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Using Art To Define Home And Shelter

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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.

Show transcript

Speaker 1: 00:00 KPBS arts reporter Beth Armando saw a connection between the recent film, the last black man in San Francisco and a place she sighed, San Diego international fringe called shelter. So she decided to speak with playwright Renee Westbrook about how her friend show and this new film define home and shelter Renee. I had the opportunity to see your play shelter at the San Diego International fringe festival and I was very impressed by it. It's a very personal story for you. And one of the things that struck me when I went to see this film, the last black man in San Francisco is that there was this kind of thematic link between your work and this. So to start off with, let people know a little bit about your place shelter and where it's origins come from. Well, shelter, yeah.

Speaker 2: 00:52 Was, I'd have to say if, if I have to define it, it was a unnecessary healing process. Uh, it comes from, it's loosely based on my first night homeless on the streets of Los Angeles in Santa Monica. I'm a middle class, middle age. Uh, I don't smoke or drink. Uh, I'm not mentally unstable. And it's just something that happened that I had to deal with. And I lived, I ended up living in homeless shelters after about 30 days of sleeping on buses at night and sometimes the beach and, uh, Santa Monica. And even years after that experience, when I finally did get a place to live, there was still some energy from those experiences that I had. And as a writer, I just thought, well, you know, 2011 I started trying to write about it. It didn't really work out. I had in mind to write something for someone else because I didn't want to participate in it cause I thought it would be too painful. So I had met this rapper when I was homeless and told her I would write something for her. So I had her in mind. Along about 2016 a colleague of mine said, you know what? I think you should continue writing this. And I was like, because emotionally I was a mess. So I continue. I continue the process from 2011 I started developing it in 2013. And from that process I got healing. And I got some content that seems to be uh, moving people.

Speaker 1: 02:33 The title shelter refers to what you are examining in the play in terms of how do people define that. And so what were you hoping to explore and to convey to people by doing that? Really what

Speaker 2: 02:47 I was hoping to do is get people to connect to the idea of a group of people sort of defining shelter as they're watching it. When an audience is together in a room, they're not connected when they come in, but when they're viewing this experience where these characters are describing their lives and what they've been through, then there's this magic that happens where they begin to connect and think about what it means. I had a friend come and she said her brother, who's a theater guy, he would turn away, he would stop and turn away. It wasn't because he was bored, but because he started thinking about what it meant to him. I wanted to get people to connect to what shelter means because it, it really is more than just having a roof over your heads as the characters described for themselves.

Speaker 1: 03:37 So in this piece you take on a number of different characters and one of the characters that really struck a chord with me was this young man who defines shelter in a very specific way for him. So I'd like you to read a little section from that.

Speaker 2: 03:52 Okay. This is Debbie Gonzales. His nickname is the bipolar Vato and he is the centerpiece of, uh, of, uh, the show. I didn't have no kind of shelter, you know what I mean? The kind of shelter, like when you have a bad day and everything is okay, you know, it's going to be okay. Like when you get laid off from your job and you've got a family to feed and you don't know how you're going to do it, how are you going to feed them? Then when you come home with the bad news, your children, as soon as you hit the door, they run to you and tell you how much they love you.

Speaker 2: 04:29 That shelter, that shelter or even though you're in the middle of a messed up divorce and you've got to go to the Taco shop to pick up your kids for that court ordered, we can visit the mother of your children, treat you calm, respectful, whether you're employed or not. Refugio that's the kind of shelter I'm talking about. The kind of shelter that makes you believe in miracles. You know like you just watched Chasu Cristo walk on water, then bring Lazarus back from the dead shelter that no matter what happens to you, you got that thing inside you that tells you can nobody mess with you. Can nobody make you believe something about yourself. That ain't true.

Speaker 1: 05:07 Your play tackles this idea of shelter and in last black man from San Francisco, I really felt it was in part dealing with how we define home shelter in home. Some people may consider the same but they are also very different. You got to see this film as well. How did you connect to it? Into the character of Jimmy who is kind of trying to recapture his old family home in the, in the film.

Speaker 2: 05:36 The one thing that stood out for me with a main character was his inability to lift himself out of that no man's land. That feeling of being lost and not knowing how to save yourself. Uh, and I think, uh, Jimmy was it, it was like he was in the middle of the bridge trying to get from his old self and what he knew the life he knew to moving forward in life. And for me, you know, being homeless and being lost, that feeling of not having any humanity after you've seen in homeless shelters, the kind of you, a negative humanity that it can exist there. It made me, that feeling of lawlessness made me feel like Jimmy, it made me feel like there's no hope. How can I get to the other side? And one of the things I had to do was leave my old thinking, my old self, my desire to please my, my family loved them to death.

Speaker 2: 06:39 My desire to be the the nine to fiver. I had to take on my dreams. I had to walk across that bridge and visible though it was and trust that everything would be okay. So I identified with Jimmy's feeling of Oh dear God, where am I and where am I going? Technically in the film, Jimmy is not homeless in the sense that he has a place to stay, which is with his friend and he kind of squats on property that used to belong to his family and he takes up living there. But you tended to see him as homeless in another sense. So explain what that felt like for you. Well it was like a spiritual homelessness, homelessness of the self because you know, he, he was working, he was living, he was, you know, sleeping on the floor of his best friend's home and consistently going to a place that didn't belong to him.

Speaker 2: 07:40 To me that's, that's persona non grata, you know, on, on a personal level. I just kind of felt like that his homelessness was more spiritual than it was physical. And that's worse sometimes, because if you don't have, if your insides are not anchored and grounded and have a home, no matter where it is, your outsides are, are gonna be messed up. Anyway, that's just my belief. Okay. Well, I want to thank you very much for sharing some of your play and some of your insights into the film. Last black man in San Francisco. Thank you very much for having me. And the last black man in San Francisco is still playing at some theaters, including AMC fashion valley. Renee Westbrook is hoping to restage her show shelter again soon.

Speaker 3: 08:23 Ooh.

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.