I had the pleasure of seeing a superb play at the Pine Street Theater recently, The Filmore Hotel. The play by playwright Helen Hill was based on a true story, a traumatic-event-turned-learning-experience set in a low-rent hotel formerly known as the Gilmore. In the Gilmore Hotel lived an entire community of people who twenty years ago were evicted from their homes. Ms. Hill was a friend to many of the hotel residents during that time.
The play is a heartfelt, completely involved description that gives flesh and soul to the number-crunching victim statistics of gentrification, big money renovations and evictions as they occurred and how they effected a particular poor community unique in that they lived in a low rent refuge that had luxurious ocean side views with a magical artistic vibe.
But what made the play so realistic and compelling was the fact that all of the actors have indeed been homeless at some point during their lives. Dignity's Village Players make The Filmore Hotel far more real than an episode of Survivor in which a beautiful cast of handpicked people are helpless on a desert island...except for the 400 member camera crew and their luxury food caterers!
One of the more intriguing characters was Winston, an old man of the sea, played by Jack Tafari. Tafari's face is a natural telltale map which displays to all the world the struggles that he has endured and gotten through. Robert Mitchum, once a prisoner in a chain gang, had a similar facial signature. Winston's face alone is worth noting in such detail, because a large facial portrait is shown which has breathtaking intensity. Although the painting is simply a portrait of Winston's face, with the blue ocean in the background, I got the clear and distinct impression that someone should have warned me before putting such a magnificently intense portrait beneath a spotlight.
That's the type of emotions the entire play conjures up in its audience. Even the worn down set designs, created by former Gilmore hotel resident and artist Jack Wennstrom who raised both his daughters while painting in a $20.00 a month corner room, conjures these feelings.
The play had a wonderful range of emotions. For me, easily the saddest part of The Filmore Hotel was when the irascible yet lovable old fisherman, Winston, recognizes his doom with the eviction.
As the stage lighting dimmed for a scene change like a cold, heartless night, a nearby guitarist softly played and sang a sad song. The warm vocals of Ross Bennet, who also doubled in the role of the artist Max, sounded like a musician in one of those old hobo storybooks that made you feel that you were part of the story. It was then that Winston slowly came down from the stage amidst the shadows to lay his head upon the ground, covered only in his coat, and slept in the street. The single mother Carly also slept in the street. It was then that I nearly wept.
The play also had its humor. One of the funniest scenes was when the wealthy Mr. Guest, brilliantly played by Al-Amin, visited the newly renovated Filmore Hotel in SCENE SIX. Al-Amin's perfect comedic delivery of several of his lines had even the heartless Della, played by Chrysler Chelle, unintentionally laughing, much to the enjoyment of the audience.
Without question, the strongest moment in the play rests on one line that brought the audience's emotions to a zenith of solidarity with uncontrollable applause and cheering that even caused the actors to pause. It occurred during SCENE THREE when the Filmore residents discussed their eviction so that rich guests could rent luxury rooms in the hotel after its renovation. It was delivered loudly and confidently by the artist Max who said, "The papers call us transients. Well, I'd like to know what's more transient than people who come to stay at a place one weekend a year?"
For me that was the best part of the play. People rarely stop to consider that the same well-off tourists and local business owners who complain about homeless transients are often the same people who maintain their wealth by owning businesses or stock in businesses that pay bare-minimum non-union wages, wages so low that their employees are kept, as so beautifully displayed in this play, just a proverbial paycheck away from homelessness themselves!
The play finished on a strong, positive note as Della had a courageous and unexpected change of heart.
If the Village Players ever perform The Filmore Hotel again, and I hope they do, I highly recommend that you take a friend, maybe even a business acquaintance, to go see it. You may both just encounter a message so powerful that it changes your lives.