Humanizing homelessness on stage

zAmya Theater puts a face on homelessness

On a recent Thursday evening at the Redeye Theater, the zAmya Theater Troupe rehearsed the opening musical number to their 2011 Reality Road Show: “Who Wants To Be a Homeless Millionaire?”

As the players worked out the kinks, spouses and children did homework or ate dinner. Director Maren Ward stopped the action from time to time to give instructions; the play would open three days later, and it was getting down to crunch time.

While the rehearsal appeared typical, zAmya is not a typical theater troupe. Started eight years ago by Lecia Grossman, zAmya, which Ward said means “aiming at peace” in Sanskrit, aims to raise awareness about homelessness and wealth disparity by putting a face on the issue through theater. The majority of the troupe has experienced homelessness at some level.

Ward, who has directed zAmya since it began, is also a co-founder of the Bedlam Theatre. She said that an important element of what zAmya does is explaining how and why people become homeless, to increase understanding.

“A lot of people’s primary encounter with homelessness is seeing folks on the side of the road with signs,” Ward said. “Lecia’s idea was to design something that would have people who are experiencing homelessness talking to people who have no experience with it.”

Since its founding, zAmya grew and solidified from a part-time group into a year-round troupe and is supported by St. Stephen’s Human Services as a part of their initiative to end homelessness.

This year’s production, “Who Wants To Be a Homeless Millionaire,” portrays homeless people competing on a reality television show for $1 million. The play discusses issues involved with being homeless, such as owning and living in a car and how shelters often separate spouses.

Esther Ouray, who has been with zAmya for a total of three years, is an actress by trade. Ouray said some experiences described in the show actually happened to some of the players, while other elements are amalgamations of a number of different peoples’ experiences.
She stays involved because the issue is important to her. But she also simply enjoys being there.

“It’s just a great group of people,” she said. The whole experience is “just really heartwarming.”

Another player, Greg Tromiczak, who also has an acting background, became involved with zAmya mostly by accident.

“I heard there was going to be a play about homelessness,” Tromiczak said. “But it turned out to be an audition, and I passed.”

He formerly worked a county job working with homeless people and this is his fourth year performing with the troupe. He said it was important for people to understand there were many different reasons people become homeless and that he liked the shows because they made people think.

“There are as many reasons for homelessness as there are homeless people,” he said.

Melisa Pertile left substance abuse treatment three years ago and heard that zAmya was holding tryouts. Pertile’s been with the troupe since and the experience has helped her to more stable living conditions, having been homeless in the past.

“I’ve pretty much got my life together,” she said following the rehearsal.

A part of this year’s play draws directly on Pertile’s experiences.

“I like to express myself through acting, and I feel like I’m being heard,” she said. “It’s empowering to do stuff like this.”

Music is an important element in this year’s production and Steven Wagner wrote and plays some of it. This is Wagner’s first year with zAmya and he has a small speaking roll in the play as well.

Due to poor health and other circumstances, he spent two years on the streets of Minneapolis before moving into public housing last year. He still deals with volatile high blood pressure.

He said of performing, “this is all really like therapy,” adding that the group brings out “more of who you are.”
“It’s been making me want to sing more, being around these people,” Wagner said.

He’s still working on his acting chops, though he says nervousness isn’t a factor because in the past he’s performed music on stage. Wagner is taking it slow, and “testing this thing out,” he said.

Wagner was needed on stage, but he returned to tell a reporter one more thing.

“You asked me how much I like doing this,” he said, needing to get back on stage quickly. “Well, I pawned a guitar for gas money to get to this rehearsal.”

The zAyma Theater Troupe is performing this week at many different locations and is available to groups and organizations for special shows. For more information go to ststephensmpls.org/zamyanowplaying.htm.

Upcoming shows:

— Tuesday, Nov. 15, 6:00 p.m.–8:30 p.m. at Macalester College in the John B. Davis Auditorium.

— Wednesday, Nov. 16, 9:00 a.m.–11:30 a.m. at Catholic Charities Opportunity Center and 6:30 p.m. – 9:00 p.m. at Wesley United Methodist Church.

— Friday, Nov. 18, 6:00 p.m.–9:00 p.m. at Pillsbury House Theatre.

— Saturday, Nov. 19, a tentative showing form 10:00 a.m.–1:00 p.m. for Occupy Minnesota at the Hennepin County Government Plaza.