Next week on August 19, more than 50 Broadway stars, composers and directors will meet with homeless youth at Covenant House in New York City, then lie down on a sidewalk and sleep overnight on a small patch of concrete near the Lincoln Tunnel. It is one of the more extraordinary examples of the generosity of the Broadway community, which hopes to raise public awareness about the plight of homeless teenagers, and money from fans and friends to pay to shelter, feed and educate young people at Covenant House.
The idea grew from two of Broadway's most beloved performers, Capathia Jenkins, a member of the Covenant House International Board of Directors and a star of Newsies and Caroline, or Change, who has traveled across the Americas to visit homeless youth, and Stephanie J. Block, who was the first celebrity to raise funds for Covenant House after Superstorm Sandy damaged our coastal shelters. She was nominated for a Tony Award earlier this year for her performance in The Mystery of Edwin Drood and will next appear in New York in Little Miss Sunshine with another of the Broadway Sleep Out participants, Rory O'Malley.
Both Stephanie and Capathia have performed in Covenant House's annual Night of Broadway Stars concerts across the country, delivering unforgettable performances and helping to raise funds to help homeless kids. Along with composers Neil Berg and Frank Wildhorn, Capathia and Stephanie are members of the Broadway Sleep Out executive committee, recruiting other stars to join the inaugural effort. I talked with them about the genesis of the Broadway Sleep Out and asked them what they hope to accomplish.
Kevin: So what is going through your minds as you anticipate sleeping on the sidewalk of New York next week?
Capathia: Well, right now I am thinking about reaching my goal in fund-raising! (Laughs) But seriously, I am excited about it because the Broadway community is stepping up and bringing awareness to the needs of homeless youth. It's only for one night, and this won't be nearly as hard as what our kids go through every night on the streets, but I'm sure I will be very emotional, because I have never been homeless and have no idea what I am really in for.
Stephanie: I am a bit fearful, a bit anxious and excited. I hope to help bring awareness to our homeless youth. Their faces are everywhere, and yet it is so easy to dismiss or rationalize their situation.
Kevin: Steph, you'll be joined by your husband, Sebastian Arcelus (Netflix's Emmy nominated House of Cards and soon to appear on Broadway in A Time to Kill). What do the two of you hope your sleeping out accomplishes for homeless kids?
Stephanie: We want the Covenant House kids to know that we see them, hear them, recognize them and love them. I want them to know that they are important and special. I want them to know that they have incredible spirits that are contagious and that they have bright, amazing futures ahead of them.
Kevin: People often say they get more out of volunteering their time and talent with homeless kids than the kids get. Do you think that's true?
Stephanie: Working beside and spending time with the Covenant House kids, I have found a new definition of homelessness. In the past, I ignorantly assumed that one must have done something "wrong," leading them to the streets. Through the Covenant House kids, listening to their life stories and hearing of their trials, I have learned the truth. These kids, despite their great suffering, are still filled with hope, determination and dreams of a purposeful future. It is inspiring and life changing. Isn't that the beauty of life -- loving, learning, helping, changing and guiding each other?
Capathia: In spite of the worst adversities and challenges you can still dream, set goals and achieve your life's purpose. These kids teach me that gratitude is a practice, and that if you are indeed grateful for what you have, you have it all.
Kevin: How did you first become involved with Covenant House and homeless kids?
Capathia: This all started as a 'gig' for me.
Kevin: A gig?
Stephanie: Yes, me too!
Capathia: I was invited by the composer Neil Berg to perform at the Covenant House Night of Broadway Stars.
Kevin: Neil started these concerts 10 years ago, and he travels all across the country with Broadway stars including his incredibly talented wife, Rita Harvey, (Phantom of the Opera, Fiddler on The Roof) raising money to help homeless kids. He's about as good a friend as we've ever had.
