From left, J Jha and Margherita Ventura appear in Ubuntu Theater Project’s “Down Here Below.” (Courtesy Jose Manuel Moctezuma)

‘Down Here Below’ a vivid look at lives of the homeless

Ubuntu Theater’s premiere is set in an Oakland encampment

It’s heartening to hear about the extended run of Ubuntu Theater Project’s premiere of Lisa Ramirez’s “Down Here Below,” a captivating, up-close glimpse into a West Oakland homeless encampment.

Likewise, the fact that a recent matinee performance of the pithy, 22-character, 65-minute drama was sold out also positively indicates that some people who have homes aren’t necessarily blind to the plight of those who don’t.

While the show is based on Maxim Gorky’s 1902 “The Lower Depths,” a pessimistic view of poor Russians living in a shelter near the Volga, audiences needn’t be familiar with the social realism classic to appreciate “Down Here Below.”

Directed with empathy yet realism by Michael French, “Down Here Below” depicts some harsh realities: most of the people in the camp are not in their right minds, they’re hungry, mad, spacey and/or addicted.

At the outset, as the audience enters the theater — a storeroom at the back of an art supply store is staged authentically, with a makeshift tent, crates, cardboard box shelters and graffiti on the walls — they come upon the characters, standing still, all speaking at the same time.

They make for a compelling, repetitive cacophony. Easiest to hear are a zoned-out woman who asks for a light and offers a palm reading (Margherita Ventura as Chicken Little); a character in a brightly colored bodysuit and leggings who claims, “All I need is something to eat; I’m not asking to go home with you” (J Jha as Zig-Zag); and a man in a suit jacket asserting, “As you can see, the whole area is prime development” (Michael Aldrete as a developer).

Among others in the group are Jones (Dorian Lockett), a wasted alcoholic who somehow manages to reveal his classical acting chops; and GI Joe (Matt Standley), who watches the most of the proceedings with his dog from the side — until he blows up in anger.

Yet while nothing’s easy for these folks, they do feel a sense of belonging in this Village of Radical Acceptance (the name is painted on the wall), overseen, as it were, by Mama Gwen (Kimberly Daniels) and her children Blue, who wields a clipboard (Rolanda D. Bell) and Little Bit (William Oliver III).

While it’s not too surprising that Mama and her family’s efforts to help their troubled makeshift community are obstructed in an upsetting eventuality, that doesn’t negate the power of “Down Here Below.”

It’s a riveting and realistic look at human frailty and fallibility — and of resilience and compassion.

REVIEW

Down Here Below

Presented by Ubuntu Theater Project

Where: FLAX Building, 1501 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Oakland

When: 7 p.m. May 2 and May 5, 8 p.m. May 3-4

Tickets: $15 to $45 or pay as you can

Contact: http://www.ubuntutheaterproject.com/below

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