Real people. Real situations.

‘Les Misérables’ cast brings inspiration to Portland’s homeless

It was an out of the ordinary idea. But then, these are not ordinary times. And in the end, it was a perfect melding of tradition and reality, of hope in the face of despair, of youthful optimism to bolster age-ripened dejection. In the end, it made perfect sense.

Under sun drenched skies Saturday, some 50 Hood River students — mostly from Hood River Valley High School — performed highlights of their upcoming production of “Les Misérables” for a captive audience of homeless people in Portland. The group, led by music director Mark Steighner, sang and told the famous story of Jean Valjean, whose theft of a loaf of bread in 18th century France set in motion a chain of tragic and redemptive events, to an audience for whom the epic drama more closely resembles reality than fiction.

The setting was Dignity Village, a homeless camp set up with the city’s approval on the grounds of a leaf composting facility in Northeast Portland. The village and its 60 residents — whose motto is “Out of the Doorways” — are a real-life experiment in dealing with the city’s homeless. Governed by rules and regulations — including no drugs or alcohol, and no violence — and led by a council made up of founding members, the village provides a place for the homeless to live while they work to return to mainstream society. An established non-profit organization, Dignity Village strives to be “green,” with its semi-permanent structures made from recycled material, a windmill that generates electricity and villagers purportedly committed to recycling.

The village, which has its own Web site, has become a model that other cities and homeless organizations have looked to for help in dealing with their own homeless populations. In the process, Dignity has garnered attention from donors in Portland and across the country, from politicians, and from students who work with the villagers on sustainability issues.

But Saturday was the first time a theater production took place at the village.

“I welcome this,” said Ibrahim Mubarak, one of Dignity’s founders, as the students warmed up and residents began to gather around the make-shift stage, a roofless frame structure built on discarded wood pallets. “This is going to provide a chance (for villagers) to get cultivated.”

As the students began to sing, villagers wandered in from elsewhere in the tent city to see what was going on. Some strolled off again after a few minutes but many settled on the odd assortment of chairs, or sat on the ground, as the students performed for more than an hour. The roar of jets taking off from nearby Portland International Airport every few minutes occasionally drowned out the singers’ voices, but villagers seemed hardly to notice the distraction.

And though the students still have a month of rehearsals left before the production opens in Bowe Theater in November, the trip gave them a valuable opportunity to perform in front of an audience.

“While it wasn’t an ideal performance musically and it was difficult logistically, there are times and places where those elements are not as important as the spirit and intention,” Steighner said afterward.

The idea of the cast performing at Dignity Village was hatched by Steighner and Hood River resident — and longtime Dignity Village advocate — Joan Yasui Emerson.

“Joan and I have spoken in the past about my students visiting, performing at, or fund-raising for Dignity Village,” Steighner said. “So I suggested that this show would be a good opportunity for us to provide some entertainment for the villagers, and for our students to gain a little insight into people in some ways similar to those of the show.” While the conditions residents of the homeless camp live in are “far less desperate than 18th century France,” Steighner said, “there is certainly a similar attitude in our society toward the homeless.”

Another impetus for the students’ visit to Dignity, according to Steighner, was the long-standing tradition amongst professional companies performing “Les Misérables” to donate to charitable causes.

“I thought it would be great to start a similar tradition amongst the many high school productions that will be following ours.”

The audience — which also included some parents of students — gave the cast a standing ovation when they finished. A few villagers wiped tears from their eyes as the students stood beaming at them.

“These guys are good,” said villager Tim McCarthy.

Gaye Reyes, who serves as the village treasurer, concurred. “These are wonderful kids,” she said. “It tickles me to see them.”

Students and parents mingled with the villagers afterward. Mubarak even led a few curious students on a tour of the village.

Most of the students seemed enthusiastic about the experience as they headed for the bus to return to Hood River.

“I’m really glad I was able to come here,” said HRVHS sophomore Aileen Herlitz.

Junior Tiffany Pyatt agreed. “It made me feel so good,” she said. “It was great to be able to talk to people afterwards and hear their stories.”

That was precisely Steighner’s goal.

“What I wanted more than anything was to let the kids know that ‘Les Mis’ is based on real people and real situations which in many respects are no less troubling than in Victor Hugo’s day,” he said. “Hopefully, kids can now put a real human face on such concepts as ‘homelessness’ and respond with more understanding and compassion.”

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