Faring well on the stage after a rocky road

“Memoirs of a Welfare Queen” humanizes the experience of being on welfare

Jena Young earned a spot at last year's Fringe Fest and wrote

Chelsea Gortmaker

Jena Young earned a spot at last year's Fringe Fest and wrote "Memoirs of a Welfare Queen," her story of living off welfare for two years. She reworked her piece and has an improved two-day show at Bryant Lake Bowl this weekend.

Emily Eveland

After four years of failed attempts at getting into the Minnesota Fringe Festival, Jena Young finally got a spot in last year’s 11-day event. The only problem was that she wasn’t notified until two weeks before she was set to perform.

In that short time, Young wrote a one-woman show about being on welfare in her early 20s, aptly titled “Memoirs of a Welfare Queen.” The show was met with enough positive reviews for Young to rework the script and perform it again, this time at Bryant Lake Bowl’s theater in Uptown.

“Memoirs” is a true story, meant to help audience members understand how people end up in positions that require them to seek welfare, what it’s like being on it and why it’s so hard to get off.

“We have this tendency to look for the secret for getting off welfare or the magic button that makes everything happen, but there really isn’t. … It’s just, you keep trying. You keep going until somebody offers you a break,” Young said.

Shame is one of the main reasons people struggle to get off welfare, she said.

“In shaming people for being in that situation, we tend to keep them in that situation,” she said. “It’s hard to get a job when nobody thinks you’re capable of getting a job.”

By telling the story of her life on welfare and including the emotions she felt each step of the way, Young is able to humanize the experience and obliterate some of that shame.

“To actually meet somebody or at least hear her stories about [welfare] forces people to have a more human viewpoint,” said Young’s friend and fellow actor Brian Watson-Jones, who saw the Fringe production last year.

Young still had to strike a careful balance between telling audience members too much and not enough when dealing with heavy subject matter like sex, drugs and abuse. Those elements are important to the story, but they’re not the focal point of “Memoirs.”

Part of the work in her revision process has been to insert more humorous, relatable stories so audience members don’t feel like they’re being hit with too much at once.

“When you’re presenting something really heavy, it’s hard to just talk about it,” Young said. “You have to be able to make the connections with your audience.”

One problem with the first run of the show was that Young tried to fit in more material than the Fringe Festival’s 60-minute slot could hold. With an extended time allowance at Bryant-Lake Bowl, she’s able to include more about what it was like actually being on welfare, rather than focusing on what led up to it.

Two years after getting on welfare, Young was able to get off and support herself with help from friends. She went back to school for computer programming but was still unable to find a job.

“I wasn’t able to get a job with [the degree] because I hadn’t had a job,” she said. “I had applied at 150 different places, and I got two interviews.”

Finally, Young was offered a job as a second-shift security guard. Though the work wasn’t fun, she took what she could get.

Now, Young is a mother, a teacher, a computer programmer, an actress, a fire manipulator, an expert in stage combat, a beader and a belly dancer, and she said she couldn’t have gotten to this point without help from friends.

“It’s all about people supporting each other,” she said.

 

What: “Memoirs of a Welfare Queen”
Where: Bryant Lake Bowl, 810 W. Lake St., Minneapolis
When: 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Cost: $8 in advance or with Fringe button; $10 at the door