Demeter in the City
For Cornerstone Theater
by Sarah Ruhl
and writing by the women at Shields, students at King Drew high school, the Cornerstone Theater ensemble, Los Angeles social workers, students from Mecha at Cal State Northridge, the Bruin Young Republicans from UCLA and other twenty year olds in Los Angeles…
This play was written differently than any of my other plays; it was written by and for different communities of people in Los Angeles; in some cases, I was just a scribe, and set their stories down. Most of the stories come from women at a program called Shields, for at-risk women trying to get their children back from the Department of Children and Family Services. The play was a commission for Cornerstone Theater’s twentieth anniversary, and used the Cornerstone methodology of having story circles that engaged communities of writers, then presented the play with professional actors and actors from those communities.
Demeter (a black woman, around 20 years old in Act I, and 40 years old in Act II— an actress who can transform in terms of age)
Persephone (a black woman, about 20 years old)
A Lawyer (age immaterial)/professor in Act II
A social worker (a black woman, 30-60 years old)
A Woman (Latina, from 20-40 years old)
A Son (Latino, about 20 years old)
A bailiff/Hermes (age and sex immaterial, might also play the TV monitor’s voice)
A judge (50as-70s)/Zeus in Act II
A Greek Chorus (at least three mothers, all different ethnicities. As many people in the chorus as you like.)
Hades/Young Republican (a 20 year old man)
The Silent Stenographer (a woman, age and ethnicity immaterial)
Hera (Zeus’ wife in act II, a white woman, 50s-70s)
An urban landscape. Somewhere between an abandoned community garden and an abandoned playground. The sense of an overworld and an underworld. Some plant life in between the cracks of the junk. Demeter has some planters on her stoop that have long dried up.
LIST OF SONGS:
Stars in her eyes, Sweet Jesus.
I lost my child.
Green lights don’t work no more.
The bus to the courthouse.
A judge’s piss.
Down in Mexico
A Mother’s song to lost children
A song of lost children to their mothers
The bus to hell is a strange old bus/Here’s to bad luck
Where to look for a child?
Old man Zeus was a mean old man
Green lights don’t work no more (reprise)
The city was a shaky beast
TONE OF SONGS:
Blues, a slide guitar, a hamonica. Simple.
Thank you to all the people who shared so generously their stories with me. Thanks especially to these remarkable individuals who spent extra time with me: Jason, Carlos, and GW. Thanks to Shaunda, Nathaniel and Nico for figuring out how to make connections between people. Thank you to Bill Rauch for asking. Thank you Scott and Shishir for all the wisdom. Thanks to the Los Angeles family court for letting me come and observe. Thanks to the people who shared their writing with me—the Cornerstone ensemble, seniors from Steven Segal’s English class at King Drew High School, and the women from Shields. Thank you to Charlene who facilitated the group at Sheilds with so much love. This play is for the women who come through Shields, who shared so openly with me stories of incredible resilience, and for their children.
Act 1: DEMETER
Scene 1: Demeter and her baby
The chorus sings.
They are holding their children and singing the same melody:
CHORUS SINGS A SONG:
stars in her eyes sweet jesus
stars in his eyes sweet jesus
my baby’s gonna grow up strong
my baby’s gonna grow up strong
Demeter emerges from the Chorus, holding her baby.
DEMETER: (to the audience)
Biggest day of my life—the day my baby was born.
I was at work. I came home. I washed my hair. I was feeling contractions but I was about to have a stroke because my blood pressure was 235 over 190. The paramedics came. It’s the oddest feeling—with the blood pressure and the contractions and the kicking I didn’t know which way to go—they did an emergency C section. I cried when I saw my baby. I held her, it was the best thing in the world to see, when she was created. No matter what, your baby is going to love you. Even if you screw up. Right? You only get that first one once—it’s special automatic.
CHORUS SINGS REFRAIN:
stars in her eyes sweet jesus--
DEMETER: (to the audience)
I’m twenty years old.
I came from San Pedro
To live with my sister in LA
And me and my sister had a incident or whatever
And I had nowhere to go so I went to my auntie’s house
Had to sneak in the house jump in and out of windows just to have a place to stay
I got pregnant and nobody wanted me
Dad didn’t have a place and mom was gone
I went to my grannie’s house and she didn’t want me to stay there
Because when her oldest daughter got pregnant she put her out too
So she was like whatever that wouldn’t be fair to let me stay
But I stayed there anyway for a week and then I called a shelter.
The father? Oh, yeah, the father.
In this society, you got a record, and you’re a black man, it’s hard.
No one wants to give you a chance, even though he did electrical work for years, because he’s got a record, no one wants him.
He said after I have the baby he wanted to get married.
But then he started dealing.
God warns you before a destruction.
I dreamed my husband went to prison.
A week later he went to jail.
I dreamed my aunt died.
A bird kept flying around the window at St. Francis hospital.
A WOMAN FROM THE CHORUS:
If you gonna die, you gonna die, but ain’t no bird gonna fly ahead and tell me.
I disagree. God warns you before a destruction.
A bird flies into Demeter’s window.
Get away, you nasty ass pigeon! Stop spitting on my house! Jesus God.
Demeter looks out the window.
That bird is heading for your window, girl—better open up that window. Bird can’t see the glass—sometimes we can’t see what’s in front of our noses—life looks see-through—life looks grand—and then you see a big old wall—hunh—
The pigeon whams into the window.
The baby starts crying.
