En Garde Arts Presents Uncommon Voices

S1 E8 | FULL EPISODE

Annabelle Gurwitch & Syndee Winters

This episode features writer Annabelle Gurwitch exploring her new work, “If You Lived With Me, You’d Be Home By Now," which depicts her experience participating in a host home program for youth experiencing homelessness. Next, actress and singer Syndee Winters discusses how the stories of Lena Horne lead her to create "Lena: A Moment with a Lady" and bring this unsung Black American icon to life.

AIRED: June 03, 2020 | 0:26:46
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TRANSCRIPT

This is a story that a lot of people won't relate to.

Housing insecurity is one of the biggest issues

that we're facing in this country

and across the world right now.

And it brings up this question, "Who do we let into our home?

Who do we let into our community?

Who do we let into our country?

I thought, okay, this is -- I have fallen into this story

that has so much cultural and social relevance.

And when I hear about a story like this,

I get what I think of as a brain-gasm.

I get just so excited,

like, "Oh, God, I have to tell this story."

♪♪

I'm Annabelle Gurwitch, and I am the playwright

and the performer of

"If You Lived With Me, You'd Be Home By Now."

And so it's very exciting for me

to get to talk about it with you.

I've had three different careers,

but they're all in the arts.

I started out as an actress working in theater,

and then I ended up hosting television shows

in the comedy space.

And then I started writing.

And that career really took over my life

and I started writing books.

I've got four books that are out,

but the uniting factor in all of those things is storytelling.

My new work is based on the experience that I had in 2019.

I volunteered to participate

in a host home program in Los Angeles.

I invited two at-risk youth

who were experiencing homelessness into my home.

Well, actually, it's probably a good idea.

So I'm getting my house ready for the strangers to arrive,

and I have no idea

what it's going to be like to have 'em at my house.

So I'm hiding my valuables in the closet,

and they get there.

And what I don't know until much later

is while I'm hiding my valuables in the closet,

they were hiding their valuables because they were thinking,

"What kind of nut case invites homeless people

to stay in her house?"

The first night we stayed in Annabelle's house, we were like,

"This house is beautiful.

Who is this woman and why does she let us be here?

Like, "There is something. There has to be a reason."

We started hiding our valuables and music devices and jewelry.

The host home program is combating

the housing insecurity crisis.

So it's a rapid rehousing model which seeks to pair people

with an extra bedroom and people experiencing homelessness.

You know, I just felt it was a story

that so many people would relate to.

Once I knew I wanted to start writing

about this experience of hosting

at-risk homeless youth, I got a small grant

from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

Then we placed this story inThe L.A. Times.

And now I'm writing this play based on the story

that was published inThe L.A. Times.

The conceit of this particular theater piece

is that the audience is coming to an orientation

for people who might be volunteering as hosts

in the host home program.

You know, in Los Angeles,

16,000 people are sleeping in their car every night.

So I've worked with the organization

that sponsored my program,

which is called A Safe Place for Youth.

They've given me their training PowerPoint presentation.

So I'm going to be asking the audience to do the exercises,

some of these sensitivity

and trauma training exercises that we did.

So they're going to be acting out scenarios with me

that could happen potentially when they're hosting.

♪♪

♪♪

First of all, I'm so glad you all came out tonight.

I really loved my experience as a host in the host home program.

And so it's very exciting for me to get to talk

about it with you.

People have asked me, you know,

how does this matching process work?

Do they assign people to you, or do you pick each other?

And, you know, I try to explain it.

It's kind of like Match.com for the homeless.

You know, like swiping right on Tinder

with people who are unhoused.

So every organization does this in a different way.

But the organization that I worked with had a picnic.

Right? So I went to this picnic,

and it's very L.A.

There was a drum circle,

and there was a little station where meditation was happening.

And there was a place where you could trim herbs

and make elixirs.

And I have reached the age where I guess I'm so old now,

everyone looked like they could be a homeless person to me.

I couldn't tell who was the staff,

who were the homeless people.

I'm walking around like a deer in the headlights.

And there was one person

who showed me this artwork on their phone.

They said they did artwork,

and it was so beautiful and sophisticated.

And I thought, I don't know if this is a staff person

or they're looking for a home.

And it hadn't even occurred to me

because I didn't know yet that there are

17,000 unhoused college students all over America.

And this person could be someone

who's looking for a home and be an artist

of great talent and development,

and there was delicious food and sound.

And I was feeling a little bit guilty

about eating homeless people's food, but it was so good.

And I had been on this, like, downwardly mobile spiral.

And I was so happy to have food that was, you know,

not food that I -- 'cause I wasn't eating at restaurants.

