A role that mirrors life: Trenda Loftin’s theater artist story



Last modified: Monday, January 01, 0001

NORTHAMPTON — One of the main characters in “Legal Tender” is a young woman of color from a poor, single-parent family who overcome the odds to attend college.

“She got to there by the skin of her teeth,” said Christian McEwen, the Northampton writer whose play is based on more than 50 interviews with women about money.

The actor who plays the role of Charisma knew this part before reading McEwen’s script. “It feels mildly selfish — like I’m sharing some of my financial story through the cloak of Charisma,” said Trenda Loftin.

Through her work on “Legal Tender,” Loftin feels she better understands how financial realities affect different women. It broadened her compassion, which now ranges from those providing the next meal to those worried about managing an inheritance.

Like Charisma, Loftin made her way to a good school — in her case Smith College — from a childhood in which she knew scarcity and hard work. Today, at 26, she supports not only herself but family home in the Albany, N.Y., area. She tends bar at the Eastside Grill in Northampton and teaches acting part time at the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter High School in South Hadley.

Loftin is proud to help get the message of “Legal Tender” to Valley audiences. She’s proud that her teaching gig will go full time next year. And she’s proud too that at the age of 15, living in Hoosick Falls., N.Y., she went to work at a McDonald’s and felt the power of a payday. “I ran that,” she said in an interview this week at Sylvester’s in Northampton. “I was so good at that. I loved getting a paycheck.”

From public school, with the help of the Upward Bound program and her own vigorous work ethic, Loftin managed to make the leap to Smith College. Once there, her money story widened. Her first roommate came from money, as the saying goes, and enough of it that no one needed to work. She took a work-study job and tried to come up with enough money, after buying books, to do things her new friends took for granted. “When I was growing up, the idea of fancy was going to Old Country Buffet,” she said.

It felt awkward to accept her roommate’s offer to pay. By her senior year, Loftin said, she was working 40 hours a week. “I wasn’t doing school the way school needed to be done.” She quit midyear. After three years away, working at the Eastside Grill, she managed to go back and finish at Smith, graduating last spring with an American studies major and working in political and social theater.

Like her character Charisma, Loftin feels an urge to spend money she doesn’t really have, as if to reclaim more innocent teen days. “Sometimes I do the same thing. I love to go out to eat. I work really hard so I can go out with my friends and not feel that money is an issue.”

But she adds, “Sometimes it’s hard to think I deserve this nice thing.”

Recently, Loftin told her mother — who worked counseling developmentally disabled adults — what she makes per hour teaching at the charter school. “She said, ‘Whoa, that’s more than I made with 20 years of experience.’ ”

“I identify with the class I grew up in and I feel I’m moving out of it,” she said. “That’s really scary.”

She had felt that distance when together with family, including relatives from North Carolina. “They stopped asking me when I was going to have children,” she said. Just speaking with family and old friends can reveal how higher education has changed her. When she uses words they think fancy — try “intersectionality” — she gets funny faces.

Too good for us now, those looks say.

Her mother respects all she’s done, Loftin said, but there is still that problem of economic distance. “My mom is like, ‘My baby is at Smith. ... My baby’s a teacher now.’ There’s a real sense of pride which she expresses. But there are times when it is hard for her.”


 


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