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The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

Homeless theater

By Hazel Schaeffer

Becoming homeless is not the typical path for starting a career in entertainment. But for several members of the theater project zAmya, that was exactly the case.Last month I attended zAmya’s performance “Homeroom,” its free original play put on every year during National Homeless Week in a variety of Twin Cities locations (the Salvation Army Harbor Lights Chapel, the University of Minnesota’s Coffman Memorial Union Theater, the Capri Theatre, the Hennepin County Government Center Auditorium and the Heart of the Beast Mask and Puppet Theatre) to educate people about the homeless and give its cast members, many of whom have been homeless, an opportunity to share their personal experiences.

According to its website, “zAmya Theater Project is a unique, creative process that brings together homeless and housed individuals to create and perform a theatrical production. zAmya turns ‘homeless’ from a word back into a person.”

zAmya theater project was founded by Lecia Grossman in 2004 as a way to make a difference through creativity.

Andi Cheney ’09, who studied theater at Macalester, is the Production Manger for Homeroom and is zAmya’s Community Arts Coordinator. Artistic Director Maren Ward is also a Mac grad.

Interested in using theater to advance social justice, Cheney interned with zAmya during her senior year. After graduation, she returned to the company full time.

“Homeroom” takes place in a fake school and explores stereotypes and true stories of homeless people through lectures, flash backs, and student interactions.

“It is definitely a community theater,” Cheney says. “A lot of the folks you saw today, this week was the first time they’ve ever been on stage. It’s a steep learning curve to just get into this little community and write a script and share a story and build trust and then go on stage and perform it.”

“Homeroom” was not only an innovative to teach homeless men and women about theater, but also an opportunity for cast members to share their experiences.

Last year Caroline Mannheimer recounted traumatic story. When she was sixteen she accidentally started a fire after lighting a candle and sustained serious burns on much of her.

“She had never talked about it before in public and she said that that week of performing and having to tell her story in front of all these people brought her like twenty years worth of therapy. She’s so much more healed from that experience than she was before the show,” Cheney recounted.

Arminta Wilson acted out a scene about domestic violence. “It’s a way for her to bring attention to the issue, and awareness, and share her own story as well.” Cheney said.

Fitting for its cause, zAmya doesn’t have a permanent space of its own. “zAmya is a homeless theater but we tour around so we make our home in a lot of different places,’ Cheney said.

The performance I saw was at Central Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, a member of the interfaith group Downtown Congregations to End Homelessness. The crowd, mostly white and middle class, was quiet and focused throughout the performance.

“At the Salvation Army, that audience tends to be little more rowdier,” Cheney said. “Most of them are experiencing homelessness, or have. They have a lot of different questions, more about resources, about the people on stage who are currently housed– what did they do, how did they get out of it? They get a lot out of the humor too that we put into the show.”

zAmya also performed for the Plymouth Arts and Technology School, a charter school in Minneapolis where twenty percent of students are homeless or relocate frequently. After the performance, Cheney says, the sound technician told her that “it was the quietest he’d ever heard the students.”

After each performance, the audience has a “talk back” Q&A session with the troupe and breaks into small discussion groups with the actors.

Cast member Darrell Coles was part of my discussion group. After having been in and out of housing for several years, joining zAmya was the first time he acted publicly.

“I’d forgotten about dreams,” he said. “When you’re trying to survive on a day-to-day basis, you don’t have time for dreams. You have to deal with reality.”

Coles said that his involvement with theater helped to improve his life. Having once slept at shelter managed by the Salvation Army, he now works there.

“zAmya theater helped me improve and change my life,” he says. “The only art that really matters is art that changes people lives. A picture on the wall may be beautiful but if it doesn’t spurn you on to do greater things for yourself or other people, then what good is the art?”

In the “Homeroom,” Coles told an autobiographical story of losing his job and then his home and girlfriend. Finally, he ends up on the streets where he is ignored by everyone.

“Average people don’t relate [to the homeless] because they feel like you’ve made some stupid decisions, but the truth of the matter is that you can do nothing wrong and still end up homeless,” he said (afterward). “If you lose your job you can’t pay house. When you lose your home people start to stray away from you, it’s almost like they get homeless-itis or something. Like, ‘if I stay too close to this person I might end up homeless too.'”

For Coles, being rendered invisible was one of the most serious problems associated with living on the street. “Imagine every day feeling like people are ignoring you, shunning you. We have this ideal of, ‘well it doesn’t matter what other people think as long as I feel good about myself.’ There’s some truth to that but it’s also true that if you get enough people that shun you and [treat you] like a dog, eventually you’re going to feel like a dog,” he said.

Undoubtedly, zAyma has made a difference in the lives of hundreds of homeless people living in the Twin Cities by providing an opportunity to tell their stories, produce a work of art and share it with the public. But questions remain about how to address the structural issues which foster homelessness in the first place, particularly in light of the last midterm elections, which saw a Republican Caucasus focused on austerity retake control of the Minnesota state legislature.

On Nov. 24 I attended a talk at Macalester with Richard Hooks Wayman, Executive Director of Hearth Connection, a non-profit advocacy group, on how to preserve funding for homeless support groups in this current climate.

Hearth Connection partners with government service providers, American Indian tribes and housing organizations in Minnesota to provide permanent housing to the homeless.

A departure from previous approaches to end homelessness, Hearth Connection considers everyone to be “housing ready.”

According to Wayman, homelessness is caused by personal economic crisis, domestic violence (when women and children may flee a house to escape violence), disabilities (particularly in the case of veterans), abuse and neglect (in the case of children).

Wayman noted that often “a lack of housing is a symptom of other barriers in life. Unless you have both [supportive services and housing], you aren’t going to be successful.”

A huge concern for Wayman is preserving and increasing funding for Hearth Connection’s program under a Republican legislature. Speaking to a group of sympathetic Mac students, he offered some general tips for lobbying.

“You always think of their agenda,” Wayman said, which targets jobs, public safety, roads, school success and veterans.

Wayman says he could make a case for every issue, besides transportation, but will especially focus on veterans.”

“I’m going to talk less about single adults this year because people will think they’re [homeless] because of bad behavior,” Wayman said.

Though he said securing funding from a Republican legislature during a recession will be difficult, Wayman said “we are already paying for [homelessness],” through foster
care, prisons and emergency treatment in hospitals.

The members of zAmya had no definitive answer on how to end homelessness.

“The number one question we get is, ‘What should I do about this person on the street with a sign?” Cheney said. “Should I give them money?’ Giving people money when they’re on the street is not going to end homelessness . There’s millions of issues to be tackled. There isn’t just one way that we can end homelessness because if we knew how to end homelessness, it would be done. So generally when people ask us that question, we ask it right back to them. You’ve got to find out what you personally can help.”

Coles said he had no qualms giving money to panhandlers. “Say if you give a dollar to an organization. A lot of times only 20 cents goes to the homeless. You got to pay the president and the secretary. By the time that dollar gets split up I’d rather just give it to a person no matter what they do. We always want to give knowing the outcome. But it aint our job. It’s God’s business. So what if they went out and got a drink with it. Life on the streets is miserable. Okay, they fooled me. So what?” Coles said.

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