“Everything you are about to see is completely legal.”
This disclaimer foreshadowed the egregious inequity to come in the premiere of an original radio play that streamed this past weekend. Gathering Ground Theatre and BASTA’s Tenants Speak Up! Theatre devised “A Tale of Two Citizens: A People’s Struggle with Housing in the Capital City,” featuring the lived experiences of their members who face varying levels of housing insecurity.
This is an issue that continues to deeply impact Austinites, especially amidst a global pandemic.
At the beginning of 2020, Ending Community Homelessness Coalition’s point-in-time count revealed that 2,506 people were homeless on the night of the annual census, Jan. 25 — a 10-year high and a 45% increase over the previous census.
As defined at the top of the show, the word “citizens” denotes “all people living in Austin, Texas, who struggle to find and keep housing.” In ten short scenes, we are taken through struggles that may hit close to home: callous property managers, job insecurity, broken amenities, expensive rent, apartment pet bans. “A Tale” aurally illuminates just how fine a line it is to being homeless, regardless of the pandemic.
Characters featured are the usual city suspects including a “rich” developer, a mayor, journalists, a social service caseworker, and “greedy” management. Our citizens, deeply impacted by the oversight of the aforementioned, are Angela Clove (Sharae Walker) and Rene Stout (Steven Potter).
Here the audience plays a mildly implicated witness, as at the end of each scene the YouTube chat would burst with folks being shocked by what had transpired.
Camp sweeps are demoralizing and traumatizing. In some instances, job programs include conducting sweeps wherein workers are instructed to dismantle encampments in which they had previously lived. And with wages so low, new residents are hard pressed to maintain newfound stability once rent relief concludes.
It’s a disheartening, but beautifully rendered radio play. Language justice also shined through as each scene was captioned in English and Spanish and Spanish-speakers could call in for live translation. It’s a stellar example of recognizing who the audience is and addressing accessibility accordingly.
This leads to the question of a digital divide that the ensembles and organizers needed to overcome even in producing this work remotely. They were amid rehearsals when the pandemic broke out. What was intended to be a live performance had to shift, and around the same time they lost an integral collaborator, James Mosley.
They took a pause to regroup on what their production could look like moving forward. Organizers and artists Anna Joaquin and Kate Proietti further coordinated resources, checked in on members, and held space to grieve. Pivoting to an online space presented new barriers, particularly illuminating a digital divide. In this case, access to Internet and reliable devices weren’t a given. The artists were especially determined to continue with the show as they knew the impact their voices could have when amplifying their lived experiences of being housing insecure. The team decided recording phone calls would prove the most feasible considering the resources they had for a show that leaned on testimony.
In addition to new ways of leaning on technology to make the play, organizers used it as a point of data and dream collection. Before the play began, a virtual prompt invited us to answer the question, “What does housing justice look like to you?” Our responses floated into a wordcloud: housing for all, decriminalization of homelessness, no evictions, safety, tenants’ unions, reparations.
Austin is one of the fastest growing city in the country, yet it remains deeply behind in providing housing that is affordable and safe. More often than not, basic amenities are eschewed and residents are made to feel guilty for demanding bare the minimum.
Following the performance was an “Organizing Toward Housing Justice” panel that featured the play’s artists and organizers. It is clear they hope to inspire immediate action and change.
This play urges us to fight for housing justice and to think about it as deeply connected to other human rights issues like pay inequity, domestic violence, and even environmentalism. As a kickoff to a Week of Action, “A Tale” highlights a range of mutual aid and organizing opportunities in pursuit of the housing justice we are invited to envision.