The high squeak of marker on the red balloon ruptures a weighty silence hanging in the theater. A child writes out “help,” speaking each letter of the word out loud as he does, mostly to himself, clearly distraught as his stepfather looks on. Extending the balloon out to his mother, her back turned, the scribbled cry visible, he waits for her response, in a pause pregnant with the possibility of rescue.
Then, with one swift and unexpected motion, the stepfather pops the balloon with a pin.
The resulting bang makes the audience gasp, some jerking back in their chairs from the shock of the noise mixed with the realization of what is being abstractly demonstrated: Victims of abuse are sharing their stories of trauma from foster care, publicly, for the first time.
‘I think I want to tell y’all something I never told you or really anybody before.’ — Malik
Weeks before the show’s opening night on April 14, blocking the balloon scene, less tension filled the room. In the basement of College Park Baptist Church in Greensboro, the cast of the Foster Care Chronicles project’s debut production, Wrongs of Passage, munched on room-temperature pizza and flipped through their scripts in respectful silence while the actors in the scene worked out balloon logistics.
Getting to this point in the production has been a long process — nine months from recruitment, to collecting actors’ stories, to compiling them into a script, to opening night, to be precise — and it’s taken several group retreats and a significant amount of team-building exercises to achieve the level of trust among the cast necessary to craft a play out of their own experiences of trauma, some of which had never been spoken aloud.
At rehearsal, in somewhat stereotypical high school drama-teacher fashion, writer and director Debra LeWinter kicked her boots to the side under her desk; every minute or so, she couldn’t help but jump up in her socks to move a set piece or demonstrate a movement to her actors, all while giving encouraging constructive feedback as the actors tackle the rough subject material of their own stories.
Working with two moving screens to represent a rape scene that takes place in a corner of a room, she paused, looking at actor Malik Worthy square on.
“You have the acting chops to really hit this,” she said.
It’s one of innumerable instances throughout the play’s lifespan in which having social workers handy for these types of scenes was crucial for both the cast and crew.
The sponsorship of the joint Master’s of Social Work program at UNCG and NC A&T University is mutually beneficial; social work interns in the program clock in hours while LeWinter has the clinical backup required for the subject matter being performed.
The three interns — Anna Black, Rissa Tuttle and Melissa Williams, supervised by clinical director and producer Alicia Kaplan — not only provided appropriate care during harder moments and helped to conduct interviews with actors, but also run sound, help actors practice lines and drive them to rehearsals. LeWinter said the production would’ve been incredibly different without their presence.
LeWinter’s scriptwriting methodology aimed to guard the actors’ emotional well-being as well. Instead of having actors perform their own traumatic experiences, LeWinter consciously traded out most narrators, and the end result is a musical-chairs kind of casting that protects the actors while preserving the intent of the play.
Performing from another person’s life proved to be a meaningful part of the process for many of the actors.
“I feel like I’m living through that person,” D’Wayne Rodriguez, a 17-year-old from Winston-Salem, said.
“It’s a real eye-opener,” he continued. “You think your situation is bad; you’re in your situation, thinking through your eyes. Then you realize people have situations as bad as yours, or worse. It teaches me not to judge. It brings me into that a little more, more humility.”
Actor Melat Ayalew, a UNCG acting student subbing in for an original cast member no longer able to participate, recalls her first rehearsal after auditioning, in which a fellow actor broke down, unable to cope with a particular scene. Having the interns on hand for moments like those proved indispensable.
“It’s a giant therapy session for everyone,” Ayalew said.
‘They’re here because they want to hear us tell the truth and try to change things.’ — Constance
To fully understand the emotional significance and magnitude of what Wrongs of Passage successfully attempts to accomplish as art and catharsis, it’s necessary to flash back 15 years to 2001. Alicia Kaplan, now the co-field director of the joint Master’s of Social Work program at UNCG and NC A&T University, first applied to that program fresh out of her undergrad at Brandeis University and a tenure running the Phantom Manor ride at Disneyland Paris.
