We pass them every day. We hear them clinking their plastic cups, yearning for our help and a way out. Yet we rarely even glance down. “Roughly Speaking” is a play stylized by rap that offers a rare opportunity for the homeless residents of New York City to have their stories told via a play made of 200 interviews conducted with homeless people.
Set in a soup kitchen, the play introduces the audience to a wide variety of homeless characters who wait in line for their hot meal of the week. With ripped jackets, stained pants and matted hair, this graphic group of survivors paints a convoluted depiction of living homeless.
Basing her play on 200 interviews with New York City’s homeless residents, playwright Shara Ashley Zeiger (who plays Diana) seeks to reveal the truth behind these destitute lives. Zeiger has had personal exchanges with homeless people over the past six-and-a-half years. Originally she was afraid of them, a behavior that many of New Yorkers share when they first arrive in the city. Zeiger’s husband dedicates his life to volunteering at soup kitchens. With his influence, she began volunteering as well. This is where her affection towards the homeless community developed.
Zeiger spent time slowly getting to know the people whom she would cook for and eventually started documenting the stories she would hear every day. The ambition to write a play out of the 200 interviews she conducted was ambitious, to say the least. They are all valuable stories, to be sure, but in the end, the play included too many of them and added lengthy monologues, losing a sense of simplicity that was needed for the audience’s understanding.
The play also faltered because in the crude world it is set in, topics such as drug addiction, PTSD, sexual abuse, identity acceptance and the daunting concept of the future all come up regularly but are not fully represented. Many of the actors did not give the impression that they had truly investigated what these extreme challenges really meant to their characters.
In contrast, Michael Twaine, who played an old Vietnam War veteran named Danny, was delightful to watch. He maintained a hunched back and elderly mannerisms from the beginning to the end of the play — even during the scene changes. He also altered his voice to convincingly portray a worn-out man who does all he can to finish his sentences before falling asleep.
Twaine’s acting tugs at your heart, for we all have an elderly grandfather or a distant relative that we can see in him. To picture our old loved ones sleeping on the ground is painful; the empathy Twaine’s performance elicits is likely what the rest of the actors were trying to catch, but unfortunately missed.
The dialogue between characters attempted to reveal the stories Zeiger recorded, but disappointingly appeared as nothing more than casual conversation. Thanks to Steven J. Michel, who played the handicapped rapper Lightning.Bolt, these characters’ tales were transformed into catchy beats that moved the show along.
By the end of the play, the audience most certainly arrives at the unsettling realization that maybe the homeless man taking up an entire booth in the corner of McDonalds at 2 a.m., biting into a cheeseburger and sipping a can of Coke, feels as if he is in heaven. A piece of cornbread that is wrapped in brown paper napkin, tied with a shoelace and handed to a man at the soup kitchen, is a gift that makes him smile tears of joy.
This could be one of the few points that Zeiger had wanted her audience to grasp, but these tender moments require more elaboration than painted cardboard signs covered in pleas for help pasted on the lobby walls in order to immerse an audience into this beautifully grueling world.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Nov. 9 print edition. Email Blair Best at [email protected]