Capathia: Mmm-hmm. And thanks to Neil, I got to meet and hang out with the kids of Covenant House and learn their stories. They inspire me, and I am humbled by all of them. I think perhaps because so many of them look like me, I say, "There but for the grace of God go I." I grew up in Brooklyn, NY in the inner city, with a mom who nurtured my dreams. The older I get and the more life experience I have, I realize I am one of the lucky ones.
Stephanie: Performing in the Night of Broadway Stars concert was an extraordinary experience, one I will never forget.
Kevin: Speaking of the Night of Broadway Stars concert, Capathia, what were you thinking when you sang "I Will Always Love You" to our kids in front of 1,200 people? That performance was so special.
Capathia: I'm not really thinking as much as I am feeling -- the love in the room is palpable, and so I let myself feel it deeply, so that I am the vessel for God's divine gift of song. It is a joyous experience for me because it is all for the kids.
Kevin: I remember a couple years ago, Stephanie, you were so moved during the show, you held hands with one of the kids and sang "Defying Gravity" to her after she told the audience how she'd endured life on the streets for so long. I don't think I will forget the look on her face as you sang.
Stephanie: When I sang "Defying Gravity" to and for Connie, the entire song took on such a different meaning. In front of me was this beautiful young lady who had just expressed her past, present and future with such grace and strength. She wasn't asking for understanding, acceptance or pity. She just wanted to be heard. And boy oh boy, was she ever heard! The entire audience was there for her and saw themselves in her. Singing an anthem like "Defying Gravity" at that moment almost seemed ordained. We were meant to be standing there together, the lyrics were meant just for her and both she and I were empowered because of that moment.
Kevin: Why does the plight of homeless and trafficked kids matter to you?
Stephanie: Youth homelessness and trafficking resonate with me because it is as simple as... that could have been me. That could be my niece, or sister, my brother or friend. Being a kid in this day and age is tough enough, even if you are raised in a loving home. But when you consider the desperate situations so many of these kids have faced, it is a cause we have to stand up and say, "Enough! I can do something to change this, to stop this. Enough!"
Kevin: I think one of the most beautiful days I have spent at Covenant House over the past 20 years was with the two of you. Do you remember?
Stephanie: In New Jersey, yes.
Kevin: A small circle of girls prepared songs and poems about street life that they performed for you. You were such an encouraging audience, so kind to the girls.
Capathia: And then they asked us to sing to them.
Stephanie: I so wanted the kids to know that we are with them, we see them and they are valuable and worthy of our attention. They are not alone.
Capathia: I wanted to tell them that by being at Covenant House you have already made a great decision to have a better life. Things will not be easy, but I know you have what it takes to reach your goals and realize your dreams. Now you have to know that you have what it takes, dig deep, work hard, do the right thing and come out on the other side successful. I'm pulling for you.
Kevin: What do you hope that the experience of sleeping out can offer to other members of the Broadway community?
Capathia: I hope they will come away with an awareness of this issue that is more than just intellectual. I hope they connect with the young people and have individual and unique experiences with them, as I have had over the years. I hope their hearts will be stretched beyond what they ever imagined.
Kevin: I think the best part of the night will be the moments when our kids have a chance to talk to the sleepers and they open up.
Capathia: Exactly. If you want to help homeless kids, talk to them, and it will come to you. We all have something to offer, and sometimes we don't know what that is until we connect with another human being who inadvertently pulls our gifts to the forefront.
Kevin: Homeless youth show up at Covenant House in desperate straits, as you know. Some of them have lost their parents, or their families just don't care. A lot of them grow up in foster care with no families and become homeless. Many are LGBTQ and get pushed to the streets because of shame and hate. Some fall into human trafficking rings and are forced to sell their bodies. The suffering and hurt is overwhelming at times. What do you want the Sleep Out to communicate?
Stephanie: We are quick to say that they are going to be fine... that once they get their acts together they will straighten up. But that is not the case. These kids need us and we need them. They are our future.