On the small stage of Long Beach Wilson High School's theater, a group of drama students portrays destitute people living in a train station. But for this production, the young actors did more than just rehearse the part.
To prepare for the play, the students spent a day at a homeless shelter.
"It really touched our hearts," drama student Jeniffer McCraine said. "We found out not all homeless people are on drugs or choose to be that way. They really don't have any place to go."
Last month, McCraine and about 15 classmates helped prepare and serve meals, and talked to people living at the Long Beach Rescue Mission. Their teacher, Randy Bowden, said he wanted his students to research their characters by dealing directly with the people they are portraying. In the process, he also wanted to teach them about a serious social problem.
"I'm an educator, and that's part of their education here," Bowden said. "They've been affected by this. They made the human connection."
The Wilson High drama department periodically presents plays dealing with social problems. Last year, a school production focused on teen-age suicide, which led to several group discussions with members of the audience after the shows, Bowden said.
The school also has put on plays about handicapped people and mental retardation. To research those subjects, the students volunteered their time at the local Veterans Administration hospital and at a school for children with learning disabilities, Bowden said.
"These are very current issues and the students are wide open to them," Bowden said. "We're also educating the audience. They are touched by this, too."
The latest play, "In the Middle of Grand Central Station," opened last weekend in the school's Rainbow Playhouse, a small theater with a Greenwich Village-type atmosphere. A second cast will be featured in the concluding performances this weekend.
The play, based on a true story, deals with the life of a 15-year-old homeless girl living in New York's Grand Central Station, which she describes as a place where the rates are reasonable, there's no commute and the decor is done by "le public works."
The homeless girl is nicknamed "The Angel of Grand Central" by other homeless people because she helps them before she helps herself.
McCraine, who played the protagonist last weekend, said that she prepared for her role by dressing like a bum and strolling through downtown Long Beach with a friend who was better attired. The reception she received was less than friendly.
"People were looking at me strangely. One lady refused to stand next to me at a checkout line. It really hurt my feelings, because I wasn't expecting that," McCraine said.
As with the other students, McCraine said she also was influenced by her experiences at the shelter, especially after talking with a woman who was there because her stepfather tried to molest her. "She said that instead of killing him and going to jail, she left the house," McCraine said.
Several of the students said they wanted to volunteer again, and the group has held a couple of donation drives for the rescue mission.
"I'm so much more sensitive to them now. I'm not scared to approach homeless people now, because I know they're not all crazy," McCraine said.
The students had watched several videos about the homeless, and they had held class discussions. But for most, this was the first time they talked with homeless people.
"It was kind of hard. I felt scared," said student Jose Ramirez, who was a policeman in the play. "I didn't know what to expect. But they were nice." Ramirez said he talked to a man who spoke of returning to Texas. "He said he came here and lost everything."
Before visiting the shelter, several students said their typical reaction to the sight of homeless people was to look away.
"I used to sort of just pass them by," said student Donald Straub, who played a mentally ill homeless man who had once been a college professor. "But now, whenever I see one of them, I realize they're humans too. It's made me more aware that more needs to be done."
"(Becoming homeless) could happen to anyone," Ramirez said. "I didn't used to think that."
After the show Saturday night, Bowden thanked the crew and reminded the 160 people crowded into the theater that "it doesn't take a lot between where we are and where they are."
FINAL SHOWS "In the Middle of Grand Central Station," by Nancy Pahl Gilsenan, concludes this weekend at the Rainbow Playhouse at Wilson High School, 4400 E. 10th St., Long Beach. The last two shows are Friday and Saturday, beginning at 7:30 p.m. The cost is $3 for students and $5 for adults.