On EVENSONG, by Christina Quintana
"Adventurous theater in Astoria"

-- The New York Times

On EVENSONG, by Christina Quintana

EVENSONG playwright Christina Quintana. Photo Credit: Jorg Meyer

EVENSONG playwright Christina Quintana. Photo Credit: Jorg Meyer

‘Evensong’ scribe Christina Quintana recounts how her own experiences volunteering at a NYC shelter helped inspire her to write the play  featured in APAC’s Mainstage season.

In graduate school I nannied for a single mother on the Upper West Side. Eleanor is a soft-spoken woman who I got to know in the spaces between drop-offs and pick-ups. One day, when I brought up the urge to volunteer post-MFA chaos, she mentioned her many-years experience at a shelter downtown. “It’s not what you might imagine when you think of a homeless shelter,” she assured me, her cheeks turning flush. “It’s quite nice.”

And so, in March of 2013, I began volunteering at Friends Shelter, based out of the Friends Meeting House and Seminary in lower Manhattan. Friends is all-volunteer run—by Quakers and non-Quakers alike—and operates 365 nights a year with two volunteers and no gender restriction for up to 14 guests. Eleanor was right—it is nice. Guests sleep on foldout cots within the school’s gymnasium and during the school year Friends Seminary donates hot meals, which are not your average cafeteria food—we’re talking delicious. As the audience learns through Randy at the top of Evensong, there is a “vetting” process for getting to Friends. Guests must come through the Mainchance Drop-In Center, they have to be drug-free, and generally easygoing.

You would never guess that the majority of the guests at the shelter are homeless. These individuals have jobs, go to school; they are artists, tour guides, security guards, construction workers, administrators, and fashionistas spanning age, ethnicity, and background. During my time as a volunteer, I have been part of a heated discussion with three generations of black women on the Black Lives Matter Movement, learned from a vegan guest all the secondary names for animal products in packaged foods, and have seen the way each group looks after one another, forming an ever-moving family. The people I have met at Friends have completely transformed my idea of what homelessness means and how we view the homeless in America. In the words of a dear friend, homelessness is the one prejudice that is still generally accepted by society, and yet, 44 percent of the homeless have jobs—many have simply run into bad luck and don’t have anyone to turn to for help.

Homelessness is my biggest fear; in part because of my family history, my displacement following Hurricane Katrina, and the reality of living paycheck to paycheck—like so many of my generation—and knowing, like Bob in Evensong says, that “I could lose it all in a second.” I knew I wanted to write about homelessness even before Eleanor mentioned Friends to me that day, but I also knew that my personal experience was limited and that it was absolutely necessary to conduct experiential research. I had no idea what the story would be, but I trusted that through my interactions at the shelter I would find it—and I did. While none of the characters in my play are based on real individuals, all are an amalgamation of the many souls I have encountered in my time there.

I will say, however, that one particular occasion at Friends impacted the play in an overt way. One night when I volunteered, there was a confident, good-looking woman who happened to be a guest. Her dark hair in a messy bun, she was roughly my age and wore a simple t-shirt and jeans. She smiled easily, complimented my tilted newsboy cap, and lingered after I microwaved her dinner. It was an enjoyable flirtation—fun and not the least bit intimidating. As a matter of fact, it made me feel pretty good.

Weeks later, this instance came up over drinks with buddies. “Would you date her?” One friend offered. This threw me into a tailspin. Suddenly, I wondered: “Would I?” And then, even more deeply: “Why not?”

While I never saw that woman again, this became the central question of Evensong. Why should any one person be seen as less than another? What is this silent agreement we make as individuals, as New Yorkers, as Americans to discount human beings with struggles not so distant from our own—and why?

P.S. Friends is always looking for new volunteers! Volunteers generally assist one night per month, but there is a great deal of flexibility. Visit the website for more information, or feel free to contact me directly (cq@cquintana.com) and I’d be more than happy to put you in touch with one of the volunteer coordinators.

Christina Quintana (CQ) is a writer with Cuban and Louisiana roots. Her plays have been developed and produced in Atlanta, New Orleans, New York City, and beyond. She is a proud member of Ensemble Studio Theatre’s Obie-winning cohort of playwrights, Youngblood, and the recipient of commissions from Actor’s Express and Peppercorn Theatre, as well as fellowships from Lambda Literary Foundation and Columbia University School of the Arts, where she received her MFA in Playwriting. For more information, visit cquintana.com

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