing. Carmen Barsody photo

Martha Boesing's new, deeply moving play, "Song of the Magpie," is about a 69-year-old woman who goes out to experience the world as a homeless person. Boesing's one-woman play was performed at the Faithful Fools Street Ministry in San Francisco on March 11, 2006.

"Song of the Magpie" is based on the work of the Faithful Fools, a San Francisco-based organization that enables non-homeless people to go out into the world for a day, or in this case a week, in an attempt to experience at first hand the highs and lows of existence on the streets.

Martha Boesing wrote the play and also performs as the lead character, Walker, who walks out into the rough world of homelessness with only four dollars tucked in a pocket and a small backpack. Walker is very funny and animated and she vividly captures the spirit of life on the streets and in the shelters.

Later in the play, when she is admitted into an emergency shelter, she portrays the viewpoint and traits of each person at the shelter. In the final part of the play, she undergoes a metamorphosis into Sophie, a homeless woman who provides an unforgettable revelation of the life-and-death nature of life on the streets of San Francisco's Tenderloin district.

After beginning her odyssey into the hidden world of homelessness, Walker is forced to wait in line in the cold rain seeking admittance to a shelter. She finds that the admission process is coldly impersonal. No one asks anything about her and whether she is okay or has any emergency needs. It's all just business and it's very dehumanizing to go through.

Walker experiences the shelter as cold and friendless, filled with 70 metal bunk beds, and the ceiling and walls are painted a dismal gray. There are no windows at all in the cheerless enclosure.

One evening, while all the women are in beds in the shelter -- old women, young women, smart women, deranged women, all crowded together -- Walker beings singing a wistful song:
"Mid pleasures and palaces though I may roam.
Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home.
A charm from the sky seems to hallow us there,
Which seek through the world, is ne'er met with elsewhere.
Home, home..."

Earlier in the evening, Walker had seen a scary-looking woman who talks to herself a lot. Walker is a little alarmed as the woman "saunters assertively" up towards her, and she is worried that this all-too-real homeless woman will see that Walker is a fake homeless imposter singing a sentimental, sappy song.

But instead, the very woman that Walker worries might be violent sits down beside her and joins her in singing the song: "Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home." The scene is unexpectedly moving, as the formerly feared homeless woman tells Walker, "That's such a sweet song. I haven't thought about that song for years and years."

At 7:00 in the morning, the shelter forces all the women to leave. In real life, one of the key concerns of homeless people is the way they are shoved outdoors first thing in the morning, no matter their situation. One imagines what it must be like to be pushed out of your only "home" first thing every morning and forced to roam the streets aimlessly.

Walker spends the morning walking the streets of San Francisco and foraging for food. She talks about what it's like to beg for food and how humiliating it is to ask for help - how the people just look right through her.

She develops a routine that takes her through the familiar stations of poverty in San Francisco. Every morning she walks to the Senior Center and gets half a bagel and coffee; and then goes through the Farmer's Market in UN Plaza for little slices of apples and oranges.

From there, it's over to the long lines outside of St. Anthony's for lunch. She drinks the Kool Aid and saves part of the lunch for later, in a plastic bag. Later, she walks eight blocks to the Living Room, a daytime drop-in for homeless seniors, where she can get more coffee and cookies. Everyone is quiet there and soon she falls asleep, exhausted by the ordeal of living on the street. Finally, at the end of a long day, she goes over to the San Francisco Public Library, eats the remnants of her cold lunch from her sack, then heads back to the shelter.

As night falls, the shelter residents are each given a clean sheet and a blanket barely big enough to cover her five-year-old grandson. Some try to read; others put their blankets over their heads to find some measure of privacy in a room filled with 70 strange women.

Now that the scene is set, Walker tells a little bit about the shelter's residents.

Carla rolls over in her cot and says plaintively that she wants her baby back. Gracie, her 94-year-old lunch pal, says her daughter is trying to take away her pension, but she won't let her have it, and she insists that she's not paranoid.

Raquel massages her legs, files her nails and pulls out one or two gray hairs; and then she yells at people to not touch her bed! Catalina gets up and dances. She struts and performs for all the women and sings for them. But Yellow Jacket gets upset with Catalina's singing and tells her she's a slut. She carries on and on until the attendant rushes in and tells them all to be quiet.

