At 8:15 a.m. on a Monday, in the basement of a church in Foggy Bottom, dozens of people, mostly men, gather around the big, brightly lit room. Some sit at tables, polishing off plates of French toast. Others wander around, chatting and joking. And others — half a dozen or so — sit at a table in the corner, waiting to tell their stories.
They're members of The Monologue Group, a storytelling workshop at Miriam's Kitchen, a day shelter that provides Washington's homeless with food, clothing, haircuts, legal aid, and other services.
Grace Overbeke, who works full-time at D.C.'s Theater J, started the workshop in May. Each week, she proposes a different theme, and participants go around the table, riffing. Today's theme is Hurricane Sandy.
"I waited in the rain until 8:30," begins a man named Chuck. "I went to Union Station, I scrounged some food. Went back to sleep on the steps of the church..."
When it's his turn, a man named Todd remarks that "if someone had to sleep outside, then it could be very, very difficult to survive in those kinds of contexts."
Another man named John remarks that "when we had the storm, and [were] stuck in the shelter for two days and couldn't leave, and the subway was shut down, and the bus was shut down — that was depressing for me!"
Overbeke says her inspiration for The Monologue Group came from an encounter with a homeless woman near Logan Circle.
"She asked if I had any money for food," Overbeke recalls. "And I was like, 'Well, I was actually just about to get a sandwich.' So she came, and we got a sandwich together. And she started talking about her experience at this shelter where she had just been kicked out because she had gotten in a fight over a sleeping bag.
"It was such a humanizing afternoon. And it made me very interested in people's stories."
Theater J has been partnering with Miriam's Kitchen by offering guests free tickets to shows, and personal post-show discussions with cast members.
So in June, Grace took that partnership one step further with the very first 'Stories From the Kitchen': an evening of monologues culled from her Monologue Group, and performed by D.C.-area actors at Theater J.
"The guests whose stories were told were so moved because they felt like someone was listening to them," Overbeke says. "And that the actors playing them knew how they felt, which they did because they put in all this time and work, hearing their words and getting to that point where they could feel what that person felt."
The idea, she explains, isn't for actors to imitate guests' voices, but rather to use their rhythm and cadence to capture their character, their personality.
That's why, as she prepares for the next "Stories From the Kitchen" on Dec. 19, she uses a hand-held recorder to record the members of her group. Then she plays the recording for the actor performing the monologue, so he or she can rehearse it.
Normally, actors and guests don't meet until the performance. But one pair — Sasha Olinick and John — met a few months ago, at one of Theater J's post-show talks. In fact, John actually requested that Olinick perform his piece.
"I'm really honored," says the actor, who lives in Takoma Park. "But you feel a sense of wanting to be very careful with the material because people are being very open in sharing their lives and sharing their experiences. And you're going to be performing for the people who shared this material, and so you really want to do it justice."
As for what Wednesday night's material will entail, Grace Overbeke says it runs the gamut.
"There's one piece that is the genesis of this wonderful writer Baracka's views on race," she says. "And there's also a really beautiful biography by Darlene about her experiences growing up in this town just south of Canada. And Jimmy is a wonderful writer, and so he wrote this beautiful poem."
She says these writers — Baracka, Darlene, Jimmy, John, the many others — run the gamut, too.
"In the monologues, you hear people referencing their time in the graduate school, they'll reference their time working on a construction site, in government. Really, it's every imaginable background," Overbeke says.
Just as Overbeke had her eyes and ears opened by that homeless woman near Logan Circle, she hopes people who attend "Stories From the Kitchen" will have their eyes and ears opened, too... and realize that behind every person they meet, there's a lifetime of stories, just waiting to be told.
The next "Stories From the Kitchen" is Dec. 19 at Theater J. The performance is free and open to the public.
[Music: "The Story [Instrumental]" by Brandi Carlile from Karaoke Version]
Photos: Stories from the Kitchen