Pangea Theater's Shelter
Truck, so called because he mashes over people like a Mack truck, has just had Keith beaten up in the Francis homeless shelter. "You popcorn niggers kill me, lookin' for fair play ...." he says. "The only motherfuckers safe is the ones everybody scared of." In the Francis, everyone fears Truck. He dominates his girlfriend, Anjinette, and sends her off to "attend t' bidnis," whoring on the streets. He takes her pay, rewards her with "rock," and arranges crack deals on his cell phone. To Keith, who Truck describes as a "Cosby-show nigger," he snaps, "You go your way when I don't need you no more."
Welcome to the discomforting authenticity of the dog-eat-dog world of homelessness in the premiere of Dwight Hobbes' Shelter. Hobbes based his play on the homeless periods in his life in New York City and Minneapolis and, although Shelter lacks pace in its first two scenes, it gathers compelling momentum as it runs its dark course.
The play takes place in the grubby room of Truck and Anjinette in the Francis Homeless Shelter. They occupy one bed and Keith arrives to take the second bed. He's an educated man, but he's had a problem with crack addiction. The troubled mother of his young son, with whom he's been living, called the police and reported domestic violence, although Keith swears she attacked him. The police issue a restraining order against him and drop him off at the Francis where he finds himself a naïf in the nether world of homelessness. He quickly lands a job as an assistant to the woman who administers the shelter, which is about to be closed. Truck seizes the opportunity to force Keith to get him on the administrator's recommended list to be housed at a brand new, up-class shelter where sobriety is a requirement.
In strong casting, the threatening presence of Damon James as Truck dominates the stage. Physically he's a fine specimen, but he's asphalt-hardened and wields control through fear. He's a middle-man, with ambitions to become a big dealer. Truck made me cringe as a woman, but Hobbes gives him enough humanity to prevent him from being a stereotype. Obviously intelligent, Truck can't read. He wanted to be a scientist when he was a kid, but hard times turned him to the street. "My motherfuckin' humanity is hostage," he tells Keith, with fury.
Constance Anderson plays a convincing Anjinette, a 30-some year old who began her street life as a runaway from sexual abuse. She's smart, sexy, compliant and longs to be out from under the succession of men who "protect" her, use and abuse her. She sizes up Keith, who she knows as a john, as a means of escaping the trap she's in.
In more fine casting, the vulnerable looking André Samples plays Keith. Although he longs for crack, Keith resists smoking when Anjinette lights up. His one great commitment is his love for his young son and regaining access to him. Samples plays Keith with feeling.
This is Shelter's first staging, and director Dipanker Mukherjee might ameliorate the slowness in the first scene with crisper pacing, but the second scene, in which Anjinette tries to wheedle her way into Keith's life, could be shortened. In a one-act at one hour and 40 minutes, the two scenes take too long to build up to Keith's wrenching telephone call to his young son and the subsequent action.
Seitu Jones' set, with its three curious yellow peaks behind set elements and colorful cushions on Anjinette's bed, makes a homeless shelter look less dire than I had imagined, but Mary Ann Kelling's hard-ass outfit for Truck and Keith's conventional attire play to the issue of class within the black minority, one of the themes of the play. Also lurking within Hobbes' script is the system's blind bias towards women in parenting issues and the mainstream's careless tolerance of chronic homelessness.
As homelessness grows, Shelter pitches us, with burning honesty, into the underworld of homelessness, a world few of us have any insights into.
Shelter March 29-April 13. Thursdays through Sundays 8:00 p.m. Sundays 2:00 p.m. $10 -$14.Pangea World Theater, Mixed Blood Theatre, 1501, South Fourth Street, Minneapolis. Call: 612-338-6131.