The performance of their lives

Shelter: Women who depend on the support of My Sister's Place sing and dance their lives in a Christmastime pageant.

December 23, 2003|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Miss Edith, the quiet one, became a lady of the night, complete with a torn skirt made from a curtain. Maria, thin and boyish, danced with elegance, a lace scarf around her head. In a business suit with shoulder pads, Francine looked like the director of My Sister's Place, a day shelter for women in need, instead of the client she really is.

As they performed a holiday play and concert yesterday before a modest crowd at the Archdiocese of Baltimore, nine women who take shelter at My Sister's Place became known for something other than the troubles that rule their lives.

They were acting, to be sure. But over the two months they rehearsed, the women also became more themselves - the talented, more innocent versions they once were and aspire to be again, if obstacles such as drugs and disease and general adversity would clear away.

"It's bringing the true me out," said Maria Horsey, 37, who danced and sang with the group to distract her from an addiction to crack. "I remember I was like this, once upon a time."

The play, called Christmas at My Sister's Place, was the work of Rhonda English, who develops programs at the shelter and said she was divinely inspired to write it.

English wanted her clients to do more than receive donated gifts at Christmastime. Instead, they would entertain people while telling the world, through a play that mirrored the shelter's daily routine, what their lives were like.

"This year, we're going to give back something," she said.

Meanwhile, a client named Debbie "Liz" Newman - who said she had her own business before heroin took over her life at age 49 - wanted to start dancing and singing groups.

The troupe started with 20 women but dwindled to less than half that. A few would show up to rehearse one day and never be heard from again. But over time, the core grew faithful and focused - poring over English's handwritten script, practicing harmonies, going through donated clothes to find the right costumes.

Catherine Moorman, 37, had been coming to My Sister's Place for months before she joined the players. Though she and her two teen-agers have a place to live, the situation at home is tense and precarious, she said.

"I come here to feel better," Moorman said. "I call them my sisters. It's like a family I never thought I had before."

Edith Ferguson, 39, became homeless this fall after she lost her job as a school custodian and cashier. At first, she kept to herself in the big room at the shelter. But practicing for the play - in which she portrayed a streetwalker seeking help after a beating - offered a diversion.

For one thing, it allowed her to assemble a wild outfit, complete with a long wig and that skirt made from a curtain, a la Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind.

"It made me happy to do something instead of sitting around," Ferguson said.

For the most part, the women practiced in the middle of the main waiting room at the downtown shelter. As they danced to a sung version of the 23rd Psalm one day last week, phones blared and other clients cut through their rehearsal space. Some watched wearily; others slept in their chairs, read newspapers, or held their heads in their hands.

"That was beautiful, y'all," called one of the watchers as practice ended. "You'll be right there when Jesus comes in."

Newman, a dignified woman now eight months free of heroin at 52, bustled around the group like a fretful mother. She was worried about the coughs and sneezes. Edith Ferguson's voice was almost gone, and Newman, practicing a solo for the dance routine, had ankles and joints swollen by arthritis.

"I don't care if I have to bring you to the building," Newman bellowed. "You will dance. You will sing. I don't want nobody dying before Monday."

And they didn't. All but one of the group showed up yesterday, and the shelter director's college-age daughter was quickly pressed into service as a substitute.

After they draped scarves around their heads, tied sashes and put the finishing touches on their costumes, the women gathered to pray. Then they carried candles to the auditorium's foyer, preparing a grand entrance to "O Come All Ye Faithful."

"Be sure you project well. Sing loud," said Tracy Pindell, the shelter's director. "I'm proud of y'all."

There were a few glitches, to be sure. Newman had to remind the dancers to assemble, and it took a few painful minutes to get the proper tape queued up. Some of the actresses turned their backs to the audience. Some lines were lost, others made up at the last minute. The choir sounded a few errant notes.

But at the end, when the women faced their audience of 50, they got rousing applause and a glimpse of something good. They plan to keep performing - their next goal is an event for Black History Month.

"I feel good," said Ferguson, back in her street clothes, her hair back to its close-cropped style. "I feel different."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.