Social distancing month after month can be traumatic. Social worker and theater artist Mikki Jordan is here to remind you that it's worse when you don't even have a home to quarantine in.
"I'm really trying to communicate that we're not so different from folks on the street," Jordan says. "It's really easy for us to stay in our bubble and think, 'Oh, that'll never happen to me' or 'I'm not like that person' or 'That person's not living with societal norms and I am, so I'm better.'"
Jordan is the star and creator of From These Streets I Rise, a show based on the lives of the vendors who sell Street Roots, the weekly alternative newspaper sold by people experiencing homelessness and poverty. The production also channels Jordan's experiences with homeless individuals in the emergency departments at Providence Portland and Providence St. Vincent hospitals, where she has worked for almost six years.
"She has her own journey, but she's really compelled," says Chris Harder, who directed From These Streets I Rise, which streams live from CoHo Theatre this weekend. "She cares so much for these stories to be heard that something inside of her is invoking them."
Jordan first became aware of the existence of poverty while growing up in Guatemala, where her father was a preacher at an English-speaking nondenominational church. "I didn't have the words for it, but I was struck by the level of poverty," she says. "We came back to the U.S. when I was, like, 6 or 7 and lived a pretty average suburban life where I just kind of had my head in the sand."
Jordan's head didn't stay buried. During the roughly 15 years that she spent working as an actor in New York City, she struggled to funnel her passion for social justice into art. "When I was younger, I didn't know quite what that looked like yet," she says. "I didn't feel like I had the voice. I just knew I was drawn to it, that I was attracted to that work."
An early version of From These Streets I Rise debuted at the Fertile Ground Festival in 2019. It was based on interviews that Jordan conducted with Street Roots vendors like Dennis Chavez, who became homeless after serving as an Army helicopter mechanic.
"The editing is definitely its own challenge, because I would talk to people for one to two hours," Jordan says. "That would come out to anywhere between 10 and 15 pages of single-spaced transcript, and I'm trying to whittle those down to one-to-three-minute monologues."
To give her portrayals of the people that she interviewed a spark of authenticity, Jordan adopted some of their physical mannerisms. "Maybe somebody shakes their foot a lot when they're talking or rocks back and forth really rapidly," she says. "I just try to grab one or two things that kind of move me, and then I try to translate that into my own body and hope that I do justice to that person."
From These Streets I Rise was expanded when Jordan brought it to CoHo. The production now features original music by Samie Jo Pfiefer, who plays banjo and guitar and sings, and Jordan allowed her experiences in the ER to influence the show. "Mikki herself has a story to tell—and that story comes from the point of view of the social worker in the mental health system, and that's really compelling," Harder says.
Jordan reinterviewed some of her subjects after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic "One of my takeaways was that folks on the streets are already social distancing," she says. "They're already pretty distant socially." She says that she's been moved by the efforts of Raven Drake and Tina Drake, vendors who co-chair Street Roots' Coronavirus Action Team.
"Both of them were just like, 'The street community has really come together during the pandemic,'" Jordan says. "And I think their hope is that Portland sees that and meets the unhoused community halfway, seeing how much work people on the street have done for each other—to make sure that people have access to the resources that they need, that they have hand wipes, things to help them mask."
While 75% of all ticket sales will be donated to Street Roots, Jordan is devoid of self-congratulatory bravado. "We hear enough from professionals and politicians and people in positions of power about their thoughts on the homeless issue," she says, "but we don't always get to hear from the folks who are actually on the streets living it, so that's what this piece is about."
SEE IT: From These Streets I Rise streams live from CoHo Theatre at 7:30 pm Friday and Saturday, 2 pm Sunday, Sept. 11-13. Purchase tickets at cohoproductions.org to receive an email with instructions on how to access the show. Free-$75.