Marvia Joye Watkins was another casualty of the Great Recession in need of a second chance. • Franklin Templeton Investments in St. Petersburg eliminated her job as training coordinator in 2009. It left her no choice but to fall back on her real passions. • As she'd grown up in Thomasville, Ga., her father believed that someday she'd be a singer and actor. But the brilliant stage career he expected never quite happened. She held on to her Franklin Templeton job for 18 years. • Her father asked her why she hadn't stuck with her music studies. The truth was, he was the reason. She idolized her dad. He had just an eighth-grade education but had provided for the family by opening his own barbershop and mastering the real estate game. • She told him, "Because I want to be like you."
She took her severance and auditioned for the music program at St. Petersburg College.
And along came Chance No. 2.
The nonprofit Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless wanted to stage a series of plays about the homeless. Its director of development, George Bolden, had scraped up a small budget, enough to book the Palladium Theater for a weekend in November. He also had a lot of volunteer talent available.
That talent included Watkins' friend September Penn, a singer-songwriter with deep connections in Tampa Bay's gospel music community.
Penn and Bolden asked Watkins to write and direct the plays, which would be called The Cardboard Stories.
Watkins had often walked through St. Petersburg parks, including Williams Park, ground zero for Tampa Bay's homeless. She had a weakness for the cheeseburgers at Five Guys across the street. She had met homeless people that way — some of them Vietnam vets, or laid-off workers like her.
Her first play would be titled Blissful Turmoil. It would be filled with music. It would be about a girl with a baby trying to survive at Williams Park — someone else in need of a second chance.
Watkins' father was turning 97. He had lived long enough to see her passion rekindled.
Watkins, Bolden and Penn had all known homeless people, but didn't think that was enough to make a play with original insight, one that broke stereotypes. They decided to disguise themselves in ball caps and backpacks and spend 48 hours of Labor Day weekend blending in. A few activists joined them. They slept on the steps of City Hall on the first night, then crashed at the St. Vincent de Paul shelter on the second night. Bolden said their mission was "to learn and see up close." Mission accomplished: One caught head lice.
Under their ball caps, they felt invisible. People either stared blankly or tried not to notice them at all. At a church food handout, Bolden encountered a volunteer he sees often. The guy didn't recognize him. Penn crossed paths with a woman she had recently modeled with in a fashion show. The model looked right past her. They tried to make eye contact. They couldn't get a look back.
Only the homeless noticed them, and they knew pretenders when they saw them. They loaned blankets to the women in the group. Two homeless men — Randy Rakoci and Albert "Rocky" DiBello — offered to show them the way to restrooms and places to eat.
Those two men also volunteered for the stage crew. DiBello later began showing up on rehearsal nights to build sets in a parking lot, hammering under a streetlight.
While Marvia Joye Watkins wrote the play, her friend September Penn set to work on a theme song, based on the Labor Day experience, the sense of invisibility they had felt. Her songs take form during her evening power walks. She believes God puts music in her head as she walks. She carries a recorder and hums.
As Penn walked, a melody came to her, and even a lyric, one asking people to acknowledge the homeless.
What about us? We know you see us.
We know you see us standing here.
Our pain is so clear.
But the lyric wasn't enough. Who were the homeless anymore? The Great Recession had changed all the old definitions, unmoored all secure futures. Who has not been displaced, either physically or spiritually?
The lyric that ran through Penn's head grew to become one that anyone could relate to.
We all had plans.
We dreamed the American Dream.
It was grand.
We all worked real hard and believed we could do anything if we tried.
So we tried.
Yeah, we really tried.
Penn titled the song Faces of Hope.
ACT III, Scene One
Watkins held auditions. Each of the actors was asked to select a torn piece of cardboard, the kind that panhandlers carry.
Why Lie? I Want Beer.
Help A Vietnam Vet.
Single Mom, 3 Hungry Children.
The actors cried. Or they lay on their backs. They pulled their collars up and hung their heads. They yelled, "You're afraid I'm going to carjack you!"
Most could claim some homeless connection. Among the auditioners was John Conlon, professor of literature at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg. He had once led the theater program at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. The theater doors were deliberately left unlocked on Boston's winter nights. Homeless people slept on hay beneath the stage.
Another was actor Tiffany Faykus, who for years had volunteered at soup kitchens in Moscow and counseled street kids in Romania. She now volunteers at St. Vincent de Paul's.
A beauty queen was signed as the play's unlikely female lead. She was Rachael Todd, a redheaded Miss Florida 2009. But even a beauty queen had her own homeless connection. Back in 2000, an encounter with a homeless pregnant woman had caused Todd's mother to start a food bank and thrift store for Orlando families in crisis. Todd volunteered there. "I got on fire," she said.
One auditioner was Ronn Bobb, a veteran Tampa performer who for more than 20 years has starred in a one-man show called The Spirit of Marcus Garvey. Bobb picked the cardboard sign that said, "Why Lie? I Want Beer," but he won the role of a disabled Vietnam vet named Jack. Bobb wasn't sure how to play the part. He hung out at Williams Park.
"One day, I saw this man, he was older, he was limping and he was wearing Army fatigues. I thought, 'That's Jack.' "
He got an Army jacket. When he slipped it on, the character emerged. The character would not be a fallen warrior, a beaten man. He would be an angry, defiant one.