So I stuck, you know, one or two

or maybe seven lemon bars in my purse.

And I started chatting up another young person

who looked like they really liked lemon bars.

And I thought, well, that's enough we have in common.

So I said, do you want to come home with me?

And they said, "Annabelle, it's Chase.

I run this organization.

Do you remember? I ran the training."

I had not recognized him.

And he motioned to a couple that were by the dessert table,

and this was a couple,

and the female in the couple was holding a bunny rabbit.

And I had talked to them a little bit earlier in the day.

And she had said something about how they were trying

to get an agent for the bunny rabbit

so the rabbit could get work in commercials.

And the rabbit had a big following on Insta

and also had a Finsta.

And I was nodding my head, but I'm thinking,

"I can't get a commercial.

Good luck, you know, for the bunny."

And they looked so sketchy to me, you know,

because they had tattoos everywhere,

including their faces.

And she had the word "cured" on one cheek,

and on the other cheek, she had a flower.

I mean, it was a really pretty wild flower,

but still face tats.

Face tats. I'm thinking, you know,

gangs, drugs, and besides, there were two of them.

I'm not going to be outnumbered. I'm a woman living alone.

And also they have a bunny rabbit,

and I have a cat who considers everything furry dinner.

So I said "Anybody but them."

Whenever we first met Annabelle

and I looked at her shoes and saw what shoes she had,

I knew that she was like -- she couldn't be too harmful.

Like she was of some sort of importance, you know?

You know, she was like, "Okay, you know, she's pretty cool."

So about three weeks into their living at my house,

I was really starting to find my heart was just cracked open.

And I just loved them.

I thought, "You know what?

I got to really do my due diligence here."

And I did something that I'd been afraid to do to that point.

I put their names in an Internet search to see

if I could pull up anything, you know, really bad.

And I get on this site, you know, one of these sites

that rates you, like, you know, your dangerousness level,

and it said possible convictions,

possible charges against.

I'm like, "Okay, I'm in trouble here."

So then I put my name in

and I get a worse score.

It's like flashing red lights,

and it says possible convictions,

possible criminal charges.

My score is worse than J's score,

and I realized there is somewhat sketchy in the house,

and the sketchy person in this house is me.

We had a lot in common,

my house guests and me.

More than just moving to L.A. to be in the arts.

The truth was I had experienced a lot of financial instabilities

in my own -- when I was child,

when I was young, we'd lost our home

and we'd had to move across the country

and live with my aunt and uncle.

And that experience, that was more than 50 years ago,

and it always seems like it was yesterday.

And, I mean, and it had left a deep imprint on me

and the choices I had made in my life,

like dating someone whose apartment

looked like an apartment I once lived in or dating someone

because they had an apartment and I didn't, or, you know,

I've had this thing where I have to steal lemon bars

and hoard bath products at hotels,

like, more than is seemly.

Like, I check in and I call down

and then I call down again and I pretend someone else

is staying in the room with me.

It's not right, really.

And I had dropped out of college too

because of family finances.

And I had been on my own when I was 20,

the same age as K actually was.

And, I mean, I hadn't joined a church,

but I had joined a group at that age

that believed we were in contact with aliens.

I mean, if anyone, I should have been the one living in a car.

Now, I didn't tell my house guests any of this

because I didn't want them to think

I was comparing my experience to their experience,

the way I was comparing my experience to their experience.

But what was the difference? Why at that age

had things worked out differently for me and them?

And of course, you know, I had thought for so many years

it was because I was so superiorly talented.

And of course, there are so many factors,

including institutional racism and generational

if not wealth then stability.

But see, this is where my story,

I realized, really diverged from theirs

was that the zip code that you grow up in really turns out

to be a major determinant

of how much money you earn in your lifetime.

It doesn't really matter if your family were the high earners.

It's the better school system and it's also the access

that you have to culture and knowledge

and to people who have access to wealth.

And all these things contribute to a more stable

and stronger social network.

And that was really the difference between me and them

was a stronger social network.

My biggest worry when someone would see this play

was that they would think,

"Oh, this doesn't happen to everyone.

This doesn't happen to kids that are on the right path."

When both of us are college educated,

we both graduated high school.

We are very educated. It happens to anybody.

It's all circumstantial.

Genuinely from this project,

I hope people just understand that no matter

what walk of life, what way you look,

you can't judge someone by their color or their situation.

You don't judge a book by its cover.

Everyone is worth something.

Well, what I hope to happen by sharing my story

through the play is that

it kind of inspires other people to ask for help

and not be so sheltered with it.

Like, there are people willing to help you

if you just ask for it.

You know, after this story was published

inThe L.A. Times, it was mostly a really positive response.

People wanting to hear more about the program,

people wanting to volunteer for the program.

There's also been a negative response.

And the way that that's been posited has primarily

been people saying,

"Why don't these homeless people just go back

to where they came from? We should send them back."

And when I've heard that, I thought, you know,

this is exactly why I'm telling this story,

because this story brings up that question.

Not only who do we let into our home,

but who do we let into our community?

And I can't think of a more important question.

♪♪

Everyone loved Lena Horne.

Everyone loved what Lena Horne stood for.

Everyone loved her charisma, her personality,

her ability to draw you in, her warmth.

There'd be no Beyoncé and there'd be no Diana Ross

or Eartha Kitt without Lena Horne.

It dawned on me that people my age

aren't familiar with Lena Horne.

What if she was able to have her voice heard in the way

that she could freely speak today?

♪♪

I'm Syndee Winters, and I am the actress

and playwright of "Lena: A Moment with a Lady."

And I don't know where to begin or if I want to begin.

I've been in shows like "The Lion King"

and "Hamilton" and "Pippin" and "Motown: The Musical."

I went to Miami Dade College.

As soon as I finished school, that same year,

I auditioned for "The Lion King" and I was cast as Nala

in Disney's "The Lion King" in the national tour.

And then a couple years after that,

I made my Broadway debut in the role.

And that moment changed my life.

I toured with "The Lion King" for three years

before coming back to New York City

and beginning this new journey with Lena Horne.

I started this project in my early 20s.

My friend dared me to put together a show.

He's like, "Whose story do you think you can tell?"

And then I hesitated.

And he was like, "What's that?"

And I said, "I don't know, man.

It's just in my mind, just maybe Lena Horne."

And he was like, "Oh, yeah. Lena Horne."

And we were on the phone,

so he just hung up the phone up on me like the gauntlet.

Bam. It was set.

So I created a crowdfunding campaign.

During the crowdfunding campaign,

I made my way back to Broadway in "Motown: The Musical."

And in "Motown: The Musical,"

a woman that I shared my dressing room with,

a woman named Marva Hicks,

was in "Lena: The Lady and Her Music" on Broadway.

And I had this amazing opportunity

to spend time with this woman.

And she shared with me stories about her time with Lena Horne.

And through that, things just started kind of lining up.

We chose to focus on the period of Lena's life

where the stakes seemed very high.

The 1960s during the civil rights era

and the March on Washington.

And we looked at this relationship between Lena Horne

and her very first black female musical director on Broadway,

Miss Linda Twine.

It's a conversation between

Miss Lena Horne and Miss Linda Twine.

I love jazz.

I'm innately a jazz singer and a jazz songwriter.

And I grew up in the world of jazz.

Both of my parents are jazz musicians.

So it runs through my veins.

I had, actually, a poster of Lena Horne on my wall

when I was a little girl growing up.

I was brought on board by Syndee Winters,

who is actually one of my really good friends,

and she brought me on because she'd heard a song that I wrote.

She came to one of my concerts and said,

"That song is perfect for my Lena show.

Can I use it?"

And at first I had just loaned her the one song,

and then she decided she wanted all original music for the show.

So I wrote the whole score.

♪ I'm alive but barely

♪ I can't go back to failin'

♪ I'm alive but barely

♪ Keepin' alive

♪ Keepin' alive

♪ Keepin' alive

♪ Keepin' alive

[ Cheers and applause ]

This is a story that a lot of people won't relate to.

My mother would take me to Coney Island Boardwalk

and we'd dance a little and we'd sing a little,

and it was fun for a while.

And one day a man pressed a coin into my hand,

and something clicked inside my mother.

And she realized I had something useful.

But by the time she understood my value,

she'd become too sick to work,

and her husband couldn't find work either.

So she pulled me out of school

and got me an audition at the world-famous Cotton Club.

You know, I was too young to be working there,

but I look good,

and it looked like that was the only way we were going to eat.

So I smiled, I stepped,

and I kicked and Charlestoned my way in there.

And they wanted me to dance, I danced.

If they wanted me to sing, I'd sing.

I made $25 a week.

That was a lot of money back then.

There wasn't a lot of visibility

even in the '80s when I was growing up

of black women that were that elegant and that fabulous.

And so she was the kind of woman

that I wanted to be when I grew up.

And once I arrived in New York, I found that finding gigs

were harder to land than a World War II fighter jet.

This is a story that a lot of people won't relate to.

But then I finally got one.

The sweetest job at Barney Josephson's Café Society.

I mean, the best in jazz was cooking in that little place.

