It’s a world that homeless people live in constantly. As many stand on a street corner or a turning island, their eyes yearn for a connection, hopeful that a driver may see their cardboard sign and toss a scrap. Maybe those scraps come in the form of loose change, an extra bottle of water, maybe some leftover food as the driver returns home from dinner at a nice restaurant.
But so often, they live in a world that does not want or see them. They are a collection of people who do not sleep well in fear that their only blanket may be stolen, and the promise of tomorrow is just another day in the burden of their daily existence.
The homeless population is one that playwright and actor Lisa Ramirez deeply connects with. So much so that she has spent many years not only crafting her latest play, now running at Ubuntu Theater Project in Oakland, but advocating for and defending the rights of Oakland’s homeless population.
“Down Here Below,” by Ramirez is inspired by the seminal play “The Lower Depths” by Maxim Gorky, and is receiving its world premiere through April 28th at the Flax Building in Downtown Oakland. The original Gorky production, directed by Konstantin Stanislavski in 1902, is a play that advocates for the greatness of the individual despite their punishing circumstances. Certainly amongst those denizens who live in tent cities and encampments are people who have loving families and college degrees, but their circumstances took a downward spiral along the way, shuddering them to the edges of society.
“I try in all of my work to shine light on an invisible topic or demographic,” said Ramirez, whose play features a cast of 20. “I hope the audience is moved by one or two characters and won’t just be able to look away.”
An appeal to the soul of the audience and the ability to look past the invisibility of the community is one of Ramirez’ goals with this piece.
“My initial hope is that we can appeal to people with humor and humanity,” said Ramirez. “That’s the beginning of compassion, to put one’s self in somebody else’s shoes. The goal is to open people’s hearts and change their minds.”
Ramirez’ play has some very clear influences in form and style, a play that also pays significant homage to Oakland’s rich history of social justice. That homage includes a strong reverence to the Black Panthers and all the good that came out of their organization, with a character in the play a direct descendant of a Panther.
Ramirez, who grew up in the Oakland/Berkeley area and has lived in New York for the past 20 years, is no stranger to East Bay stages. In addition to her turn as the Angel in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s epic production of “Angels in America” in 2018, the first Latina in the role in a major regional production, she received critical acclaim as Blanche Dubois in Ubuntu’s 2018 production of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” For Ramirez, debuting her newest work at Ubuntu made perfect sense, since she is so closely tied to the company.
“Ubuntu is so diverse and the actors and theatre makers here make the company my west coast home,” said Ramirez. “There are many variant ages and races and genders and levels of experience. There is an authenticity and rawness to their work.”
It’s an authenticity that she feels connects powerfully to that original 1902 production.
“I’m sure Stanislavski’s version was messy and real, and all these years later, the urgency, naturalism and rawness to the work is something we are trying to do.”
Ramirez has not only found a connection in Gorky’s play, but was also heavily influenced by two other artists – Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa and his 1957 film adaptation “Donzoko,” and playwright Maria Irene Fornes, whose own work was constantly evolving.
In all her in-depth research, Ramirez has learned a lot and crafted some firm opinions about the homeless population. And one of the most frustrating thing about the problem is the lack of real solutions, which lead to a lot of cans being kicked down the road and a firm commitment from local and federal governments to the status quo.
Even though the solutions to the bigger issues are time consuming and challenging, there are some simple things people could be doing. Ramirez learned of one very important thing in her countless conversations with homeless people as she researched her work. And it had everything to do with the humanest of human interactions.
“If you’re not interested in politics but just want to help a fellow human, at least say hello.”
*For more information on ways to help the homeless in Oakland, visit this website.
*For more information on helping the Bay Area’s homeless population, visit the San Francisco Chronicle’s Directory.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
Ubuntu Theater Project presents “Down Here Below”
Written by Lisa Ramirez
Directed by Michael French
Inspired by the play “The Lower Depths” by Maxim Gorky
The Flax Building
1501 Martin Luther King, Jr. Way
Oakland, CA 94612
Running time: 65 minutes, no intermission
Tickets range from $15 – $45 online, pay what you can at door
For tickets, call (510) 646-1126 or visit www.ubuntutheaterproject.com