In her application essays for various grad schools, she cast a vision for using theater to creatively marry the arts with social work.
“I really enjoyed the idea of combining those two loves,” she said.
After earning her degree, she started work at the Forsyth County Department of Social Services, later moving to the Guilford County DSS, where she was able to partially realize that dream. In 2009, one her supervisors wrote a play called Chronicles of a Foster Child centered on recurring themes seen by social workers. Neffy Baldwin, one of the contributors to the Wrongs of Passage script, stepped in as the understudy for the main character. Ever since then, Baldwin urged Kaplan to put together another play.
“When we did that production, I remember thinking I wanted to do it again, but use their real-life stories, woven together,” Kaplan said.
Kaplan had the clinical know-how and the love for theater; she just needed the right partner in crime and the grant money to execute it successfully.
Enter Debra LeWinter, who Kaplan met through the Piedmont Swing Dance Society six years ago. LeWinter, a drama teacher at Greensboro’s American Hebrew Academy in Greensboro, had been directing trauma-based theater projects at the school; she was the first person Kaplan thought of when the joint MSW program won a grant with funds allotted for a theater production.
“We’d been dreaming about this for years, ever since we met, all the time we’d known each other,” LeWinter said.
After six years of friendship and their artistic partnership through this play, they share an almost psychic connection, trailing off at the end of their sentences during rehearsals, finishing them telepathically.
“Alicia and I have many things in common,” LeWinter said. “Neither of us have had profound experiences of trauma in our own lives, and yet both of us seek to give people access to healing who have suffered.”
‘Do you promise to listen and try to imagine what it’s like to be us, in foster care?’ — Maya
Though writing and staging Wrongs of Passage has ultimately been a healing process, the trauma caused by the ugly underbelly of the foster-care system is just as much a character in the play as the actors themselves.
Statistics compiled by the Jordan Institute for Families at UNC-Chapel Hill shows that of 5,212 children in child-welfare custody in North Carolina between 2014 and 2015, 162 lived in Guilford County and 68 lived in Forsyth County. The percentage of kids in Guilford County experiencing four or more placements within their first year of custody was 23 percent, exceeding the state average by five points, signifying instability.
Kaplan said that Guilford County in particular has investigated systemic racism in the foster-care system. According to her stats, black children comprise 80 percent of youth in foster care in Guilford county, though they only comprise 40 percent of the county’s total youth population.
Another issue Kaplan pointed to was the shrinking budget for the Child Welfare Education Collaborative, a state program offering free tuition to students agreeing to placement at social service offices, making social work more competitive by stocking state offices with dedicated, debt-free staff.
“There was money then,” Kaplan said of the program in the early 2000s, when she was first starting out as a social worker. “The program was growing. But the state legislature continued to chop the budget. The program’s now at bare bones.”
“It is one of the most challenging jobs quite possibly in the world,” she later added. “I’m hoping the play can be used for social workers to remember why they got into this field to begin with, especially on those stressful days.”
Oftentimes group-home staff members are not formally trained to interact with youth, sometimes posturing in situations a trained social worker would know to de-escalate, Kaplan said. During a game-show bit in the play, one actor asks of a group home staff character, “What qualifies you to be in this role?” The response: “Because I have a pulse and a high school diploma, smartass!”
Another troubling factor called out in Wrongs of Passage is that once a child is placed in foster care, supposedly to be protected from a neglectful or abusive environment, they are not necessarily guaranteed safety: one 2005 NYU study found that over 28 percent of children in state care are abused while in the foster care system, and that’s a modest estimate. Some of the more horrifying moments in the play are not pre-care stories, but those from foster families, such as a pastor’s wife who makes her foster daughter pretend to be “a good husband” and then threatens to kill her if she tells anyone what happened.
Despite a common perception that most children in foster care are young children, the average age of the children in foster care is older than 9 years old. Teens are often moved to group homes not because of behavioral problems, but simply because of their age.
“Not a lot of foster homes are willing to take teens,” Kaplan said.
