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See Cleaning in the House of Healing

Cleaning in the House of Healing is at the Harold Prince Theatre, the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 3680 Walnut Street on June 13 and 14 at 7pm. Tickets are $30.

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The Citizen Recommends: Cleaning in the House of Healing

Theater of Witness’s new show tells the stories of overlooked frontline workers: environmental services technicians

The Citizen Recommends: Cleaning in the House of Healing

Theater of Witness’s new show tells the stories of overlooked frontline workers: environmental services technicians

In a black and white photograph, one man stood in a debris-filled hospital trauma bay. He was leaning on the pole of his mop. Alone. Quiet. “Like” Teya Sepinuck says, “a quiet way of talking about the impact of violence, what’s left over after violence.”

Sepinuck, the founder, creator and artistic director of both the company and practice of Theater of Witness couldn’t get the image out of her head. “I wanted to know everything about this man,” she recalls.

At the time in 2019, Sepinuck had just finished directing and co-creating a multimedia project, Tangles in Time, in which dementia patients and their caregivers told their stories of the impacts of the disease. She was looking at an exhibit at Temple’s School of Medicine when a professor led her to the photo of the man.

She knew his was the next story to tell.

Sepinuck Theater of Witness’s goal is to find and demonstrate where “the medicine” is in a person’s story: medicine like strength, accountability, resilience and truth. She strives to “open up people’s hearts” and to “bear witness” — hence the practice’s title — by inviting people to share those difficult stories onstage.

“The publicness of it is part of the deepest healing and the purpose of it,” says Sepinuck of the work. The performance, she explains, is not entertainment. “It is healing in the deepest sense that public ritual is healing, that grieving in groups is healing.”

“I hope our stories help lift and motivate others and inspire them. I hope others who used to look down at us will start looking up to us. This is for all of the housekeepers, whether in a hotel or hospital, all over the world. We’re doing this for them.” Constance Turner

Performers in Theater of Witness’s latest theatrical project, Cleaning in the House of Healing, know quite a bit about grief and healing. Cleaning in the House of Healing features stories from six Environmental Services (EVS) hospital workers who keep hospitals in Philadelphia clean and sanitized.

Sometimes referred to as “cleaners,” EVS workers have an essential job in a hospital. They are a first line of defense against the spread of infection. Yet, they are consistently undervalued. They have tended to rooms post- and pre-gunshot violence, sickness and other emergencies. As one of the cast members, Constance Turner, says, “I’ve seen it all, and I’ve cleaned it all.”

According to Harvard Medical researchers Kevin Tyan, MD and Pieter A. Cohen, MD, “These essential personnel are still often called ‘housekeepers’ — a relic from a time when their role was regarded as purely janitorial rather than fundamental to patient safety … Their task of hospital cleaning and their stature in the healthcare hierarchy have long been underappreciated.”

 

Tyan and Cohen write that EVS workers have been the targets of hospital cost-cutting since the 1990s. EVS work has been outsourced to contractors since the turn of the century, “exacerbating high turnover and inadequate training.” Furthermore, stagnant low wages “condemn over three-quarters of workers below the poverty line” and leave them without access to adequate health care.

“It is no accident that many EVS workers feel invisible to the rest of the hospital team — they are systemically devalued, ignored, and relegated to the bottom of the socioeconomic hierarchy,” Tyan and Cohen write.

The team at Cleaning in the House of Healing uses similar language in the show’s trailer on YouTube. As Constance Turner describes her work as an EVS associate, words like overlooked, undervalued and essential appear on the screen. Turner, who worked as an EVS worker for 15 years, says that she hopes the project will inspire audience members to view EVS work as crucial. Working at the hospital, she says, was “truly a blessing.”

“I was in rehab for 12 months and then started working at the hospital through a Welfare-to-Work program. Before that, I was homeless,” Turner recalls. She says she took pride in cleaning and told her coworkers to hold their heads up high. “I used to tell them, Let me tell y’all something: Our job is very meaningful. We help keep down the [spread of] infection. I love cleaning. It just makes me feel so good to help others in need.”

The performers in a moment of emotional support. Photo by Raymond Holman.

After waiting out the Covid pandemic, the project, funded with a grant from the William Penn Foundation, began in 2023 as a months-long collaboration.

Slowly the pieces formed together, as cast members Turner, Jerome Smith, Shamona Jones, Gloria Monson, Nicole Champlan and El-Shara Scott — who are not professional actors — shared their stories as EVS workers and built off of each others’. Sepinuck began writing their parts; filmmaker Dax Roggio and musician Niyonu Spann added film and original music to the production. For the final show, audience members can expect to witness performers telling their own stories, sharing film and pictures of their lives, and even singing together.

“It’s very collaborative,” says Sepinuck. The title of the show was coined by one of the performers, and one of Spann’s songs, I’m a Diamond, comes from a line from cast member Jerome.

“Jerome says, ‘With all the pressure on me, one day I might just turn into a diamond,’” explains Sepinuck. “And in a way, that’s part of this [work] — that they can see themselves as diamonds, as jewels, as sparkling, as strong: all of the things that diamonds are. It’s about holding the mirror up for all of that beauty that already resides in them.”

Says Turner, “I hope our stories help lift and motivate others and inspire them. I hope others who used to look down at us will start looking up to us. This is for all of the housekeepers, whether in a hotel or hospital, all over the world. We’re doing this for them.”

Cleaning in the House of Healing, June 13 and 14, 7pm, $30, Penn Live Arts.Annenberg Center, 3680 Walnut Street.

MORE ON THE ARTS FROM THE CITIZEN

Constance Turner, Jerome Smith, Shamona Jones, Gloria Monson, Nicole Champlan and El-Shara Scott rehearse for Cleaning in the House of Healing. Photo by Raymond Holman.

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