See the change

VDP director Jacqui Parker hopes a play that invokes Greek mythology and depicts street kids can increase awareness of the homeless youth among us.

By Jasmin Stephens ‘20

Homeless youth experience many difficulties that often go unnoticed or unrecognized by the rest of us. Director Jacqui Parker hopes to bring a voice to street kids through Polaroid Stories, Naomi Iizuka’s myth-based play depicting the obstacles and lives of 10 homeless youth. The play runs Oct. 21-29 at the Loeb Mainstage. Parker, the 2016 Visiting Director’s Project director at Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club, also hopes to inspire students to reach out to local shelters such as Y2Y in Harvard Square. She and I communicated via email. An edited version of our exchange follows.

How do you think contemporary society perceives homeless youth?

The cast of "Polaroid Stories"
We avoid homeless youth at all costs. We have gotten to the point where we can actually walk right by a group of people. I have sometimes given a few dollars to those who have asked, telling myself: "Maybe they'll get something to eat." But having read that 80 percent of youth ages 12 to 21 do drugs, I also know that they might also buy drugs. Since I have done work in theater about sex trafficking, I have learned that some youth have become homeless because of abuse in the home, their sexuality, pregnancy and just real things that young people are dealing with, real things that have made them choose to live in a shelter or on the streets because being at home was more dangerous. While I feel that more programs are in place to help homeless youth then say 10 years ago, I feel that there is so much more to do. I once asked a young girl I had given money too what she wanted us as people to do. She said, "See me."

Why is this project important to you?
First, I believe that every child should be safe, that every child deserves a decent roof over their heads, food on the table and along with those basics, the very opportunity to thrive in life and then contribute as adults. When I was asked to be the visiting director at Harvard, I was really interested in exploring this play with the young minds in one of America's biggest think tanks, hoping, of course, to move them to action beyond Polaroid Stories. I made it very clear to the cast and producers that I wanted to tell the truth onstage. We did a lot of preparation work and research so that everyone understood that while we were playing at living these difficult lives onstage, these stories belong to someone, and maybe we could use our art to open up further dialogue. I selected Polaroid Stories because it offered brilliant ties to Greek mythology. So it wasn't this didactic piece that was going to hit people over the head with social awareness, morality and everything that is wrong with society, but it would show life that is tangible and perhaps recognizable and someone would know that we handled their story or someone they know with respect and honesty.

How do you think the Polaroid Stories will affect Harvard students?
Regarding the student cast members, I can tell you that they have absolutely become more aware of this problem and have opened themselves up more as human beings. Acting in these very real kind of plays is difficult work. It requires all of us to be open and to fully take on the character’s understanding of who they are and shed our own judgments. Assistant directors Kristina Neal '19 and Jerry Nelluvelil '18 and I showed the cast footage about addiction and homelessness. The material was often difficult to watch, but they completely took the information in. Watching the actors' transformations has been my favorite part of this whole experience.

Jacqui Parker
What did you think about when directing this project to make is as accurate as possible?
My thinking in any play that I direct is that the audience must see the truth and that together we will get there. I think about the many people I have known who have struggled with drug addiction and homelessness and the helplessness they felt, the shame. I also think about the many people who have shared their life stories with me as a playwright, people who, though they have had hard times, the hard times did not have them. They overcame the difficulty. Some died and were defeated by their circumstance. Some lived even when everyone, including their own families, wrote them off as dead. They lived in spite of their difficult circumstances. I think about the young people still at the mouth of the Redline in Harvard Square, those lying on park benches on Boston Common, those walking outside my front door, all trying to find their place in society, and I think about the alarming number of heroin users that I see almost daily.

If there is one thing you want the audience to walk away with, what is it?
I want them to see, really, really see, because if they can see it, they can change it.