Play takes on Mpls. homelessness with actors who know the role well

Crystal Spring looked over Donald Fonzy's shoulder
Crystal Spring looked over Donald Fonzy's shoulder at the script for "Home Street Home" at a rehearsal in the basement of St. Stephen's main offices in Minneapolis.
Marianne Combs | MPR News

Between 300 and 500 people sleep on the streets of downtown Minneapolis each night, according to advocates for the homeless, while several hundred more take refuge in shelters across the city.

"Home Sweet Home," a new play by zAmya Theater Project, addresses homelessness from a number of perspectives. It explores panhandling, gentrification, the new Vikings stadium and more, using familiar tunes and humor.

Most of the performers in the production have experienced some form of homelessness, whether it's living on the streets, in a shelter, or couch-surfing for months at a time.

Richard Brinda lived for a long time in a tent in the woods behind the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. Now he's in transitional housing, hoping to get a place of his own.

"I've been homeless for over 10 years and so now, to take all that experience and to put that into plays and that stuff and tell stories that relate to homelessness with the people that are still homeless — well, that's my job now," Brinda said.

For Brinda, the reward is getting to be a voice for the voiceless who are still experiencing homelessness.

"It becomes like a healing process and keeps me from wanting to go back to that style of living and all that stuff," Brinda said.

Home Street Home rehearsal
Corey Walton, Arminta Wilson, Greg Tromiczak, Crystal Spring and Marvin Howard in rehearsal.
Marianne Combs | MPR News

Director Maren Ward has been with the zAmya Theater Project since it first started 11 years ago, and she says each year the company seeks to reflect current issues affecting downtown.

"And so we did a series of interviews of people who live work play and pray downtown — both homeless and housed — and used the content of the interviews to create the show," Ward said.

On a recent evening, performers did a run through of the show in the basement of St. Stephen's Human Services, a social service agency in the heart of Minneapolis where the project is based.

In a riff on Tina Turner's song "We Don't Need Another Hero," one actor belts out "we don't need another condo." In a rap style monologue, actor Caroline Mannheimer talks about the perennial desire to sanitize the city streets.

Don't be directin' your hatin' at me — you were expectin' a G ratin'? In a city?
You don't want the real deal world unfurled? Not in front of your little girl.
Oh no, oh no no no! We got to clean up the freak show!
The unwashed and unsightly got to go!

Actor Corey Walton is one of the few cast members who has never experienced homelessness and says being in the show revealed to him how narrow a vision he had of the issue.

"I didn't think of homelessness for example as a veteran, I didn't think of it as a child, families, women," Walton said. "I didn't think of anything. For me, homelessness was a man under a bridge with a bottle."

Richard Brinda and Marvin Howard sang.
Richard Brinda and Marvin Howard sang the closing number during rehearsal.
Marianne Combs | MPR News

In fact, if the homeless of Hennepin County were condensed to 100 people, only four of them would be panhandlers. Forty of them would be children.

The Minneapolis Downtown Council has made ending street homelessness part of its goals for its Downtown 2025 plan.

St. Stephen's Monica Nilsson serves on that committee, but says some parts of the plan don't add up. She says not enough new housing in Minneapolis is affordable.

In order to deal with homelessness effectively, Nilsson says, first you need to raise awareness.

"And often times I say to groups that what you're doing right now — coming to a show, listening and talking with people who've been homeless — that learning is of service to us," Nilsson said, "More so even than making bologna sandwiches."

"Home Street Home" runs tonight through Saturday at The Illusion Theater in downtown Minneapolis.

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