New Las Cruces theater group gives voice to veterans, homeless
By Mike Cook
Las Cruces Bulletin, 5 February, 2016
“I like to show what homeless is, what homeless looks like,” said Las Cruces Camp Hope tent city resident Stanley Smith, who is one of the actors in Las Cruces’ Veterans Theatre.
The group, which was formed about two years ago, performs scenes its members write on topics that are important to military veterans and the community.
Some Veterans Theatre actors/writers are homeless, like Smith, who said he enjoys the opportunity to be on stage and show the audience that “all homeless are not drunks and druggies. I’m a homeless person, but I’m up here,” said Smith, who has been homeless since the age of 15.
Veterans Theatre was the brainchild of Dr. David Boje, a storyteller and distinguished professor in the New Mexico State University Business College.
Boje was leading a healing through storytelling class at an Oak Street apartment complex that serves as transitional housing for veterans in Las Cruces in 2014. When the class ended, Boje said, he and participating veterans asked, “What can we do now with storytelling?” And Veterans Theatre was born.
With a combination of veterans and Camp Hope residents as actors and writers, the group performs what Boje calls the “theatre of the oppressed, theatre for social and economic change.”
“A lot of it is ad lib. A lot of it is improvised,” Smith said.
“The stories come from those guys,” said Boje, a United States Army veteran who served in Vietnam in 1969 and 1970 and is a member of American Legion Post 10 of Las Cruces and Vietnam Veterans of America.
The first scene the group ever performed was called “Dead Waiting for an Appointment with the VA,” said United States Army veteran Ernest Ramey, who is president of the Veterans Theatre steering group. As the name implies, the scene catalogues the experiences of veterans with health issues waiting for service from the U.S. Veterans Administration.
“You have to make it funny enough so that people go, but serious enough to have a message,” Boje said.
Another Veterans Theatre scene is called “Viva Las Vegas,” detailing veterans’ experiences at the state Behavioral Health Institute in Las Vegas, N.M. and with the mental health services provided by the state.
Boje said the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department (HUD) estimate of 49,000 homeless veterans nationwide represents a serious undercount of the actual number of what he called “America’s refugees.” It doesn’t count thousands of the “hidden homeless,” he said, who live in cars and sheds or are “couch surfers,” staying temporarily with friends or family members.
“Homelessness is a big issue,” he said, and so is mental health. “Everybody has a touch of mental illness,” he said. “Every person in the world is touched by it.”
Another scene tackles the synthetic drug spice. In researching the topic, Boje and other group members even made an undercover visit to a local smoke shop where spice was being illegally sold, Boje said.
Spice is “a chemical attack on society,” said Camp Hope CEO and Veterans Theatre member James Sassak.
There’s also a scene that eavesdrops on what Veterans Theatre members imagine goes on in the boardroom of a major pharmaceutical company.
“We’re taking on social stereotypes,” Sassak said.
For more information on Veterans Theatre, its upcoming performances and how to make a donation to the organization, contact Boje at 936-9578 or firstname.lastname@example.org and visit http://veteranstheater.com
Members of the Las Cruces Veterans Theatre steering group are, left to right, James Sassak, actor; David Boje, Vietnam War veteran and storytelling officer; Traci Woolf, secretary; Ernest Ramsey, president; and Dother Sykes, sergeant- at-arms