The trend of adults aging out of foster care only to “enter the system” is a huge social concern, said Greensboro City Councilwoman Sharon Hightower of District 1, who made a point to attend the opening night of the play. Statistics overwhelmingly point to high percentages of homelessness, PTSD, and low employment rates in adults exiting care.
Part of the reason why LeWinter loves working with young adults in or recently out of foster care is their resilience.
“Everything that they feel and all of their struggles are so… I don’t mean excused, but justified, by their experience,” LeWinter said. “Memories of these traumas are so vivid, they are burned into these kids…The hope of this project, and the work of social worker, is to help them put those toys away and grow up.”
The bright-red set — a “dystopian preschool” symbolizing those burned memories — plays a part in the overall emphasis on showing instead of telling, somewhat a thesis of the whole play, which the actors have had to grapple with as they not only share their stories with each other, but act them out.
“You’re going to bring your story not just into the light of day, but under this searing stage light,” LeWinter said. “The audience is part of the process. They’re giving a gift to the people on stage. All of that shame, it just disintegrates under that light.”
LeWinter recalls working through a particularly hard interview with an actor, who for the first time in her life acknowledged that her abuse wasn’t her fault and broke down in tears.
“That’s her getting it,” LeWinter said, her own voice cracking.
“I think the whole play was worth it for that moment.”
‘Come live my story with me.’ — Neffy
Despite the strong foundation of trust and healing built throughout the past year, chaos reigned during tech week rehearsals; in perhaps only this way, Wrongs of Passage is just like any other theater production.
On April 12, the cast and crew seemed to buzz with a panicked energy, in retrospect, throwing the relatively smooth opening night performance on April 14 in sharp relief. In the fifth official draft of the script (though it’s a living text with pieces that move every rehearsal), a new final scene had been written; the disgruntled tech crew tinkered with sound cues and mic-pack logistics, bearing the furrowed brows of people who have dealt with actors for too long.
Halfway through the stop-and-go rehearsal, Rodriguez hit his shin on the set door, and after collecting himself outside the theater with Kaplan, he re-entered wheeling himself in on a chair. Cast members immediately swarmed him, concerned about his leg. Kaplan wrapped ice from the Triad Stage bar onto his leg using gaff tape while Worthy held the improvised ice pack to his friend’s leg.
The cast became, in their own words during opening night’s talkback, a supportive family, relying on each other through the ups and downs.
That kind of community didn’t happen overnight.
Through group interviews and team-building retreats, the cast grew to be more of a supportive family. Their unity is necessary for tackling the tough material at hand. From left: Alysa Rambo, Rose Tucker, Monique Hall, Constance Carroll, D’Wayne Rodriguez and Maya Hamer. Seated: Melat Ayalew.
At first, Worthy, Rodriguez and Monique Hall didn’t know how to feel about acting in the Foster Care Chronicles project. The longtime friends know each other primarily from participating in Forsyth County’s foster care teen support program. On a group outing to a trampoline park in August, LeWinter came to speak about the show and recruit cast members.
“I was like, ‘Eh, she’s coming up to me,’” Rodriguez grimaced, recalling his initial feelings in an interview.
“But then she says food, so I’m interested,” he said. “I decided to give it a chance. We’ve been committed to it ever since.”
It’s a good thing the project brought the trio together; they essentially function as the cast’s peanut gallery, Worthy regularly hamming with ridiculous dance moves and Rodriguez goofing in improvised bits with the audience, both to Hall’s giggling.
Rodriguez hopes to continue acting and perhaps pursue it as a career; he says it’s an opportunity to “release” emotions he couldn’t otherwise express.
“In my game-show host character, I get to be a smart… person,” Rodriguez said, skating around a more foul word. “A smart aleck.”
Rodriguez said he was always the kind of person whose trust was earned, not given, and didn’t think he was going to get as close to everyone as he did. He recalled a powerful moment with cast member Constance Carroll on one retreat, where they had to guide each other through a series of obstacles.
“It brought us closer together,” he said.
Rose Tucker, a 17-year-old from Greensboro, also deviated from her status quo during the fall.