ACT III, Scene Two
George Bolden, director of development for the Homeless Coalition, was eager to involve homeless people in the play. He found a homeless man in Largo with a little acting experience. The guy also had a tough story: He'd just lost his job, home and wife. He was barely getting by, but he was willing to join the cast. Bolden pictured him for a lead role.
But first, the man needed a favor. He asked Bolden for a ride to his old place in Largo to retrieve his belongings. Bolden was happy to take him. Unfortunately, the man's neighbors weren't happy about seeing him again. Someone knew that he was wanted on a drug charge and called the police. They roared up to the house, handcuffs at the ready.
Bolden watched in shock as they hauled his would-be star off to jail. No one said a word to him, so he got back in his car. But as he drove off, he saw a procession of blue lights in his rearview mirror. He was even being chased by a K-9 unit.
Police let Bolden go after he gave assurances he was not a drug dealer.
He drove away knowing that for the duration of his play, his homeless actor would be otherwise engaged.
Then Bolden found Stacy Rush. He discovered her at St. Vincent de Paul's weekly writing workshop for homeless people called 15th Street Scribes. She told him she could sing. She sang The Lord's Prayer.
He had inadvertently discovered a soprano with a full vocal range and a perfect ear, one who sings flawless a cappella. Her signature song next to the parking garage at BayWalk was Over the Rainbow. But she had battled chronic illness for years and was homeless. She avoided sleeping on the streets by singing. She could make $150 a week, and that covered food and motel rooms.
Bolden begged her, "Come to our audition."
She said no.
She already had worked at the Salvation Army and for the Homeless Coalition. "I was burned out on homelessness," she said. "I'm tired of fighting. I'm homeless, but I don't wear it." She fought a temptation to get on a bus and leave town. On audition day, she went to the library.
She sat beside a woman there who was homeless, too. The woman was in her 70s and looked ill. As Rush talked to the woman, she reconsidered the play and its message.
"I thought, 'Maybe I should do something.' "
Rush went to the audition. The play was rewritten to include Over the Rainbow.
Some other cast members had lived Penn's song, Faces of Hope. They represented the recession's New Normal. They were part of the millions of middle-class people who, like those in the song, had dreamed the American Dream and worked real hard and believed. Two of them were Penn's soloists.
One was P. Michael Williams. A year ago he lost his part-time job at University Mall in Tampa. His mother moved down from Mississippi to help him as he studied music at the International Academy of Design & Technology. Shortly after she arrived, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
She had to return home.
When she left, Williams lost his apartment. His car broke down at the Burger King on Fowler Avenue. The restaurant let him sleep in the car in a parking space for a month. His mother died in July.
His salvation was Facebook. Music connections on the website linked him to Erik Holmes, music director of Designer's Way Christian Church in Tampa. Williams began singing at the church, and Holmes and his wife took him in.
Holmes ended up performing the drum track for Faces of Hope.
Penn's other soloist was Tampa Christian/gospel singer Toni Rackard. She and her husband, Derrick, had to file for bankruptcy after he was laid off as a residential loan executive at SunTrust Bank. They have a baby coming in May.
They're trying to recover on the strength of Toni's singing. She has toured Europe with the Harlem Gospel Choir. Their hopes are pinned on her new CD, Unconditional Love.
As the play's Nov. 18 opening neared, director Watkins' 97-year-old father fell ill back in Thomasville, Ga. This was the father for whom she gave up music studies to attempt a business career like his. He was also the dad who encouraged her to return to music.
When she learned he was ill, she sacrificed theater for him once again — against his wishes. She left the play and went home to Georgia. "I was afraid to see the vision lost," she said. "But I knew that it was God's way of telling me to let go."
But over the next weeks, the play found its authenticity. Homeless and nonhomeless in the cast coalesced. They made public appearances together to preview scenes from the play. At Studio@620, a packed audience included homeless people from Williams Park. In the dark theater, no one could tell who was homeless and who wasn't. They sat side by side, the rarest of things.
They laughed knowingly at the city's policy of deodorizing campsites. "The hardest thing is keeping yourself clean," said Jennifer Mays, who is homeless and has a baby coming in the spring. "It comes down to one simple thing: underwear."
On opening night, Nov. 18, Watkins returned. Her father had died the previous weekend. After his funeral, she and her family drove five hours from Thomasville to see the first performance. They watched from the balcony.
"I felt my father there," she said.
The opening was a sellout. Homeless people in the audience applauded the first scene at Williams Park when "Jack," the Vietnam vet, craftily unbolted a bar in the middle of a park bench meant to keep the homeless from stretching out.
Stacy Rush sang Over the Rainbow, the song she had performed thousands of times at the BayWalk parking garage. September Penn and her gospel singers stopped the show with Faces of Hope.
What about us? We know you see us.
We know you see us standing here.
The play's climax was the acceptance of help by a teenage mother and her baby. It was a small triumph — one night in a shelter. The play offered no false promises.
The stage cleared.
Ronn Bobb stood at the edge, hovering over the first row. He wore a red bandana headband and his Army jacket, and he looked every bit angry. He glared for a long moment.
Then he shook his fist and raged against the invisibility of the homeless — even the most helpless, the mothers and babies.
He lowered his voice.
Next time you see me if you're going to stare, at least say:
He waved and smiled.
September Penn is married to Times staff writer Ivan Penn. John Barry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.