Homeless kids find a voice in U-M's production of "somebody's children"


A rehearsal shot of the cast from the University of Michigan production of Somebody's Children

Rehearsal photo of somebody's children by Hector Flores Komatsu.

Thirteen years ago, the Found Spaces Theater Company in Los Angeles commissioned a play from José Casas about homelessness. “I was really struggling with the play,” he recalls. “It was like a bad afterschool special with two-dimensional characters.” 

Then the artistic director gave Casas an article about homeless kids who lived in motels, kids with fathers who were absent or deceased, who live near Disneyland and suffer “earth-shattering tragedies each day.“ At once, he was inspired by the thought of some children enjoying a theme park, while children in abject poverty were near enough to hear their laughter.

And somebody’s children took shape quickly. The University of Michigan is staging a production at the Arthur Miller Theatre through April 2.

Casas, an assistant professor at U-M who teaches playwriting, writes for all ages, often for young people, “two-year-olds to college age.” His book, Palabras del Cielo: An Exploration of Latina/o Theatre for Young Audiences was awarded an American Association of Theater Education Distinguished Book Award, and he’s a board member of the Children’s Theatre Foundation of America. He also directs plays.  

In somebody’s children, Casas takes us to the El Dorado, a run-down motel near Disneyland, where five teenagers share their stories through a series of spoken-word poetry vignettes. 

“They know they’re going to be going their separate ways, and they would do anything to hide the fact that they are homeless from their classmates,” he says.

“L.A. has the biggest homeless community in the country,” Casas says, adding that money problems or issues with other tenants often cause these single moms to move. “If they felt danger, they would move from one motel to another. Orange County made a law that if children left mid-semester, the school had to make sure they had transportation to the school to provide continuity.”

That may be a start, but Casas says nobody is tackling the underlying problem. “These motels are the unhappiest place for these kids,” he laments. “No one is actually helping this community.”

Although the characters are fictional, Casas did considerable research before creating them. “A lot of what you hear, the images and the things they bring up, are 100% true,” he says, adding that once, when a high school was rehearsing the play, “a girl lost it. It turns out that four or five years earlier, she was one of those motel kids. She went to college the next year.”  

Somebody’s children won the 2009 Waldo M. and Grace C. Bonderman Playwriting for Youth Award and was given a rehearsed reading at the Indiana Repertory Theatre. “I’m excited,” says Casas, of the chance to see it go up at U-M. 

The artistic team is headed by director Héctor Flores Komatsu, with scenic design by Jack Doyle, lighting by Kathleen Alexandrou, and costumes by Sarah M. Oliver. Cast members are Isaiah Crawford, Blake Letourneau, Ulises Otero, Ruby Pérez, and Victoria Vourkoutiotis. 

Komatsu comes here from México, where he founded the Makuyeika Colectivo Teatral and serves as its artistic director. He is an alum of the University of Michigan’s Department of Theatre and Drama in the School of Music, Theatre, and Dance. 

Casas is not new to plays that have political implications. “I use plays for social advocacy,” he says. “I like stories that need to be told.” He has written plays about the water crisis and racism in the Southwest. “I hoped these subjects wouldn’t be relevant anymore. Now they are more relevant,” he laments.

“It’s quite jarring to direct this play,” Komatsu adds. “Back in 2009, when the play is set, I was the exact same age as the characters—just about ready to graduate high school. I echo José’s lament that the play is even more relevant than before. That it feels more urgent now than before is unsettling, to put it lightly. These kids made an urgent call in the most personal way possible. They had the most intimate close-up with the trappings and failings of American society, and nobody listened to them. The blatant racism and xenophobia, the pressure put on youth to 'succeed,' the precariousness of our social security nets, the pervasiveness of sexism across all communities and objectification, the unapologetic police brutality.”

"Together," Komatsu adds, “these five kids were preaching the truth, and only now are we starting to listen."

Ann Arbor-based arts journalist Davi Napoleon did her undergraduate work at the University of Michigan and holds a doctorate in theater history, theory, and criticism from New York University. Her book is “Chelsea on the Edge: The Adventures of an American Theater.”

“somebody’s children” runs from March 31-April 2 and from April7-10 at the Arthur Miller Theatre on the University of Michigan’s North Campus, 1226 Murfin Ave., Ann Arbor. Audience members must adhere to health and safety measures that include wearing a mask throughout the performance. For tickets and further information, visit tickets.smtd.umich.edu.