“I didn’t think I was going to open up as much as I did,” Tucker said. “That really shocked me… Miss Deb just has a way of bringing it out.
“You just end up telling everything,” she said, smiling. “You’re like, ‘wait, what?’”
LeWinter confessed her own set of fears as she prepared to recruit her actors.
“I was terrified that I wouldn’t know how to connect, or that I wouldn’t do their stories justice,” she said. “Or that nobody would show up.”
The cast shrank from an initial 13 members to seven of the original story contributors, supplemented by outside actors. The most recent and painfully felt loss was Neffy Baldwin, a core member who had to step down to take care of her son. Kaplan said it’s an inevitability they had prepared for, and LeWinter supplied rationale.
“We’re working a bunch of people who are struggling, and these are the resilient ones, who have enough skills to manage coming frequently and opening up this deeply,” LeWinter said.
Onboarding new actors proved to be a lot smoother than would be expected. Ayalew jumped right in and brought an electric physicality with her; she said she enjoyed the collaborative nature of the play.
“Usually with acting, you discover or create a character’s backstory,” she said. “Our characters are real people.”
Fellow recent addition Maya Hamer studies acting with Ayalew, and carries a surprisingly powerful stage presence, considering her quiet demeanor between scenes at rehearsal. Her deadly serious portrayal of some of the darker characters in the play, such as an abusive foster mom, inspires chills.
Alysa Rambo, subbing for Baldwin, acts professionally — local theater aficionados may recall her stellar performance as Beneatha in A Raisin in the Sun last year with Community Theatre of Greensboro. Rambo’s bright-eyed energy and crisp delivery elevates the power of the entire play, especially when script gaps require ad-libbing.
The three “outsiders” fit seamlessly into the cast.
“It’s more their story than ours,” Ayalew conceded. “We’re learning from them as they’re learning from us as professional actors. But they have the truth of the story.”
‘Do you really think telling my story could change anything?’ -Malik
With a finished manuscript brimming with intimate and powerful stories, and a year of unpacking trauma and growing closer together as a team, “What happens next?” has been a natural question asked by the cast, crew and directors as they look beyond the April 24 final curtain.
For starters, Kaplan and LeWinter plan for Foster Care Chronicles to be an annual project, with new stories each year. For the members of this year’s cast, however, moving forward still looks hazy.
“To some extent, the big struggle for me is, how, in the future, do we connect this project to other things that are really going to produce results in the world for them?” LeWinter wondered aloud in an interview.
“I would love to have them mentor [next year],” she said. “But the bigger thing is, I want their lives to work.”
The play’s purpose extends far beyond its run at the Upstage Cabaret: It will be taped and used as training and recruitment material for potential foster parents in Guilford and Forsyth counties. Kaplan and LeWinter also hope that audiences will be motivated to fund the project so new plays can be written and performed annually. Likewise, they hope kids placed foster care will come see the play and want to be part of the project next year. Some surrounding counties’ DSS offices are planning to bring groups to the production.
Fortunately, the play ends on a positive and lighthearted note, promises Kaplan. With the subject matter at hand, not doing so could potentially be too much for some audience members to process.
“Deb [LeWinter] has brilliantly worked in how to move forward,” Kaplan said. “You leave the play with a sense of hope that’s instilled.”
In one of the closing scenes of Wrongs of Passage, appropriately titled “A Moment of Justice,” Ayalew’s character testified in court against her father for raping her as a child while other cast members surrounded her protectively.
“Relatives, foster parents, group home staff, they knew wrong from right,” Tucker said.
“They violated moments both big and small in our journey to adulthood,” agreed Carroll.
“Now we are here, telling you our stories,” the whole cast said together. “Creating a new rite of passage.”
Wrongs of Passage plays at the Upstage Cabaret at Triad Stage in Greensboro from Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday, April 24 at 2 p.m. Tickets can be purchased at triadstage.org and are free for individuals in foster care and their chaperones. Find the Foster Care Chronicles on Facebook for more information about the ongoing project.
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