There was a time when Devonshae Ali, Kimberly Romine and Gary Shepard had no place to call home.
Now they all have not only permanent addresses but a new mission: helping people see what it's like to be homeless, through a play to be staged this weekend by St. Louis’ True Community Theatre.
Elaine Ellis, who founded the company and wrote the script for "Less," doesn’t fancy her project as comparing in any way with St. Louis’ more professional theater offerings.
“We are just sort of 'the little play that could,'” Ellis said.
Employed, educated … and homeless
A character named Alice lives with mental illness, and communicates only through songs of the 1960s.
“All the leaves are brown and the sky is gray,” she sings, from The Mamas & the Papas' "California Dreamin,'" as she enters the stage.
Alice is among a half-dozen characters who have no place to call home. They spend their days in public libraries, fast-food restaurants and parks. Devonshae Ali, who plays Alice, knows what that’s like.
When she was 20 years old, Ali, now 46, went through a rough patch that included sleeping on friends’ couches around St. Louis. Having little control over her life was frustrating.
“Whenever they left, I had to leave too,” Ali said. “So whenever they left the next day to get up and leave for work, I had to find something to do until it was time for me to go to work.”
At the time, Ali was a preschool teacher, not making quite enough money to afford rent.
“Oftentimes, people have that stereotype that if you’re homeless, you don’t have a job,” Ali said. “But you can have a job and still be homeless.”
Another stereotype is that people who are homeless are uneducated.
“At that time, I had an associate’s degree and I was in school working on a bachelor’s,” she said. “And here I am now; I have a master’s degree.”
‘Close to my heart’
A professor who helps people who are homeless write poetry is another character in the play. The actor, Kimberly Romine, 43, feels a connection to the script.
“This play is real close to my heart because I’ve lived it,” Romine said.
Romine sees a lot of herself in the character of the caring professor.
“I help a lot of people. I give advice to my friends,” Romine said. “And if someone needs money, if I have something to give, I’ll give, I’ll give them money.”
In her real job, Romine sells tickets at a movie theater. Back when she lived in local homeless shelter for two years, she was grateful she had a roof over her head. But the situation required her to watch her back.
“People taking your things, people fighting, arguing a lot,” Romine said. “When people argue or get loud it makes me very afraid, and I want to crawl under something and get away real quick.”
Gary Shephard, 54, who’s also in the play, has his own beef with shelters. Rather than live in one, he spent seven years sleeping on the streets of St. Louis.
“I basically slept on every block in downtown, behind every dumpster," Shepard said.
Temperatures in St. Louis can dip below zero. Shepard scoffed at the idea that he could have frozen to death.
“Once you wrap up in two or three blankets, you’d be surprised how the body can hold heat,” he said.
The ordeal was worth it, when he thought about how it felt to be in a shelter.
“It reminded me of prison, it reminded me of jail and I just couldn’t do it,” Shepard said.
But later, after one actual jail experience, Shephard stopped abusing drugs and began living in supported housing. Now, he does odd jobs like raking leaves and cutting grass. And he’s in this play.
Just like it's unusual for Shepard to be on stage, the playwright also has a different role in her everyday life. She's a social worker.
This is the fourth year Elaine Ellis will stage “Less.” The show runs on Friday and Saturday night at the Metropolitan Community Church, 1920 S. 7th Blvd, in the Soulard neighborhood. She wrote it because everyone kept asking her the same thing about her job: “What are homeless people like?”
But it was the wrong question.
“To answer that question, they would have had to ask me, like ‘What is Mr. Jones like? Or what is Mrs. Smith like?’ because each person is such an individual,” Ellis said.
Last Sunday, 30 individuals who live in the Peter and Paul Community Services Men's Emergency Shelter came to preview the play.
“They seemed to love it,” Ellis wrote in an email. “[There was] lots of laughter, lots of quiet reflective moments.”
The men left with gift bags packed with socks, soap, toothpaste and a few edible treats.
“It was an incredibly moving experience for our cast,” Ellis said.
‘We are not less’
Proceeds from the play will benefit an organization called Home Sweet Home, which provides furniture and household items to people who need them. But Ellis said the payoff reaches even further.
“We have people that stay and volunteer at the different places we’ve raised money for over the years,” Ellis said. “We have one lady that’s still volunteering, that saw the play two years ago.”
Eight-year-old Milo Marston said the play will stay with him for a while. He has the role of a young boy who encounters a person at the library, who is homeless.
Milo said he learned that people without homes aren’t that different from the rest of us.
“It’s like that line at the end of the play,” Milo said. “We are homeless — but we are not less.”
If you go:
- ‘Less’ by Elaine Ellis, presented by True Community Theatre
- 7 p.m., Friday-Saturday April 28-29
- Metropolitan Community Church of Greater Saint Louis, 1920 S. 7th Blvd.
- Tickets are $12 and available through Eventbrite
Follow Nancy on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL