Getting Your Life: Shareef Hadid Jenkins Q&A
Playwright and actor Shareef Hadid Jenkins’s struggle with addiction to crystal methamphetamine ultimately cost him his business and his home. A Philadelphia native and a graduate of Temple University, where he studied theater and playwriting, he moved to New York City in 2000, although Shareef says, “Philly’s a better place to grow what I write, to workshop it, and get enough actors interested in what I write in order to flesh it out.”
He started a theater company called Gladys Productions, trying to bridge the gap between New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. by connecting playwrights and actors across the three cities and leveraging their connections into multi-city exposure for new work. Through Gladys Productions, Shareef produced his play The Three Mothers of Zachary at the 2009 Philadephia GLBT Arts Festival, and way back in the 2000 Philly Fringe, his work Fall Into The Trap.
Now clean for nearly seven months, Shareef blogs about his life and work at shareefhadidjenkins.blogspot.com. He says, “I am a black gay writer who is going through addiction recovery. I am also HIV positive. It’s my musings, issues of what I deal with in recovery and leading my life so far, because life is work, and it’s ongoing.”
Shareef’s 2009 Fringe play, Getting Your Life: Crystal Meth, 2 Boys, 1 Transsexual draws heavily from his experiences growing up as a gay teen in Philadelphia. Tomorrow night at 7:30 pm, at the Laurie Beechman Cabaret at the Arts Bank (601 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia), he’ll preview a scene from the show as a part of the ongoing First Person Salons series.
I called him on Friday, and Shareef took a break from rehearsing Getting Your Life to tell me a little more about his show.
Walk me through the title: Getting Your Life: Crystal Meth, 2 Boys, 1 Transsexual. Crystal Meth?
It’s a character, sort of like this vice, this crutch, this wheelchair people use when they know they can walk but don’t feel they can. We can’t give ourselves love, so we use this as love—it’s our substitute for love. It’s just something the people in this play do. Instead of brushing their teeth, they use crystal meth; instead of eating, they use crystal meth.
John is a dealer. He has something that’s happened in his family that he can’t face. He’s been on the streets for a long time, knows the streets, deals drugs himself. He wants to get high, play, make money, feed his addiction, and that’s where he is, and he’s content that way. Until he meets Omar.
Omar was raised by this drug dealing transsexual, who kept the drugs away from him growing up. The play starts after he leaves for New York City, finds drugs on his own, and he comes back into this transsexual’s life. She thought she could save them.
John meets Omar, and all [John’s] beliefs about drugs—that there are no friends, that feelings aren’t real—are questioned. In Omar he finds friendship, a companion, and love. And Omar finds life through this drug that makes you so addicted that you forget about love and everything else. He doesn’t understand that the drug is taking away his life.
There’s a love story between Omar and John, and they sort of figure out, or they attempt to figure out, life in the midst of being addicted and the lies that come with being addicted.
The transsexual is there to be the mother of it all, but is somebody who’s lived a very painful life and has been through it all. People accept her craziness, but she has her own issues with addiction. Most of her craziness comes from drugs, but most people think it comes from the pain of being a male-to-female transsexual.
When I see or meet transsexuals, I think they have so much courage and strength to go through that kind of life. It’s hard enough being gay, but to go out into the world every day and have people stare at you, and the insecurity of always asking, “Are people staring at me?” To have that kind of mother figure, gave me the strength and belief that I can do anything. But I also had to realize that this person that I thought was so strong also has weaknesses that she can’t deal with.
How closely is the play aligned with your own experiences?
That’s a very hard question. I lived with a transsexual who sold drugs. The one thing that she tried to instill is that you need to live your life regardless of drugs. If you can’t live with the drugs, you’ll have to live without them. Some things aren’t real with drugs; the only thing that’s real is how you feel about yourself. I tried to put that in the play.
I belong to this group of writers in New York. Every other week we put on 10-minute pieces; stories, monologues, et cetera. It’s called “meditation of theme.” I had a theme to put on and I wrote the part of the transsexual. That’s the part I’ll be doing on Wednesday at First Person Arts. I thought about this woman who was a part of my life and taught me a lot about life.
She told me things that were true, and did things that weren’t nice that showed me the ways of the world. She was evil. She would tell me things, and if I didn’t get it, she’d show me: if I had a boy over, she’d offer him drugs to show me he’s more interested in drugs than me. It was her way of showing me that this is the reality of the situation.
Tell me about your experience with crystal meth.
It’s all in the play, actually. In Philadelphia I lived for a period of time with a transsexual who was a crystal meth dealer. I met her through a boy I was seeing, who I’d do anything for. He used crystal meth, and introduced me to it, and I paid for his habit, his habit became my habit.
I had a modeling agency in New York, and I used all the time, people were concerned. One day I found myself in the bathtub pouring bleach on myself trying to get the bugs away. I left my condo, left my business, and lost everything because of my drug use. I went back to Philly to clean up.
I’ve been working on this script for the past six years. Every time I’ve gotten clean I’ve written about it, but by September I’d be using again. But this year I got clean for myself, and now I can put it on.
What was it that pushed you to stay clean?
The last two years of my addiction I didn’t use that much. I isolated myself from people I used with. I only used when my body was craving so bad I couldn’t stand it. I used when I wanted to die if I didn’t.
My father called and told me that my brother had a baby—but it turned out that [the baby was born] three months before. I didn’t know my brother was going to be a father, I didn’t hear about the baby’s birth, I had no idea. I was blaming everybody else because I wasn’t a part of their lives, but at that moment I realized that I was the reason I wasn’t part of their lives.
I think the baby sort of woke me up. I want to be a part of this newborn’s life. When I talk to my brother, he talks about his daughter. It means a lot to me, being a gay man that wants to have children some day.
I want to have joy in my own life. Whatever pain and fears I have I have to face them and do the work that’s necessary to survive. In the past I’ve stopped using because I had a boyfriend who didn’t use and wanted me to stop. This time around I gave up my drug. I realize that I have no power over it, and I put my life in the hands of the universe.
Why are you taking on the issue of crystal meth use and abuse in the gay community?
Right now, it’s the number one drug in America. It’s the one that we’re fighting the most, it’s the one that’s paid for the most, it’s the one that’s used the most. It’s been part of the gay community for a long time.
When I was 13 years old, I was kicked out of the house, living on South Street. I had friends who were using crystal meth who were 15, 18, 20, but I had no idea. When I lived with the transsexual, she had been selling crystal meth since the late 80s.
I don’t know why it’s as big as it is now, other than the drug is so addictive. It’s so hard to get off of it. Scientifically coke and meth ignite that part of your brain that makes you feel love.
In the gay community, there’s a group of people who are abandoned and rejected, and it’s hard to learn how to love yourself when nobody else does. It is talked about so much now because so many people are affected by it. Not only are they affected by it, it leads people to have unsafe sex over a long period of time which has spiked the HIV numbers in our community. I worked as a counselor at the Mazzoni Center, and the number of kids who would be HIV positive was staggering; I guess now, the majority are crystal meth users.
What do you hope to accomplish with the play?
For people who aren’t in the gay community or people who are and don’t understand the effects of meth, I want them to see that there’s hope. That the people they love who are lost in it do still feel, and do still think about them.
It’s part of life that people don’t know exists: a world they don’t know exists, a language that goes on that people haven’t heard. [The play] opens your eyes to what’s going on right beside you or underneath you, that is unhealthy, that we ignore, or turn a blind eye to, or just don’t know.
Shareef’s play Getting Your Life is up September 11 through September 13 at the William Way Center as part of the 2009 Philly Fringe. For more information on Shareef’s work with Gladys Productions, visit their website.
Photos courtesy Shareef Hadid Jenkins.