Demeter is agitated by the bird and the crying.
DEMETER: (to the baby)
Shh, stop crying, baby.
Mommy will clean that bird up later.
You didn’t like that bird, did you?
I’ll tell you a story.
Once upon a time there were
Three little pigs
And someone come blow down their house
The pigs had no home
They was homeless and had to live in boxes
With T.V. dinners--
That’s not a good story.
How bout something cheerier.
One day the pigs went out and found them some jobs
Then they got fired from the jobs
And was on welfare
One day their shelter burnt down
They learned how to make a new house out of the mud
Until the rains began
And they were homeless again.
That’s not such a good story.
The baby cries.
Oh, God, for a little quiet.
I’ll tell you another story. That three little piggy story wasn’t so uplifting. You don’t like that dead bird, do you, huh? Shhh.
Here’s another story. There was a time before all this, a time of gods and goddesses. This was way back before slave times. That’s another story. I’ll tell you when you’re grown up. You and me, baby P, was descended from a race of goddesses. I ain’t lying. I got the name to prove it. D for Demeter. I got my name from way way back.
Demeter was a goddess.
In charge of the earth and growing plants and flowers.
One day her daughter Persephone was out picking poppies alone when—
the earth opened up—
Hades rode out of hell with his black horses and chariots
and fell in love with Persephone
and she got dragged into hell with him and became his queen.
Well Demeter, when she couldn’t find her daughter--
she wailed and yelled and cried to the gods.
And when no one heard her prayer
she made the flowers stop growing and the earth stop growing and no one could eat.
They was hungry.
But Demeter didn’t care, she only cared for her daughter
Who was lost lost lost.
king of the gods—
was a little concerned about all the hungry people,
So he came down and said,
Okay Demeter, what’s it going to be to get the growing back?
And she said:
I forget the middle part--
But the ending is something about--
Spring, winter, fall--
When Persephone was with her mother,
the earth bloomed like spring—
and when she was down under the earth with Hades—it was wintertime—
Dark, cold, dank old winter.
Used to be there was a change in the seasons. Now I live in LA. My plants die on the window-sill. They say there are seasons here but I’m not so sure. Sometimes I’m looking at my checkbook and I’m like is it April or December.
I’m standing there, hesitating with that check book and someone looks at me like I’m dumb—like I can’t write out the numbers. And I’m like--no—I just don’t recollect the season. It doesn’t feel like any season my ancestors ever breathed.
See you’re sleeping now, baby. Good girl.
Scene 2: Persephone gets taken away
Enter a social worker.
Ding dong. I’m here from DCFS.
Shh, you’ll wake the baby. I know where you’re from.
We received a phone call early this week that there’s a child being neglected.
I believe that the phone call was a false alarm.
The caller said there’s been a baby crying non-stop for days.
That’s what babies do. They cry. This one’s a little fussy. But I been telling her stories and she’s calmed down. See?
Do you mind if I take a walk around your home?
Go right ahead.
She looks around.
Demeter is nervous.
Demeter holds the child.
The social worker picks up some laundry.
Underneath there are heroin needles.
The social worker puts on a latex glove, picks up the needle and examines it.
Those are my husband’s old needles.
Yeah. He’s out of the house. He’s in jail.
And you haven’t had a chance to clean the house yet?
I’ve been busy.
I’m sorry but we’re going to have to remove your child from the home. So you can pack her a couple of outfits. This is not a stable home for the baby.
Who are you to tell me what’s a stable home and what’s not? You gonna bounce this child around foster homes? You call that a stable home?
Calm down. We have to do what’s best for the baby.
I’m her mother, what’s best for her is to be with me.
I understand your concerns.
“My concerns” is an understatement.
The social worker gestures towards the needles.
It happened once. It’s not going to happen again.
It’s a little late for that.
Give me a second chance. I’m not perfect—God knows I’m not perfect.
If you’re compliant with everything, you’ll get your child back before you know it.
Why can’t my baby be placed with family? Why bounce her all around God’s creation?
Do you have family we can place her with?
A stable family with a crib and an extra room? A family who wants to take care of a child? Talk is cheap. It’s hard to raise a child. Do you have a family member who knows how to take care of a house, how to budget their welfare check, how to plan menus? A family member who knows that you need certain things for children, like blankets? Who knows that the laundry needs to be done at least once a week, and if the kid is a bed wetter you need to change the linens more than once a week? Do you have someone like that in your family?
Your child needs to learn that she won’t always be with her mother. That there are other people in the world who will care for her just as well.
I seriously doubt that. No one can care for my child better than I can.
I’m sure you’re a good mother, Ms.—
Right. Until you can provide a stable home for your daughter—
That’s when I scream inside my head.
I scream so loud inside my head I can’t hear what that woman’s saying anymore.
I scream so loud she turns into a bug.
A talking bug.
And inside my head I smash her.
But there she is, the talking bug is still talking.
I have to ask you to give me the child.
I’m good at holding babies. I promise she won’t cry. I’ve been holding them all my life. I promise you: it’ll be better than if that policeman out there tries to hold your baby.
The distant flash of blue lights across the street from a waiting police car.
You have police here?
I just got her to sleep. Four hours of story telling, I just got her to sleep.
I’ll be very gentle.
A moment of silent struggle.
Demeter gives the social worker the child.
I’ll give you a call about the status of your daughter.
DEMETER: (as the social worker is out the door)
Does she need her baby blankets?
We have enough. Thank you. Good-bye.
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