In chilly garage space on Neal Street, a dozen homeless teens work at bringing the streets home. Some play guitars or fiddle with a sound board, others read from scripts, a few jump in and out of the characters of cops and addicts, and everyone takes turns sprawling on chairs to watch and shout out approval or advice. These young artists are in rehearsal for Escape Velocity, a play and art exhibit produced by homeless and street-involved teens from the Preble Street Teen Center. Opening this Thursday with a gala reception and community dinner at the new Neal Street Garage Community Arts Space, Escape Velocity is an expression of the challenges and triumphs of being young on the streets.
There’s a lot of art being made at the Teen Center, and giving its artists a public place to present it was the mission of street-involved teen Maggie Zall when she conceived this exhibition back in September. Together with Faith Bates, a young writer and photographer, she took the idea to Margot Fine, a mentor and coordinator at the Teen Center, and momentum quickly built. This multi-media endeavor now has the sponsorship of Preble Street, the Maine Council of Churches, and Add Verb Productions, with three actor-activists of ROiL acting as advisors. Tattooed across Zall’s wrist as well as on the show’s publicity posters, “Escape Velocity” is a call to move beyond the oppressive forces and destructive stereotypes that can pull at both the homeless and the well-off.
“One of our main themes is to correct the assumption that all homeless kids are just losers, out tagging and beating people up,” says Bates, who handled promotion for the event. “So many are really talented, but have been affected by circumstances beyond their control.” Through songs, skits, poetry, and art that address abuse, teen parenting, poverty, addiction, police brutality, and general prejudice against the homeless, the teens behind Escape Velocity are proud and emphatic about making the realities of their experiences known. “It’s not just a big sob story,” says Jessica Gagnon. “Everybody knows it sucks to be homeless. This is our chance to say to the public, ‘This is who we actually fucking are.’”
As dynamic as the teens that developed them, the performances of Escape Velocity are diverse in form. Alisha Fredette and her fiancé John Picard recite letters to absent and unborn children, accompanied by background singers and projected photographs. Maegen Crowley sings an original song about how her marriage changed when her husband joined the military. Rourke Sparks directs Jessica Gagnon and Maggie Zall in a dramatization of his own recent run-in with police brutality. The shape and content of the show has come about through a free-form collaboration between a core group of eight teens, who have grown very candid and very close. “Basically, our process is all of us talking over each other, because that’s what family does,” says Zall.