The Denver Project

Every semester, my freshman class at the University of Colorado stages a debate on whether or not you should give money to beggars, and every semester, my students reveal an almost identical set of prejudices and convictions. Those opposed to giving money seldom offer the one rationale that strikes me as reasonable: that it might be more effective to donate to a homeless shelter or social service organization. Usually their arguments are punitive. In every class, there's a student who explains that he's read or heard about a beggar who is actually very wealthy and is just swindling the public. Another will mention that she has offered leftovers to a homeless person and been rebuffed — so they're not really hungry. There's a lot of talk about drug and alcohol abuse, and every now and then some guffawing — always male — about bum-fight videos, sold for entertainment, in which homeless people are persuaded to fight each other for money or alcohol. Many students believe help is always available to the homeless, who stubbornly refuse to take it. And at least one student per semester — usually one who, judging from the incoherent papers he's handing in, is partying his own way through school — self-righteously insists that beggars are lazy people who are just afraid to work.

In these classrooms, there's almost no comprehension of the numerous ways people end up on the street: loss of a job or a home, disability, divorce, mental illness, work that doesn't pay enough to cover food and rent. When students do voice compassion, it often comes in the form of such condescending statements as, "If you're kind to the homeless, they'll be more motivated to try and be like you." These students think of people in need as completely other. They simply can't imagine the sheer awfulness of being without a home or a place in society, being considered subhuman and invisible. But every now and then, like a thin ray of light through clouds, a student says gently to his classmates, "But how would you feel in that situation?" Or even, "Who are you to judge?"

The Denver Project, created by Steven Sapp and Mildred Ruiz of New York's UNIVERSES, is an attempt to bring the realities of life on the streets to us, the well-fed patrons of Curious Theatre Company, and to show that the homeless constitute a society and culture of their own, one that abuts our everyday world but that we rarely see. The play tells us that homeless people are as varied as any other group: some kindly, thoughtful and protective; others willing to kill a fellow transient for his meager belongings. And the play both succeeds and fails in this mission.

The successful elements include the innovative use of song, music and rhythm, beginning with an astonishing intro consisting almost entirely of snuffling, hawking and spitting as several homeless people slowly wake up under a bridge. Sapp and Ruiz, along with director Dee Covington, seem to be building on the kind of experimental theater work done in the '60s — pieces shaped by improvisation and exploration, repetition and ritual, mirroring and sound-and-movement, the exercises Joseph Chaikin's Open Theater used so brilliantly.

Sixties theater often set out to shock and confront, and those elements are present in The Denver Project, though they're pretty low-key. The characters don't attempt to persuade us; they neither posture nor whine nor apologize, and they have nothing to say about the kinds of arguments that polite society — and my students — usually raise. They just carry on with their lives. If we're moved to empathy, it's less because we identify with any individual character than because we've become engulfed in these people's reality, a world where choices are few and almost all of them are bad.

Tyee Tilghman's performance is a triumph. He plays a hardened street person attempting to help Skully, a violent, troubled teenager (played with effective straightforwardness and honesty by Akil LuQman), and he does it with toughness and heart. Tilghman is the only cast member I could really see as someone who'd survived on the streets. Living rough changes your posture, your psyche, your body. It marks you indelibly. Your teeth decay; your feet rot; your ears itch; you deal with constant pain, whether niggling or violent. Homelessness, as the founder of Boulder County Cares once told me, is a terminal condition — though it takes a long, long time to die of it. The other actors turned in serious, dedicated performances, but they all looked strong and healthy. Dressed differently, they could easily have passed for members of the opening-night crowd.

The moral lesson at the heart of the play is a little too pat, and some of the dialogue is stereotypical: the country-club guy, for instance, who voices all the usual smug cliches about homelessness; the social worker who harangues us about the unacceptability of poverty. And I had trouble believing young Skully would really straighten up so quickly and so easily.

Later, listening to some of the conversations in the lobby — lots of talk about whether "these people" can be helped or even want to be helped — I couldn't avoid thinking that a large percentage of the audience had missed the point entirely. But it never hurts to remind people of certain truths. I'm glad we live in a city where the mayor is making a serious, sustained effort to end homelessness. And I'm also glad that Curious has staged this gutsy attempt to confront a problem most of us would prefer not to see.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman