(Photo: Josh Bachman/Sun-News)
LAS CRUCES - Veterans Theater, a local theater troupe comprised of homeless and once-homeless veterans, on Friday shared their experiences of life on the streets with students of Alma d’Arte Charter High School.
The group performed a three-act play titled “Labels.” Act one, “Viva Las Vegas,” focused on New Mexico’s bed shortage for mentally ill residents. The second act, “Spice Head Falls Out,” addressed the Spice — or synthetic cannabinoid — epidemic in the local homeless community. Act three, “999: Label for the Homeless,” addressed the difficulty and discrimination homeless people frequently encounter during job interviews when potential employers recognize the address — 999 W. Amador Ave. — as the homeless shelter.
Based on a roundtable conversation after the performance, the final act seemed to resonate with the students most.
“I thought the performance was very important,” said C.J. Campos, a student at the school. “I thought it did a good job of spreading awareness, so we don’t stereotype people like that — we learn to understand them. It really brings their humanity into view.”
Students from Alma d'arte Charter School watch a performance of "Labels," a three-act play from the Veterans Theater. (Photo: Josh Bachman/Sun-News)
Jayden Roberts, another student, said she is impressed with the services the city has made available to help the homeless. Roberts recently moved to Las Cruces from Big Spring, Texas
“In Texas, they didn’t have this much help for homeless people,” she said.
The final act was performed as Theatre of the Oppressed — a theatrical form developed by the Brazilian Augusto Boal — which invites the interaction of audience members. Students were invited on to the stage to act out how they would respond to the discrimination and the potential employer’s bullying tactics.
“Growing up, I experienced bullying a lot,” said David Boje, a New Mexico State University business professor and president of Veterans Theater. Boje directed the play. “These are young minds that are dealing with a lot of different social groups, and you tend to get one group versus another. The comments from the audience members, about their own brothers, cousins, relatives, who have experienced so many of the things that can lead to homelessness.”
James Sassak, left, acting as a medic along with Ernest Ramey, right, cover the body of JR Holton, center, who reenacted the smoking of Spice in "Labels," a three-act play about homeless veterans and Spice usage in Las Cruces at Alma d'Arte Charter School on Friday, December 16, 2016. (Photo: Josh Bachman/Sun-News)
Boje said he hopes the play helps students understand that “once you get to know (homeless) people, they’re not all that different. That’s the message.”
Boje told the audience his own brother and sister are homeless, which has driven him to get involved in the local homeless community.
“I love them, but don’t know where they are,” he said of his siblings. “But I know where these people are, and I can help them.”
James Sassak, the troupe’s vice president, said the students were a great audience.
“They were the best audience yet, of the five or six shows we’ve done,” Sassak told the Sun-News. “When we began to push for a citywide Spice ordinance, the city council indicated they would like for us to help raise awareness about the drug in schools. And the reaction today was unbelievable. They were thoughtful, and the way they responded to it was awesome.”
Sassak was homeless for about seven years. Today, he is a certified peer support specialist at St. Luke’s Health Care Clinic, which serves the local homeless community.
Tifanie Cowger, an Alma d’Arte student, said she thought the performance was well done.
“They did a really good job of explaining and showing what’s going on, and showing how we could help,” she said. “I didn’t really realize how discriminated against they are, and how people treat them like they’re worthless.”
The afternoon performance for the students was the first of two on Friday; at 7 p.m., the group performed for the general public. Both performances were free, but the troupe continues to seek donations to create tiny home villages in Las Cruces for the homeless, Boje said.
Veterans Theater continues to lobby for a city Spice ordinance, to explicitly prohibit the sale and distribution of synthetic intoxicants such as Spice and bath salts.
“It’s patterned after the Hobbs ordinance," Boje said. "I’ve given it to city council, and it’s also on our website, VeteransTheater.com, if the public wants to read the ordinance or the history of our work.”
Students from Alma d'Arte Charter School watch a performance of "Labels," a three-act play by Veterans Theater players David Boje, left, Ernest Ramey, center and JR Holton, right, about homeless veterans and Spice usage in Las Cruces on Friday December 16, 2016. (Photo: Josh Bachman/Sun-News)