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.