In New Play 'Down Here Below,' the Audience Becomes One With a Homeless Camp

Mama Gwen (Kimberly Daniels), Jones (Dorian Lockett), and 12-Step (John Mercer) in the Village of Radical Acceptance.  (Jose Manuel Moctezuma)

For a show that didn’t have a confirmed venue until a couple weeks before opening night, it's somewhat appropriate that the world-premiere production of Down Here Below, from Oakland’s Ubuntu Theater Project, is set in a homeless encampment.

In Ubuntu’s production, situated in the loading zone of the Oakland branch of FLAX artist supply store, the cast occupies an ephemeral camp called the “Village of Radical Acceptance.” It's a bare-bones suggestion of a camp, really, created from a few tarps and chairs, scattered milk crates, a refrigerator box, and graffiti-covered walls.

By serendipitous coincidence, Ubuntu’s run of Down Here Below—an adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths by Ubuntu associate artist, Lisa Ramirez—coincides with that of The Jungle, across the Bay at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco. Though The Jungle has a bigger budget, and therefore a more realized immersive experience, both productions put their audience in the same physical and psychological space as the characters.

Upon walking into FLAX, the audience must navigate a path through the waiting performers, who ask for spare change and sandwiches. Once seated, hunched around the playing area as if at a bonfire, the audience is pulled into the daily routines of the camp and its denizens without the artificial distance of a proscenium stage. We are all a part of the story.

J Jha as Zig Zag and Margherita Ventura as Chicken Little in the Village of Radical Acceptance. (Jose Manuel Monteczuma)

That Down Here Below is a story without a beginning or an end only adds to its immersive quality. The inhabitants of the Village are already familiar with each other, and therefore have no need to painstakingly lay out their backstories—at least not until their backstories come looking for them.

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There’s the passionate activist rapper Goldilox (Abdulrahim Harara), who’s desperately trying to scrape together enough coin to record what he knows will be a hit. There’s the emotionally wounded Zig Zag (J Jha), who can’t help but lash out at others, propelled by their own pain. There’s the spaced-out psychic Chicken Little (Margherita Ventura), whose tenuous grasp on reality could be mistaken for a higher spirituality—or vice versa. And then there’s Jones (Dorian Lockett), who imagines he is performing Eugene O'Neill and Shakespeare—stumbling in desperate drunken circles, and calling fruitlessly for a line. Altogether, 20 actors are involved, giving stage time to a broad swath of the lower strata: street kids, veterans, dealers, recyclers, artists and auto-didacts.

GI Joe (Matt Standley), and Mama Gwen (Kimberly Daniels) in Lisa Ramirez' 'Down Here Below.' (Jose Manuel Monteczuma)

While each character gets a moment in the spotlight, it's the tight-knit family of camp “mayor” Mama Gwen (Kimberly Daniels) and her two children Blue (Rolanda D. Bell) and Little Bit (William Oliver III) who hold the center of both the play and the stage. The comfortable ease with which they communicate—whether mediating camp disputes, discussing family chores, or facing down city workers trying to sweep them out—speaks to the strength and dignity they cultivate in each other and, through their actions, impart to the camp at large.

When a third child Abbey (Champagne Hughes) comes to visit, she has her middle-class assumptions challenged by Blue, who calls the camp—but not her blood sister—her “family.” And like any family, despite the squabbles, tensions and addictions that plague its members, the Village offers at its core a vision of true acceptance. A vision in which it’s understood that no one person will ever know the whole of another’s life, but that within the context of a certain place and time, they can be a part of each other’s stories.

Champagne Hughes as Abbey visits her sister Blue in the Village of Radical Acceptance. (Jose Manuel Monteczuma)

Directed by Michael French, Down Here Below is a naturalistic doorway into an everyday milieu that's disproportionately ignored by both our playwrights and politicians. As KQED reported last week, the Bay Area has the third-largest homeless population in the United States, with nearly 70% of the region's homeless living unsheltered on the streets, in cars, in tents or elsewhere.

But the visibility of the homeless is a separate issue. With the action in Down Here Below sprawled across the room in an almost haphazard manner, there’s no one seat in the house from which attendees can catch every moment of the play, mirroring our inability to absorb and understand every detail of our surroundings when out in the world.

Ultimately, we’re all limited by what we choose to see, and what chooses to be revealed to us. But as Down Here Below suggests, the bigger picture of our shared humanity is well within our view.

'Down Here Below' runs through April 28 at the FLAX Building (1501 Martin Luther King Jr. Way) in Oakland. Details here.

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