Lisa Ramirez Returns Humanity to the Dehumanized
by Jennifer Ann Charron
In today’s increasingly tribal world, we are constantly primed to see others as “like us” or “not like us.” We seek safety in like-minded groups, alienating ourselves from other viewpoints, other realities. By dehumanizing others, we lose sight of real people and their stories.
Lisa Ramirez’s “Down Here Below” builds a portal for us into the world of one Oakland homeless encampment. Director Michael French breathes life into Ramirez’s point of view, energizing all our senses with sound, image, and movement.
Ubuntu Theatre Project makes us walk through the homeless encampment to our seats. As we try to sit down, we must weave through the villagers as they beg us for money, attention, and ultimately understanding. It’s a harrowing and enlightening walk through misery. Even guessing they are actors, we feel the pain.
“Down Here Below,” adapted from Maxim Gorky’s 1901 “The Lower Depths,” builds on his breakthrough work of “social realism.” By realistically depicting the dismal lives of the poverty-stricken, Ramirez gives voices to the homeless in Oakland today, humanizing the dehumanized.
Ramirez digs deep into stories at the Village of Radical Acceptance, a constantly moving and evolving homeless community. Warm-hearted, dexterous Kimberly Daniels plays the quintessentially charitable Mama Gwen. Mama Gwen uses a firm, yet compassionate hand to create a family dynamic, struggling to keep her brood together and alive.
Ubuntu’s actors go beyond crafting characters; each has a carefully constructed and compelling story. The misunderstood, East Indian, transgender woman, Zig Zag, is brought to life with emotional richness by superb J Jha. Zig Zag works hard to provide creature comforts, even as the Food Truck workers ridicule her.
Dorian Lockett’s well-educated drunk, Jones, writhes in despair, while he spouts lines from Shakespeare. I am completely captivated by his vivid portrayal of sheer anguish amidst eloquence.
Haunting Lucy Urbano plays Teeny, a local prostitute, who vividly explains that she feels like puking each time she turns a trick. I react viscerally to her suffering.
As we meet more villagers, we feel complicit with their dehumanizing. As the Bay Area endlessly discusses “homelessness,” we have become blind to the beautiful possibilities inherent in the homeless community. We spend public time and money relocating them and destroying their camps. But who is looking at the real causes? Who is helping?
“Down Here Below” offers a picture gallery, slices of everyday street life. Lisa Ramirez inspires compassion, reconnecting me to our shared humanity. Understanding the homeless lives of these brilliant individuals, can we build practical social justice?
Ubuntu’s ” Down Here Below” gives voices to the homeless around us—definitely worth hearing and seeing.
Photos by Jose Manuel Monctezuma
“Down Here Below” by Lisa Ramirez, inspired by Maxim Gorky’s “The Lower Depths,” at Ubuntu Theater Project, Oakland, through Sunday, May 5, 2019. Info: ubuntutheaterproject.com
Cast: Michael Aldrete, Olivia Bell, Rolanda D. Bell, Jean Cary, Kimberly Daniels, Abdulrahim Harara, Champagne Hughes, Indigo Jackson, J Jha, Guillermo Labarca,
Dorian Lockett, John Mercer, Alf Muller, William Oliver III, Arielle Powell, Kevin Rebultan, Leo Shaffer, Matt Standley, Lucy Urbano, and Margherita Ventura.