The man who slid in next to me in the church pew looked a little rough around the edges. Maybe it was the headband he wore to hold back shoulder-length hair. He stood out among the business haircuts and chinos at Pax Christi Catholic Community Church in Eden Prairie.
"You belong to this church?" I asked.
"No," he said. "But you never know where the Lord will take you."
A few minutes later, the man stood on his chair and, along with others scattered through the church, began a rap song.
The man, Richard Brinda, was one of a group of homeless or formerly homeless people who are part of a theater troupe that performs plays about being homeless. Since November, they've taken the play to places like Pax Christi to tell their stories of what it's like to be broke, and living in a car or shelter. They started the play by infiltrating the audience to prove a point: The homeless are often as close as the guy in the next seat; we just don't realize it.
The play, "The Reality Roadshow: Who Wants to be a Homeless Millionaire," was a takeoff on popular reality shows that expose people's lives for entertainment. This time, the "participants" were homeless people who competed in telling their life stories: the more desperate or depraved, the more likely they were to win the million-dollar prize.
What the play lacked in polish it made up for in raw energy. The stories of the characters were shaped by a playwright who interviewed the actors first about their own lives and lives of their acquaintances in shelters. As one of the characters said: "This is not an episode of 'Glee.'"
The zAmya Theater Project was started in 2004 and was originally its own nonprofit. Now it is run through St. Stephen's Human Services, a Minneapolis nonprofit devoted to ending homelessness. This year's play has ended its run, but the troupe does remounts for groups like Pax Christi for a fee.
Angela Hedlund, the coordinator of the play, said it helps break down stereotypes about being homeless.
"We hope the audience takes away the idea that people become homeless for any number of reasons," said Hedlund. "We hope their perspectives change about who the homeless are and from there, maybe make them want to get involved in some way."
This year's actors included people who used to sleep under a bridge, a woman who once had a promising modeling career until she was scarred by a fire and became addicted to drugs and people who escaped the streets to find work and a permanent home.
One is Darrell Coles, who plays a character that symbolizes addiction. He's familiar with the role from real life.
"I made some bad choices," said Coles. "I got caught up in my own addictions before I went to the Salvation Army and went through the program. I learned to keep my mouth shut and do what they told me and it worked."
Coles now works at the Salvation Army with homeless people. He said acting has helped his self-esteem.
"It's taught me to tap into my artistic side," said Coles. "I have done other plays, and it's made me realize I can do something that's not destructive."
Marvin Howard, who played the Master of Ceremonies in the play, had done stand-up comedy and improv before he moved to Minneapolis in 2008. When he got here, he couldn't find work and ended up in a shelter for 90 days. He joined the group to build his acting skills, but also to remind himself of where he's been.
"It keeps me grounded," said Howard, who now works two jobs besides his stand-up gigs. "I know that I'm a couple of paychecks from being homeless again, that a lot of people are."
Coles and Howard say audiences react differently to the production, depending on how much they've been exposed to it. Sunday's Eden Prairie crowd was attentive, but its response to an ending that featured some raucous Occupy-style rhetoric was, let's say, very Scandinavian. They sat on their hands.
"It would be nice if someone saw the play and said, 'Hey, I'm going to help end homelessness,'" said Howard. "But I'm not expecting that to happen very much. I'm just hoping it raised some awareness."
"Many said the performance helped humanize people facing homelessness," said Michael Griffen, director of faith formation for the church. "It challenged folks without blowing them so far away that they wanted to walk away or ignore the call to act."
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