Tonight, Wednesday October 3rd, President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney will participate in the first presidential debate before the November election. There will be questions about the economy, health care, the role of government and governing. I’m betting– but not $10,000– that there will be little substantive debate about poverty, our drug policies or the sheer number of human beings that are incarcerated in this country.
Obama will doubtlessly try to put Romney on the defensive about his dismissal of the 47%; Romney will try to convey that he feels our pain and intends to represent us all. The American public is at risk of being subjected to the largely substance free reductionism of political theater.
Last Friday, Teresa Gunn presented a one woman theatrical performance, “Juanita Hits the Jackpot.” Theatrical performances at their most successful require a careful distillation or paring away of everything that is unessential in order to provide an experience that is real and resonates with the audience.
Teresa has spent the last two decades addressing the impacts of inter-generational poverty, drug addiction and incarceration upon our young people– the very issues our presidential candidates have chosen to overlook. She carefully unwinds these young people’s stories resulting in fully realized, complex human beings who deserve not only our compassion and our understanding, but more importantly our commitment to finding solutions.
“Juanita Hits the Jackpot” began with the song Money, a young woman’s brutally honest account of how the fantasy of being rich, of being taken care of, intersects with the reality of her life.
“i want somebody handsome
i want somebody rich
who’ll treat me like i’m somethin’
not like some stupid bitch…
i’m just a white female
with no sexual diseases
eyes are blue and my skin is pale
i’m recently released from jail
call me further details
if ya want to”
The song ends with the lines “money changes everything.” Teresa then launches into a description of her seven year old self, skate boarding at break neck speed in her Imperial Beach neighborhood. She hits a rock and is thrown to the pavement. Her lip is split, her teeth are broken. Hurt and bleeding she runs home for comfort. Her father bellows “We don’t have any money to take you to the dentist!” and seeks his own comfort in alcohol and arguing with her mother.
Yes, money changes everything. So does a lack of money. While Teresa sits crying in the backyard, seething at her stupid alcoholic parents, ashamed at the thought of going to school with jagged teeth and a split lip, Juanita LaRue, the wise ass guardian angel that only Theresa can see, enters her life. Juanita tells Teresa that she will ultimately figure out what she is supposed to do in her life. An unlikely sibyl dressed in a tight white t-shirt, cut off denim shorts that barely cover her butt, fishnet stockings and motorcycle boots, Juanita prophesies that they will have a great time together raising hell and when it isn’t fun anymore, Teresa will stop, and do something else.
The “something else” that Teresa would ultimately do is the college prep arts and music education program Street of Dreams, in which young mothers who have been sucked up into the criminal justice system are able to earn high school credit and go on to college.
The Juanita cycle is the vehicle for telling those students’ stories, interlaced with her own. Teresa performs to an audience whose diversity transcends age and ethnicity. She provides front row seats to the participants of Crash, the Lighthouse and Stepping Stones- alcohol and drug recovery and treatment programs. Her message of “you stop raising hell when it’s no longer fun and then you do something different” is clearly directed to these young and not so young people who are not only trying to stay clean and sober but figure out what “something different” means. Juanita knows the path they have traveled– there was knowing laughter and often thunderous applause from the front rows throughout the performance.
Teresa speaks to the experiences of the powerless young who come from poor dysfunctional homes, spend time in crappy welfare hotels, run away from foster care, do time in juvenile detention and try to make it in the streets while raising their own children. Those of us in the audience who have had the luck to be on the outside of those circumstances learn that the 16 year old in jail for being an accomplice to an assault and theft needed the money to buy diapers for the baby she loved above all else, and was now separated from.
We experience the deep shame and confusion of another young mother, paralyzed with fright and all alone who takes her sick baby to the emergency room where she is sternly upbraided for not bringing the child in sooner because he is at the point of dying from pneumonia. She returns to the welfare hotel where her own mother has abandoned her and takes up the razor blade that she has surreptitiously been using to cut herself to achieve a sense of calm and presses it deeply this time into the veins of her wrist.
These are the human faces of inter-generational poverty, alcohol and drug addiction and incarceration. Their faces are young and their stories, no matter how shocking, elicit empathy as well as compassion.
“The United States has the highest prison population in the world. The only solution is education.” Teresa ended her performance as she always does with those words. Both the presidential debates and “Juanita Hits the Jackpot” are staged events. Will the presidential candidates be able to keep it as real as wise ass bad girl guardian angel Juanita LaRue?