Skip to main content

Using Art To Define Home And Shelter

San Diego playwright Renee Westbrook connects her work to a new film

KPBS Midday Edition Segments podcast branding

Sometimes similar themes pop up across media in interesting ways. Take the new film “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” and Renee Westbrook’s San Diego International Fringe show “Shelter.” Both explore how we define home and shelter.

Aired: July 9, 2019 | Transcript

Sometimes similar themes pop up across media in interesting ways. Take the new film “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” and Renee Westbrook’s San Diego International Fringe show “Shelter.” Both explore how we define home and shelter.

At this year's Fringe Festival the show that touched me most deeply was Westbrook's "Shelter," which took inspiration from her experience being homeless.

At the movies, one film that moved me most deeply was "The Last Black Man in San Francisco," about a young man trying to reclaim the home his family lost. I saw a thematic link between these two works and invited Westbrook to come watch the film with me to see if she felt a connection between her play and the film.

Some might see home and shelter as the same thing but these two works of art define them as distinctly different. Plus they explore how each term can have nuanced meanings.

Photo credit: A24

Jimmie (Jimmie Fails) defines home as one specific place, the house his grandfather supposedly built, in the new film "The Last Black Man in San Francisco."

In “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” Jimmie ties his definition of home to a specific physical place, his family’s old house supposedly built by his grandfather in the Mission District of San Francisco. To him, that is the only place he can call home.

For San Diego playwright Westbrook, being homeless led her to write about the experience and to contemplate the way we define shelter.

“It’s loosely based on my first night homeless on the streets of Los Angeles and in Santa Monica. I'm a middle class, middle-aged [woman], I don't smoke or drink. I'm not mentally unstable and it's just something that happened that I had to deal with and I ended up living in homeless shelters after about 30 days of sleeping on buses at night and sometimes the beach it's Santa Monica,” Westbrook said of the play’s origins.

In writing the play "Shelter" she wanted “to get people to connect to what shelter means because it really is more than just having a roof over your heads as the characters describe for themselves.”

Her character, David Gonzalez, the Bipolar Vato, asks us to consider that shelter is the love a family provides when things go bad while another character, Lazarus, holds up his fists and explains that his ability to fight is his shelter.

In watching the film “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” Westbrook saw something in Jimmie that I did not. Even though Jimmie had a place to stay and had a job, she saw him as homeless.

“Well, it was like a spiritual homelessness,” Westbrook said. “Homelessness of the self because he was working. He was sleeping on the floor of his best friend's home and consistently going to a place that didn't belong to him. To me, that's persona non grata on a personal level. I just felt that his homelessness was more spiritual than it was physical and that's worse sometimes because if your insides are not anchored and grounded and have a home no matter where it is your outsides are going to be messed up anyway.”

Westbrook also identified with Jimmie's friend Mort who chooses to write a play as his means of trying to communicate with Jimmie.

Westbrook won best solo performer at Fringe last month and she hopes to stage it at libraries and homeless shelters in the near future. She also hopes to eventually expand it from its hour-long Fringe version to a full play.

Want more KPBS news?
Find us on Twitter and Facebook, or sign up for our newsletters.

To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.