Barney wanted me to sing the blues like Miss Billie Holiday.

And I didn't need to sing the blues. I just lived them.

This is a story that a lot of people won't relate to.

I wanted to sing something less blue.

And I'd see Billie every now and then,

and we'd start talking, and I'm telling her my issues.

And one day she looks straight at me

and says, "You've got rent to pay,

you got babies to feed,

Lena, you go and sing the blues."

♪♪

♪ Something's

♪ Coming along with this serenade ♪

♪ Swingin'

♪ Jumpin' along with this serenade ♪

♪ Feel the beat

♪ It tingles your toes

♪ On up through your feet

The concept of knowing your own voice,

the power of your own voice,

And one of the most powerful voices of that age,

of that time, of the golden era

and all the way through the 1980s and beyond

was Lena Horne's voice.

Her texture, her tone was so specific.

You could hear her, you could pick her out like that.

We wanted to create a voice that Lena can be heard through.

Any vehicle that Lena uses for communication,

it is through song.

And so that's why we all decided that an original score

and original music and lyrics was necessary for this.

But not only her vocal, her singing voice.

She used her speaking voice. She used her presence.

She used her platform to further a mission

that gave voiceless

and people who didn't have representation a place.

Not only African-Americans,

for Jewish Americans

and for others who she felt she could lend her platform to.

She made it such a priority for black and brown people

to be on film sets,

to be not only in front of the camera, but behind the camera.

And it's so important that people understand

that not only was she an American icon,

but she was also a civil rights activist.

[ Applause ]

Man: That's a wrap. Thank you, Miss Horne.

You see, I told you, you open the door and one memory,

and they all come flooding through.

This is a story that a lot of people won't relate to.

My best friend...

Woman: Billy Strayhorn.

My best.

And "Stormy Weather."

Yes.

The role that made me a star or solidified my star

or propelled my star. I don't know what.

Was it stormy weather for you

while you were singing "Stormy Weather"?

This is a story that a lot of people won't relate to.

After the movie,

besides me and the shoeshine guy,

there was never another black person on those picture sets.

The NAACP, proud of the way they broke through,

asked me to be the one to bridge the color gap in Hollywood.

But it wasn't going very well.

White producers didn't know what to do with me.

Negro actors hated me.

To them, I was taking food

out of their mouths by being difficult.

They were all right with playing the roles that I turned down.

But that was a part of my deal that I agreed to.

I wasn't going to portray subservient roles.

So they kept me singing.

Just a singer in the picture.

Ladies and gentlemen, Miss Lena Horne,

no actual character.

And I have nothing to do with the plot,

intentionally, so they could cut my not-white,

not Carmen Miranda-looking self out of the picture

to play in the South.

There is a moment during the show

where she had been hired to perform for a USO show.

And she goes to perform and the African-American soldiers

were seated behind the prisoners of war.

She chose as an artist to forego whatever consequences

may have come her way

and she walked out into the audience,

past the white soldiers, past the prisoners of war,

and performed in the back for the black soldiers

with her back to everyone else.

I would love to see little girls of this age looking up to Lena

and seeing that it's possible to be that type of woman.

And I think that we could really use some more people

with that kind of guts.

And I hope that people will hear about her bravery

and take that to heart.

The show touches on identity, race, feminism, colorism,

and the ability to be yourself.

And the cost of that.

Who are these white people in the front row?

They're the prisoners of war?

Well, why is it that the black American soldiers

who put their lives on the line should stand behind them?

Hey, Ben.

Let's see if they like the show better like this.

This is a story that a lot of people won't relate to.

♪ Harder than a stone

♪ Sweeter than a rose

♪ Even hotter than molten lava

[ Sings indistinctly ]

♪ This is what it takes to be the golden one ♪

♪ This is all you need to be the chosen one ♪

♪ This is what it takes, this is what they take ♪

♪ This is how they make, I can't let them break ♪

♪ Everybody needs a moment in the sun to ♪

♪ Shine

This is a story that a lot of people won't relate to.

[ Applause ]

This is a story that a lot of people won't relate to.

Linda, they kicked me off that tour so fast.

I just snapped.

I threw my career off a cliff.

When I saw all those Negro soldiers in the back,

they could barely see me.

I lost my mind.

Or I found my mind.

I walk off that stage,

made my way straight to my people,

and continued my show.

Honey, they kicked me off that tour so fast,

I'm surprised my shoes stayed on.

The message of this show is so important today

because it shows that no matter what your position in life,

you can fight for what you believe in.

I think that we need more people like Lena

who are just fearless and fight for what they believe in.

This is a story that a lot of people won't relate to.

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