And in the middle of the night, Emma dies. She's taken away in a body bag. If no one claims her, she will be cremated, the fate of homeless people in San Francisco with no families to intercede. Walker wonders if Emma knew that she was about to die, and if she came to the shelter seeking help and warmth and comfort as she neared the end.

These experiences trigger many troubling thoughts about homelessness in Walker -- and in the audience. She begins to wonder how, prior to her eye-opening experiences on the streets, she could simply walk out of Whole Foods with her bags full of groceries and not even see the people there looking hungry.

Her eyes have been newly and painfully opened to the suffering, sickness, malnutrition and pain on the streets all around her. It is reminiscent of the awakening of the Buddha, who was profoundly shocked when he first walked out of his sheltered palace life to see a world teeming with sickness, suffering, old age and death.

Walker questions why some people are able to eat lobster while others are lucky to have just a little rice. She begins to feel great fear at how violent and unjust the world around her has become.

At this point in the play, Walker morphs into Sophie, a woman who reveals everything to her. Sophie had been a writer and teacher, similar to Walker. Sophie lays bare the full tragedy of homelessness with a scathing outburst of social criticism that rings true in confronting the real-life injustices in San Francisco.

Sophie gives a blistering critique of Mayor Gavin Newsom's "Care Not Cash" program. "They sit around on those big leather chairs down at City Hall and they think up ways to get rid of the problem... like why not take a huge chunk of money out of every homeless person's General Assistance welfare check and build a couple of houses with one or two 'affordable' rooms with that money. Now there's a solution: Three thousands homeless folks paying for 500 or so places to live in. What happens to the other two thousand five hundred who haven't got a penny left for food or a newspaper or medicine or a bar of soap, just for starters?"

Sophie tells Walker that she, as a housed person, has no idea what being homeless is really like after walking around like a homeless person for only a week.

Sophie gives Walker a vivid, harrowing description of the night terrors she has of growing old on the streets. The fears that spill out of Sophie should be required reading for every political official in the land, especially those who vote to criminalize and persecute homeless people.

Sophie says, "What's gonna happen to me when I get even older than this? What if I get sick in the middle of the night? What if I throw up all over the street? What if I go blind? What if I lose a leg, break my hip? What if I get cancer? Who'll take care of me? Who'll be with me? When I think about dying alone on the streets, or in a shelter, some kind of panic grabs me right here...."

Sophie says she once read a book written by a woman who had lived in nomad cultures, and found that nomadic people were kinder and wiser than people living in their separate boxes. But it is no longer easy to be a nomad in a culture that persecutes the homeless wanderer.

You should make absolutely sure to see this play because Martha Boesing just hits on everything essential, and conveys both the individual's harsh experiences on the streets, along with the political injustices perpetuating homelessness. Most importantly, Boesing somehow reveals the inward fears and joys and the hidden, deep emotions that very few artists could render so well on stage.

The last emotion to spill out of Sophie is so deeply illuminating about the human condition. Sophie says that at times, when living on the streets, you become deeply aware of the shifting nature of the reality all around you. She explains: "And then sometimes when there's absolutely nothing left for you to hold onto, the veil between the visible world and the invisible world gets thinner and the heart breaks open."

Martha Boesing has found a way to break through that veil separating the visible world from the invisible. In doing so, she indeed breaks our hearts open. Her play is wise and brilliant and I would see her as a prophet for our time. In "Song of the Magpie," she has created a masterpiece. She is funny and sad at the same time and somehow brings out all the joy and bitterness and inner chaos and wisdom of the women she portrays.

At the end of the play, Boesing likens magpies to shamanic healers, wanderers, homeless persons. She sings a beautiful song to the magpies that ends with these lovely lyrics, a prayerful appeal for grace and enlightenment:

"Spirit of truth and love,
Lifegiving holy dove,
Speed forth thy flight,
Move on the water's face
Bearing the gifts of grace,
And in earth's darkest place,
Let there be light."


Song of the Magpie
Martha Boesing's play is available for touring.

This moving play can be performed in churches, schools, community halls, coffee shops, or even in your living room. For information, call (510) 530-6188 or (415) 474-0508. Contact: Faithful Fools, 234 Hyde Street, San Francisco, CA 94102. www.faithfulfools.org


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