by BECKY DERNBACH, guest reviewer
Becky Dernbach is the communications coordinator for Occupy Homes MN and the author of Fannie and Freddie, a rhyming picture book about the housing crisis.
Home Street Home Minneapolis mixes song, spoken word, humor, and heartbreak with stories about homelessness in downtown Minneapolis, written and performed primarily by people who have experienced it.
“I’m sorry, could you guys talk about something else?” one character asks. “This is Minnesota and it’s making me uncomfortable.” But the point of this theater project is to make people think, which often requires being uncomfortable. The zAmya Theater Project formed in 2004 out of St. Stephen’s Human Services, bringing together housed people and those experiencing homelessness to create unique performance works out of their experiences. Home Street Home Minneapolis was written collaboratively by the cast, based on their own experiences and interviews with people in churches, workplaces, and social spaces throughout downtown Minneapolis.
“I keep coming back to watch people develop,” said Corey Walton, who played a formerly homeless security guard and has been with zAmya for eight years. “zAmya gives them that little oomph. It boosts their confidence.” Through this collaborative creative experience, zAmya creates space for people experiencing homelessness to tell their own stories and be seen, rather than turned away.
The theme of “turning away” pervades the play, which features a selection from Pink Floyd’s “On the Turning Away” and a moving spoken word piece performed fiercely by Albatross (Caroline Mannheimer), a homeless artist: “No more eyes will turn away from me. No more turning away.”
Indeed, as we turn away we ignore not only our neighbors but the scope of the problem. According to the Wilder Foundation’s 2012 triennial report, homelessness in Minnesota is at an all-time high—and has increased 50% in Hennepin County since 2006. Meanwhile, affordable housing is nearly impossible to find. One cast member, Cheryl Hare, told me she’s now off the streets, but spent a year looking for an affordable housing unit before finding one—and that’s not uncommon. We are in crisis.
Home Street Home Minneapolis confronts stereotypes about homelessness with humor and statistics. “Why can’t they just get a job?” asks one woman who has just moved to a downtown condo, complaining about the panhandlers outside the coffeeshop (cleverly named “Done Being Homeless Brothers”). “Every homeless person asks me for money every day.”
“Maybe some institutional hegemonic paradigms are obfuscating their progress,” quips another coffee shop guest. But, the characters go on to explain, actually many homeless people have jobs, and only 4 in 100 panhandle. As the play progresses, the more judgmental customers of the coffee shop learn to see the homeless characters as their neighbors.
An uproarious church scene turns somber when Sister Terry (Melisa Johnson) talks about a member of their church, Mike, who lived in the Dunwoody homeless camp but recently died under I-394. Sister Terry challenges the congregation to think about the role they might have played in Mike’s death. “We are not doing what we can and must do to change the system. We need both charity and justice. We are doing charity well, but justice only marginally. Doing justice marginally is not enough. It is not acceptable.”
Zipping in and out of the downtown scenes is the dazzlingly charismatic mayor (Arminta Wilson) who listens sympathetically to everyone’s problems, responding invariably with “Let me give you my card.” She dodges their questions and calls for systemic change, but by the end of the play is leading the cast in singing “We don’t need another condo; we need to know our way home.”
The message is clear. Downtown Minneapolis is for all of us—but we must all answer the call to, as street musician Zeke (Richard Brinda) says, make access to affordable housing a human right.
As the play concludes, shelter guests lay down to sleep on blue mats on the floor, while one character sings a haunting version of a song used to tell another story about downtown Minneapolis—the Mary Tyler Moore theme song. But the story’s not so different if we are truly committed to Minneapolis becoming a city where everyone can build a life for themselves: “You’re gonna make it after all.”
Home Street Home Minneapolis, presented by zAmya Theater Project. Friday April 11 – 7pm -Salvation Army Harbor Light Center Chapel – 1010 Currie Ave. Saturday April 12 – 1pm– Minneapolis Central Library, Pohlad Hall – 300 Nicollet Mall Sunday April 13 – 1pm– Westminster Presbyterian Church 1200 Marquette Ave S. Monday April 14 – 6PM and Tuesday April 15 – 6PM – New Century Theater, City Center 614 Hennepin Ave. #145. ALL PERFORMANCES ARE FREE – Donations Welcome! For more information visit ststephensmpls.org.