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.