Ubuntu's 'Down Here Below' Perfects The Trick Of Watching The Homeless Vanish

The Ubuntu Theater Project is the most politically engaged theater company in the Bay Area, but if you like your theater to come with answers then Ubuntu will thwart you at every turn. Their latest, the world premiere of Lisa Ramirez’s Down Here Below is a rousing re-imagining of Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths from which it takes both spiritual and aesthetic inspiration. An unsentimental and sharp depiction of the closing of an Oakland homeless encampment (imagine Snow Park at Lakeside and Harrison), Ramirez’s play — with a cast of twenty and running just 65-minutes — is both epic and swift.

Rather than telling us what to do, or how to feel, or mapping out some Quixotic plan for the future, Ramirez gives us people and lots of them. You walk into Ubuntu’s new theater (a nice slice of unused warehouse space in FLAX art and design) and suddenly you’re in a crowd, as if every homeless person in Oakland just kind of emerged out of nowhere. You clamor for a seat and they clamor for your attention. It’s not assaultive (and the real homeless rarely are), but the sudden intrusion of all these characters in our way does make the simple act of finding a seat difficult. And annoying. And troublesome.

Of course that’s the point, the homeless have a way of getting in the way

That opening gambit is one of those theatrical tricks designed to catch you off guard, but in this instance the stunt has real stakes. Or put another way, Ramirez and director Michael French are dead serious about the effect. Throughout the evening you get the uncanny sense that the world is filled with entrances and exits that we can’t quite account for or imagine. How else can you explain the way the encampment grows and shrinks, the way people — the characters — appear out of nowhere and the fade out of focus, as if being socially present were something that requires hard work and constant vigilance.

The answer is of course it does, at least if you’re homeless. As in her previous play at Ubuntu, 2017’s To The Bone, Ramirez is aware of how easy it is for someone to just disappear. And that social disappearance or the ability to have a social life is a political issue. How we’re seen, our ability to construct viable public lives is what makes our private ones possible. We’re used to thinking that we go from the private and then make a choice to be public. But Ramirez understands that without the ability to live in the public sphere — though ironically that’s what the homeless are always in the act of doing — you don’t really have a true or full private life.

And you have very little opportunity to tend to the soul

The story that Ramirez tells is not the obvious one: We must do something. If you need to be told that, there’s no helping you. No, she’s chasing the trickier story of what a homeless life is. And so in many ways the play resembles an art show, a series of vivid portraits from which we intuit fuller stories. We get that Mama Gwen (the always electric Kimberly Daniels) and 12-step (a steady Johnny Mercer) are responsible and capable of getting others to follow rules; we quickly know that Rat Head and Chicken Little (fine performances by Olivia Bell and Margherita Ventura) have lost their minds and will never get them back; that the rapping Goldilox’s talents will never amount to anything, just as we know that the homeless who sing on BART steps aren’t destined for stardom no matter how talented they are.

Part of the pleasure of Down Here Below is that we know everything we need to know immediately. Ramirez has a gift for dramatic portraiture and wastes no time with character development: that’s a lesson I wish 90% of American playwrights would learn. And so what we get is a world, a society sketched before us with exacting detail and vibrant life. That it’s just like ours — full of petty jealousies and rivalries, acts of kindness and casual cruelties, pretentious fools and cleary-eyed realists — isn’t a shocker.

What’s shocking is its provisional nature; the way the true drama of the play isn’t the state of homelessness, but the way homelessness exists in a constant paradox. As the cyclical nature of the play makes clear, the problem is both never-ending and always on the verge of eradication. Caught between those states, the inhabitants of encampments can barely stay human, even to themselves.

You see it in the way the characters are quick to blow. The embattled Zig-Zag (J Jha, as always, fascinating), transgender, sensitive to slights, and scared, seeks conflict as a way of self-realization. And the Gulf war vet, GI Joe, a forceful presence at the edge of the encampment, does the same as he takes on the con artist, Storm, who just plays the role of the vet for money. When they scream at each other or the world around them, as often happens, it’s not that they’re crazy. It’s the opposite: their screams tell them and us that for one moment they have a place, that they are real, and that they too are part of this world.

Dystopians dream up spectacular ends to the world all the time — nuclear winters, plagues, swarms of locust, but in Down Here Below the spectacular end is a few minor skirmishes and a vanishing act. Ubuntu makes a dismaying case that the people we see are vividly not present, even to themselves. That’s why they stand in the way, join encampments, build half civilizations, and scream.

What Should We Say To End This Review? I Think 6 Quick Points Will Suffice

1. We should say that though Down Here Below is largely successful and always alive to the moment, it has some weaknesses. The role of the real estate developer is one of those easy satirical sketches that miss the point. The roles of the police are also shaky, though Ramirez’s use of them improves throughout the play.

Every once and a while the play lapses into over explanation, telling us more than we need to know. That’s a problem in a piece that for the most part refuses to engage in easy political posturing and melodramatic backstories. Ramirez has a great talent for taking the carcass of the socially engaged play and reanimating it with real artistic feeling and ideas. You want that experience to be as pure and as piercing as possible, and these minor lapses muddy the water.

Still, in an age where the rhetoric of our artists have become as threadbare as our politicians, it’s a relief to experience a political play that believes in the demands of art and the strange contours of actual experience.

2. We should say that Michael French’s direction is smooth and alert. Clarity is an underappreciated talent and difficult to pull off. French never lets us lose the logic and force of the play. He makes it look easy and natural.

I do wish that he had allowed the arrest of Lil Bit to go on longer in the background. Its speedy resolution seems both unrealistic and at odds with the way the play balances the frantic and the leisurely.

3. We should say that the cast is filled with Ubuntu regulars and is uniformly sharp. And that at times some of them don’t seem to be acting, which is a compliment and matches the integrity of the play.

4. We should say that Dorian Lockett as the strung out actor Jones is superb. Playing a character who at times thinks he’s in a play (The Emperor Jones, Othello), you feel the tremendous loss and danger of a damaged mind. Each time he yells “line” you expect the stage manager to give it to him.

5. We should say that a great deal of Down Here Below is funny and that we laugh at the homeless. This is good. The poor aren’t saints beyond our derision and when we treat them as such we dehumanize them. The violence and paucity of their lives is always present for us to see, just as it is for any other person. The play’s humor is not cruel, but a kindness. Suffering does not exempt us from criticism.That we can see them at all is the political and philosophical point, because they are always on the verge of vanishing and becoming just another sentimental idea.

6. We should end by saying that The Ubuntu Theater Project is the theater company Oakland deserves and the theater company its citizens should rush out to support.

‘Down Here Below’ runs through April 28 at the side theater at FLAX art and design on 15th and MLK in Oakland. For tickets and information click here.