At age 10, Shevanda Brantley ran away from an abusive home and plunged into a 20-year odyssey of self-destruction.
“I gave up on life, on God, on family, on everything,” she said. “I just got out of there and went into the streets. I learned to hustle, to survive. . . . I became a woman, I sold my body, I did drugs. . . . I got beaten, I got raped, I got my teeth knocked out. . . . I lost custody of my children . . . .”
She stopped to gulp air through ragged sobs, then resumed her rapid-fire monologue — part confession, part catharsis — at a meeting of former homeless women Thursday in the loft of a District church. Her story ran from the blur of addiction to the reckoning of prison to the triumph of escape from the person she used to be.
“I always dreamed of being an artist or an inventor, but the drugs drained my soul,” Brantley, 34, said. From the older women around the table, there were nods of recognition and murmurs of encouragement. “It was so dark, but I kept reaching up for that girl in a corner of the ceiling. I had to get her back.”
When her story was finished, she wiped her eyes, leapt up and ran off for an appointment. “I made it!” she cried out with a departing whoop. “I am here to tell you I made it!”
Brantley is one of 15 women, all former residents of N Street Village in the District, whose life stories are told in a documentary called “How I Got Over,” which premieres this weekend at the AFI Docs festival in the Washington area.
The film, directed by Nicole Boxer, is the second creative project involving the same group of once-homeless women. In 2012, many of them were featured in a play, produced through the Life Stories Program at the District’s Theatre Lab School, that was performed to wide acclaim at the Kennedy Center.
Boxer’s documentary was filmed mostly at N Street Village, a nonprofit shelter in Northwest Washington that recently celebrated its 40th anniversary and has been acclaimed for turning around the lives of hundreds of women who were homeless, addicted or suffering from mental illness. The shelter’s mission is to create a community of “empowerment and recovery.”
“How I Got Over” follows the women who wrote and performed the original play “My Soul Look Back and Wonder,” in which they recounted incidents from their lives and discovered their creative talents. The film moves from scenes of homelessness and tearful counseling sessions, to upbeat rehearsals and preparations for the play, to the women’s excitement and pride on opening night at the Kennedy Center.
Boxer, who lives in the District, is the daughter of Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). She has won praise for her previous work, especially as executive producer of a 2012 documentary about rape in the U.S. military called “The Invisible War,” which was nominated for an Academy Award.
In an interview Friday, Boxer said she decided to make the film after a friend took her to N Street and she met some of the residents.
“It was so inspiring to listen to them and realize how much they had been through, but also how articulate they were, and how much hope they expressed,” she said. “It made me think about the question — can art save your life?”
As for the women, “there is no doubt in my mind that they were transformed by the journey,” said Boxer, who noted how radiant they looked onstage at the Kennedy Center.
While varied, the stories told by the women of N Street share some elements. Most were addicted to alcohol, drugs or both. Most drifted in and out of relationships with men and lost children to foster care, estrangement or the streets. All felt unloved and spiraled downward until something — a person, an incident — turned them around.
Valerie Williams, 51, said she fell apart after the death of her husband and struggled for years with addictions that proved more powerful than her ability to care for the children. After periods of homelessness and jail, she tried to pick up the pieces but kept failing. Finally, she said, she found strength in God and purpose in caring for her youngest grandson.
“I’m no longer in bondage,” Williams said at the meeting, beaming as she watched the little boy, 3, play with a video game across the table. “I’m a fighter, and I believe that when you fall down you have to get up again.”
Rose Shaw, 57, told a brutally candid tale of her descent into addiction, starting with recreational drug use when she was a teenager and leading to dependence on heroin. The incident that finally shocked her into quitting was the day she asked her son to help her with a drug deal: The customer turned out to be an undercover police officer.
“That was my lowest point,” she said with a grimace. “That was the day I ran out of excuses.” Both she and her son were put on probation, she said, but by the time she had overcome her “love of poison,” she had lost everything — her home, her car, her job and the trust of those she loved.
Like most of the other women in the group, Shaw rebuilt her life at N Street Village, where residents remain for one year to 18 months while weaning themselves from dependence and recovering their self-esteem.
For LaJuana Clark, 47, the process of being transformed through artistic expression was especially powerful. At the meeting Thursday, she described herself as a lifelong “loner” who had once thought no one would want to hear her story of addiction and family problems. Initially, she said she resisted participating in the play.
But as the months passed, she said, she warmed to the theater project and rediscovered a childhood talent for singing.
“Today I am a productive citizen, I rent a house and I have a job, I love the Lord and I’m a dynamite singer, too,” Clark said. Rising and taking a deep breath, she offered a few full-throated verses of a gospel song about faith and redemption. As the last notes echoed in the silence of the church loft, she listened and smiled.
“How I Got Over” will be showing Saturday at 4:15 p.m. at the Naval Heritage Center’s Burke Theatre, 701 Pennsylvania Ave NW, and Sunday at 11:15 a.m. at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, 8633 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring, Md. For more information, call 202-255-9214.