Merlene Davis: Drama program lets all see the lives of single mothers

Rhonda Jackson rehearses a scene from J.U.M.P. at Immanuel Baptist Church in Lexington, Ky., Saturday, May 9, 2015. Photo by Matt Goins
Rhonda Jackson rehearses a scene from J.U.M.P. at Immanuel Baptist Church in Lexington, Ky., Saturday, May 9, 2015. Photo by Matt Goins Herald-Leader

When I was a single mother, I saved every penny to buy a baby carrier that fit on my back.

I didn't always have enough money for a bus ride, friends couldn't be at my beck and call, and a stroller just didn't cut it with me.

I had to carry my daughter and a few bags of groceries while dodging New Circle Road traffic and crossing a stream to get back home.

That carrier made life a little easier for me.

It didn't block the hurtful words from others in line when I pulled out food stamps at Kroger, or decreased the stress of stretching a $130 welfare check to pay rent and utilities.

Those memories came flooding back as I sat at a rehearsal last week for the upcoming JUMP! Project performance, featuring single mothers sharing their daily lives on stage for all of us to see.

"They have written this play," said Tanya Torp, program director for Step By Step, a mentoring and advocacy non-profit organization for single mothers age 14 to 24. "They have written every single piece of this. This is their story."

JUMP (Just Us Moms Performing), a nine-month project to empower young single moms to produce a theatrical piece, and The Girl Project, an arts-meets-activism initiative involving teenage girls, collaborated to take the stories of single mothers and bring them to the stage.

The idea started about a year ago after Torp overheard customers in line disparaging a young woman for using an EBT card. "I turned around and said, 'You don't known what she goes through,'" Torp recalled.

She turned back to the woman and said, "You are awesome."

"These women need to share their own stories," Torp said recently. "It is not my story to share. I can be an ally and I need to speak up for them, but I want their voices to be clear."

She contacted Appalachian writer Frankie Wolf, who not only found a grant from the Kentucky Youth Foundation for Women to start the JUMP venture, but she also spent countless hours teaching the women how to write narrative pieces.

"A lot of the work I do is with people who are dying to be writers," Wolf said. But with this project, "I was dragging them until they got excited. It made me feel like I could teach. When you teach the willing, it is different."

Hewlett-Packard, Wolf's employer, donated the tablets on which the moms recorded their lives.

Torp then contacted Vanessa Becker-Weig and Ellie Clark, co-directors and founders of The Girl Project. For three years, they have worked with guest artists to create performances about how America society portrays teen girls.

For JUMP, "we worked with them on taking the pieces they wrote and forming them into cohesive pieces," Becker-Weig said, "and then working with them on diction, projection and expression. Most of these women have never set foot on a stage before."

Chamara Kwakye, University of Kentucky assistant professor of gender and women's studies and African American and Africana studies, is the Girl Project's guest artist. She said the mothers will reveal "intimate details about their lives, their relationships and how they balance all of these things while being without help.

"This is a level of humanity that we don't see," she said.

In addition to the stage readings, the mothers will open the performance with a dance movement which Tasha Fauxe, a dance therapist, helped them choreograph. "They came up with the moves themselves," she said.

Fauxe also conducted a series of workshops with the mothers involving the five senses. "What does being a mom smell like? What does it feel like? And they had to come up with dance movements," she said. "Then they did that for everyone."

Throughout the whole process of the mothers learning to write and learn to perform, Julie A. Edwards, a freelance videographer, and a crew of students have been filming a documentary. "I think storytelling is extremely important," she said. "They are writing their stories and I'm capturing a story within a story."

Neshea Persley, one of the mothers performing, is a graduate of Step By Step and is now a part of its leadership program. A mother of three, Persley said she joined Step By Step four years ago to get help providing Christmas presents for her children.

The group was studying Bird's-eye View of the Bible by Jean Eason & Orpah Hicks. "I said, I need this," Persley recalled. "This is where I want to be."

She wrote a few inspirational pieces for the performance, but she's most pleased with letters she wrote to her children, especially her son. "It's about how he made me feel," she said.

Other young mothers should consider joining Step By Step, Persley said. "They can get so much here, the love and support they may not get somewhere else in their lives. We love each other."

The JUMP performance will also serve as the 20th Anniversary celebration of Step By Step, which was founded by Susan Freeman, Terri Behrens and Tammy Fryman as a non-denominational, Christian-based, non-profit program to cap or lower the growing number of teen mothers.

Anyone who has been associated with the organization is invited to the reception.

Although the performance is free, a $20 donation is suggested. It is not recommended for children under age 9 because of discussions of domestic abuse and other sensitive issues.

"These women are resilient and fun," Torp said.

That bit of information may not be obvious in a check-out lane. It should be quite evident after seeing this performance.