Pertrina Thomas has a voice for the theater, but she never had the opportunity to use it.
As a shy student at Roosevelt High School in the 1970s, Thomas dreamed of being a journalist, of using her soft-spoken tone to tell the stories of others. But that voice remained silent for decades as she shuffled through rehabilitation centers trying to forget the details that led her there.
“We were told to hush,” Thomas, 56, confesses at Calvary Baptist Church, where the dress rehearsal for “My Soul Look Back and Wonder: Life Stories from Women in Recovery” is about to begin. “My generation just didn’t talk about things, even in church. But I’m a big girl. I’m sharing my story now so it might help someone else.”
Although she’s not comfortable sharing details face to face, Thomas and 14 other homeless African American women will tell their stories on Monday evening at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater. For one night, these disparate poles of Washington’s culture — homeless, recovering addicts and regular theatergoers — will come together for a sold-out performance about life in the city they share.
This is the first time that N Street Village, a homeless shelter for women, and Theatre Lab School of the Dramatic Arts will perform “Life Stories” onstage anywhere, let alone at the Kennedy Center. After months of rehearsals, the 15 women will deliver a scripted hour of music, monologues and vignettes about relapse and recovery. They’ll share stories of rape and physical abuse that have left visible scars. They’ll lament having dulled the pain with Listerine and crack cocaine. And they’ll mourn the children they lost to forced abortions and child protective services, and the ones left to starve at the hands of their own mothers.
The show begins with the provocative line, “Being a girl child wasn’t safe around my way.” It’s a statement that rings true in every scene that follows. And it is intended to remind the audience directly — without the intervention of professional actors — about a growing problem here. Since 2008, the number of women that N Street Village serves, most of them middle-aged, has risen 15 percent. The Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness estimates that homelessness in the Washington area has increased by 10 percent since 2008. To cement that message, the performance will be followed by a panel discussion led by the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.
“Life Stories” started as a form of art therapy to provide structure and creative outlets to vulnerable people. Thomas Workman, who has worked on “Life Stories” workshops with N Street Village since 2007, came up with the concept in partnership with Deb Gottesman, co-director of Theatre Lab, which trains 1,500 actors a year, ranging from beginners to professionals.
“We would go in and do improv,” Workman said. “Basically, it was a one-hour workshop a week, capped off with a video that they could take with them.”
Gottesman, director of the play, had the idea to take the workshops to a public stage.
“I attended a talk given by Michael Kaiser [president of the Kennedy Center], where he said, ‘This is not the time to hide our dreams as artists.’ And I thought, ‘What is my biggest dream?’ To showcase the work of the women on one of the great artistic stages in the country.”
The Kennedy Center green-lighted the project in January, allowing Theatre Lab to rent the Terrace Theater. Workman led the actors in improvisation classes, helping them to “mine their stories,” while playwright Jennifer Nelson put their stories into a script, which the women are attempting to memorize for the Monday performance.
“You have to understand, we’re damaged by drugs,” said Tonya Stokes, a younger member of the ensemble. “It’s amazing we can remember the lines we do.”
The chilling power of those lines has been drawing wider attention. Nicole Boxer-Keegan, a documentary filmmaker and daughter of Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), has filmed rehearsals since February. She hopes to take “Life Stories” to film festivals next year, seeing it as a window into issues of homelessness and arts advocacy in the region.
“Most of these ladies were born in the 1950s, during an era of John F. Kennedy, when there was a political promise that all people would have housing, medical care and education,” Boxer-Keegan said. “Somehow, we’ve lost that over the last 50 years.”
Boxer-Keegan said the film’s ambition continues to evolve as the women grow and reveal more about their experiences.
“I started with the premise of ‘art as therapy,’ but then I took it a step further and asked, ‘Can art save a life?’ ” she said. “I think we’re finding that it can save lives, but not all the time. It’s something the 15 ladies will have to answer for themselves.”
Gottesman agrees. “It’s a chance for them to change their narrative but also a chance to address their own families, who will be the audience,” she said. One scene concludes with apologies to children, many of whom will hear their mothers’ stories for the first time.
Boxer-Keegan laughs about how the women are naturals on camera. “They’ll say, ‘Why aren’t you filming me now?’ They’re wonderful film subjects.”
But the women know they’re not all natural actresses. While many are gifted singers and shine in the musical numbers peppered throughout the show, they worry that they’ll forget their stage positioning and their lines.
Gottesman acknowledges that the performances are shaky. There are limitations to directing women who’ve never sat in a theater and watched a play.
“When the work was improvisational, it was utterly connected, inspired,” Gottesman said. “But when put on the page, even as their words, there’s distance between actor and text. Trying to find that connection is hard for beginner actors.”
Shevanda Brantley, 32, a recovering cocaine addict, carries a large portion of the play and hopes to one day write a screenplay: “We have a lot of compassion for each other, and we’re acting each other’s stories as though they were our own. It makes us all stronger.”
Theatre Lab School of the Dramatic Arts is scheduled to present “Life Stories” on Monday at 7:30 p.m. at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater.