It’s to her credit that when local playwright Christine Lassiter decided to make art out of her four-year stint working in a homeless shelter, she avoided the emotionally tempting route of telling one person’s sad story.
Instead, Only the Dance is a complex play exploring eight people’s lives in the fictional Grail Street Shelter. Perhaps more importantly, the play reveals how each person came to be there.
“The audience will be given an insight into the reality of homeless people,” says actress Coco Palmer, who plays Paula, a character from a privileged background who becomes mired in a world of drugs and domestic violence. “You’ll be able to see where each character comes from. There are people from very different walks of life, including people you wouldn’t expect [to be homeless], because of their [privileged] backgrounds.”
Other characters include Anatole (Damian Davis), an African-American man who questions the belief systems of his fellow residents and staff; Daniel, a former homeless person who’s now employed, but treading turbulent waters; and Joe and Selena, an older African-American couple who are self-proclaimed ministers.
Providing dramatic friction is the character of Norman (Alfred Salley), the shelter’s new director who, although not unkind, is unable to evolve away from his stereotyped view of the residents. The resentment he engenders stems largely from the void left by the death of Travis, the former director, who was loved and esteemed.
Keeping Travis as a memory, rather than a living character, serves to underscore the motif of loss running through the residents’ lives, notes Lassiter.
“In my experience of working in a homeless shelter, I saw that grief was a huge theme for these people,” she points out. “Loss is something they’ve coped with from early on. I saw [the shadow of Travis] as a way to explore that facet of their lives.”
She also admits to the artistic benefits of presenting the character posthumously: “When the new director comes, there’s great emotional chaos,” Lassiter relates. “[Travis’] death brings out issues that might not naturally surface.”
Lassiter’s play has been enthusiastically received ever since its debut in Asheville six years ago (a production in which many of the actors were actually homeless). And the latest version of Only the Dance features additions and changes to the script. Striking a balance between entertainment and social insight was crucial for a more well-rounded play, says the playwright.
“[It was] well-received from the start, and humor occurs naturally in several scenes,” Lassiter says. “But it was a hard balance to find. The [earlier version] was somewhat heavy-handed with the social part.”
One of the play’s most entertaining sequences, she reports, is the scene in which the residents plan to put on a play of their own: This play-within-a-play sequence was culled from Lassiter’s own experience helping members of Asheville’s Hospitality House stage their own drama, Hello, We’re Not at Home. “I was the facilitator, but it was all their own idea, a natural drama,” she explains. “It was an incredible experience. I’ve found that very articulate people end up at homeless shelters.”
Though he’s been a director for more than 20 years, Michael Duran — who’s taken up temporary residence in Asheville from his home in Denver, Colo., in order to direct Only the Dance — saw something different and refreshing in Lassiter’s script and was impressed with its nonjudgmental perspective. “The play doesn’t attack anyone for why they are homeless,” he points out. “And the audience is not made to feel responsible. We get a look in. That’s what’s important.”
Only the Dance is the pilot project for the Common Ground Theater Partnership, a multicultural theater group that Lassiter hopes will be a venture in healing as well as entertainment.
“Asheville could benefit from an ongoing multicultural theater [that would bring] communities together that don’t usually come together, in a setting where deep discussion and interaction can happen,” she concludes. “It’s an opportunity for lessening separateness.”