Shanise Spencer has done some acting in the past, but never before has the 21-year-old played a character she identified with as strongly as her current role, Sabine. That’s because, like Spencer, Sabine is living in a foster home.

Foster Care Unplugged: The Stage Play is a collaboration between Deus Beni Productions and the Brooklyn-based nonprofit organization Foster Care Unplugged. Every cast member is a current or former foster child, and the storyline is based on their real struggles.

“I always have to bring myself into the character. It’s emotional because I have a great imagination and I know what things can be like,” said Spencer. “People close to me have gone through these things. It really hits home.”

The sold-out play, which debuts on Friday, February 15, at the Actors Fund Arts Center, follows the story of foster care youth as they reveal the emotional hurdles that motivate them to never lose sight of hopeSpencer and the cast have been rehearsing every Sunday since early October at Mt. Ararat Church in Brownsville.

Most directors start with a script and then select actors to play the roles. But for this show, director Princess Bey from Deus Beni cast the actors first then wrote the script based on their experiences. The resulting story deals with abuse, trauma, betrayal, rejection, neglect and the constant uncertainty many foster children face.

The actors, a mix of amateurs and professionals ranging in age from 16 to 25, took part in a 12-week acting academy to prepare for their roles. During that time, they also participated in therapeutic exercises to help them open up and hopefully heal from their experiences.

“My job was to bring them to those places and to help them realize that how they feel today is directly related to their past,” said Bey. “In theater, my goal is to get them to be free. And to be free you have to let go of some of the baggage.”

Melody Centeno, a licensed social worker, therapist and Foster Care Unplugged’s founder, monitored the play’s therapeutic component. Due to her own rocky childhood, she knows how emotionally taxing recalling trauma can be.

Centeno entered foster care at the age of 3. For years, she moved back and forth with her seven siblings between foster homes and her mother’s household, until she suffered sexual abuse from her stepfather, and a judge removed her and her siblings permanently. During the ensuing investigation, Centeno was interviewed by social workers, detectives and therapists, and her lackluster experiences with those adults motivated her to become an advocate for foster kids.

“I was just so hurt because everybody was asking me what happened, but nobody was asking if I was okay,” said Centeno. “At the age of 7, I promised to become a social worker because I was like, ‘I am going to teach them how to do their jobs.’”

Since founding Foster Care Unplugged in 2016, Centeno has provided a wide range of support to foster kids: she’s collected over $100,000 worth of shoes at a sneaker drive, teamed up with actress and former foster child Tiffany Haddish to collect suitcases so the kids don’t have to move between homes in trash bags, paired young men with successful black male mentors, and hosted creative events like an annual fashion show, and now, the Foster Care Unplugged stage play.

And her efforts are being noticed in the community: The play sold all 150 tickets in less than a week, many going to social workers, ACS officials, judges and other child welfare workers.

Spencer says she’s nervous in the lead-up to the show, but she’s focused on playing Sabine well and that mission gives her confidence.

“It’s fulfilling to know that I’m doing Sabine justice,” she said. “There are so many Sabines out there, and now they’re getting their story told.”

Next, Foster Care Unplugged is preparing a number of events for Foster Care Awareness Month in May. Visit here to learn more about the organization and its upcoming projects.

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Alex Williamson

Alex Williamson is a Brooklyn-based reporter whose work has appeared in Brooklyn Eagle, Queens Eagle, Gothamist and elsewhere.

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