By Molly Smith, Artistic Director
One in 25 children are living on the streets of London today. The disparity between the rich and the poor is at its highest level since Dickens’ time, and he would be shocked by how far we haven’t come. As of 2014, 46.7 million people in the United States were categorized as living in poverty.
For our production of Oliver! we take you into contemporary London — with a nod to the Victorian — to remind our audience about the world we live in now. Through London we see America, too.
As Pope Francis said on his recent visit to the Unites States: “In big cities, beneath the roar of traffic, beneath the rapid pace of change, so many faces pass by unnoticed because they have no ‘right’ to be there, no right to be part of the city. They are the foreigners, the children who go without schooling, those deprived of medical insurance, the homeless, the forgotten elderly. These people stand at the edges of our great avenues, in our streets, in deafening anonymity.”
More than 200 years after the birth of Dickens, author Henning Mankell said that Dickens’ greatness lies in channeling the “defiant spirit of the poor.”
Dickens had a special understanding of poverty — his father was forced into a debtor’s prison when he was young and Dickens began working at the age of 12 in a boot-blacking factory along the River Thames. The factory was riddled with rodents, and he cried into adulthood when he got near the place of his servitude. He was branded by his past and wrote passionately about it through the story of Oliver Twist.
For our production we take the spirit of Dickens and transplant it to today — taking the audience “under the bridge” in Todd Rosenthal’s set design, which reminds us what it is to live as the underclass. Each of our actors and collaborators have been asked to bring their most creative selves to our pursuit with the ready knowledge that through their imagination and creativity we tap into the iconic power of these characters who live through the ages.
How many Olivers do we have today in America — children without families or love? How many Fagins are there who take advantage of children and yet maintain a strange sensitivity to the world? How many Nancys and Bills who form gangs with their own brands and tattoos and signs that bind them together? How many children live on the streets in D.C.?
If this production can open up hearts to the plight of the homeless in our city, under our own bridges, with sleeping bags as housing, or cause families to buy books for children through our Martha’s Table program, or give time to the hungry in D.C., then we’ve done our job as artists.
I welcome the task.