Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's review of Wicked
Since their founding in 2004, zAmya Theater Project has been creating and presenting plays dealing with different aspects of the experience of homelessness and the issue of housing justice. Their website lists twenty-one full-length plays developed and staged since then. Each of these has been carried forward through a collaborative process, bringing together professional theater artists and community members whose lived experience and creative talents meld to create their theater works. If all are like the current production, they are unique, impassioned, and eye-opening experiences, of value to the creators and audience members alike.
Second Chance, written by playwright Carlyle Brown, was first staged in 2018, and is back for three performances this month. It is based on the premise of people whose lives took a wrong turn through a stroke of bad luck, a decision that turned out badly, a medical crisis, a job loss, a web of abuse and shame, or some other calamitous situation, the likes of which could, in fact, happen to anyone. Some individuals have a support network that carries them through such a crisis; others do not. Language barriers, immigration status, and illiteracy can add to the challenge faced by those without a strong support network. These are people willing to work hard, wanting to be good neighbors, and trying to live within the law, but find themselves homeless.
The audience is greeted with a bluesy musical performance by vocalist Arminta Wilson as they take their seats. The show then reveals its gambit: a council of four judges–troupe members draped in judges' robes of different hues, with British court style white wigs daftly set atop their heads–will hear the cases of individuals whose circumstances have led them to be homeless. At first these individuals are called "contestants," but that descriptor is abandoned for "supplicants," indicating they are not playing for, but begging for, a second chance. It is an indication of the stigma of shame felt by those who find themselves having to turn to a complicated, impersonal, and often impenetrable system of social services to get help. After each tells their story, the judges turn to the audience to vote on whether or not they deserve a second chance.
We hear stories of lives struck by cascading downturns that tug at our hearts, and when the judges turn to the audience, everyone votes to give the sufferer a second chance. However, in a couple of cases the judges don't give the audience a chance to vote. One individual, with a physical impairment, is directed to seek the services intended to provide assistance. It was clear that this individual has not had success with that system, and needs that second chance as a bridge to stability, along with an advocate to help navigate the system. Another individual is presented as mentally unstable, perhaps schizophrenic. The judges laugh him off the stage, as if he were merely playing the clown, with no understanding of the crippling condition of his life.
The presentations by the "supplicants"–I believe there are eight–are accompanied by music, sometimes as background themes: "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" appears several times, along with other themes played by the talented team of Carlisle Evans Peck on keyboard and mick laBriola on percussion. Two audience member plants stand up and shout their positions for all to hear. One (Ken Moore) denounces the supplicants, accusing them of being unwilling to work, warning them that he doesn't want their housing to bring down his property values. The other (Karen Lunde) counters the first, a champion for those who are homeless, espousing the view that if society gives them a second chance, they will be able to contribute back to society. The arguments on both sides are oft-heard tropes, but it is good to give voice to the context of community perspectives on the issue of housing security.
We are given a nimbly staged lesson in the mathematics of housing, pointing out that full-time work at minimum wage is not nearly enough to pay for a market-rate one-bedroom apartment in Minneapolis. Near the end, we are shown a solution, really a dream of a solution, for giving housing to the unhoused, a place where nourishment, healing, and joy abounds for all. It is a dream, but such dreams can serve as a launch pad for progress, as long as there is a collective will for change. The show wraps up with a spirited medley of "Ain't Got No," and "I Got Life" from the musical Hair. As a follow-up, those in the audience are invited to share their personal stories around housing insecurity.
Directed by Maren Ward, Second Chance is presented with high spirits and conveys the fervent convictions of the performers. Several understudies stepped in for the regular cast members at the performance I attended, and all captured the zeitgeist of the work and the essence of its message, even if line delivery was sometimes halting. Robert Blood and Esther Ouray stood out among the judges, Blood as cynical Ralph the Accuser, and Ouray as the encouraging Paula Possibility. Among the supplicants, Marcia Barnes, Sol Morán and Tahiti Robinson made especially strong impressions. A sense of love among the cast members pervades the entire show, making even those performances that felt more like line-reading than acting become part of a whole that is lifted by a grace that gives Second Chance its buoyancy.
My guess is that most of those attending were familiar with the issue of housing insecurity, and arrived already in sympathy with the perspective presented by zAmya. It is, it seems, always a challenge to bring these important messages to audiences for whom they are new and may trigger changes of heart. Still, each time any person hears a specific story about the struggle that led a fellow human being to face life without a place to call home is an opportunity to recharge the energy around change, and to offer the audience fresh insights to share with others within their orbits.
Second Chance is not a show for those seeking a slick production, with snazzy stagecraft and effects, or to see actors at the height of their profession. It is exactly right for anyone moved by bracingly honest accounts of the struggles and hopes of people who are our neighbors, not so unlike us but for a fork in the road at some time in their past. It illuminates the notion that among people of good will, change is possible and hope is always in season.
Second Chance, a production of zAmya Theater Project, was performed on August 4, 2022, at the Mill City Museum Ruin Courtyard in Minneapolis, and will play on August 10 at 7:00 p.m. at Target Field Station Amphitheater, 5th Street N. and 5th Avenue N., Minneapolis, and on August 14 at 2:00 p.m. at the Downtown Minneapolis Street Art Festival, Nicollet Mall between 6th Street and 7th Street, Minneapolis. Admission is free, but reservations are recommended for the August 10 performance. For reservations and more information, please visit zamyatheater.org/second-chance.
Playwright: Carlyle Brown; Director: Maren Ward; Assistant Director and Movement Coordinator: Esther Ouray; Costume Design: Maren Ward and Esther Ouray; Sound Design: Cat Zevitz; Musical Arrangements: mick laBriola; Artwork: Bianca Pettis; Production Manager: Esther Ouray; Stage Manager: Blake Brown.
Cast: Marcia Barnes (Supplicant One), Mary Benrud (Caroline), Robert Blood (Ralph the Accuser), Annette Bryant (Maggie Chaos), Eric Foster (Charles), Shannon Kemp (Shannon), Karen Lunde (Audience Member 2), Lurch (Mister Mayhem), Daniel Mauck (understudy), Ken Moore (Audience Member 2), Sol Morán (Sol), Esther Ouray (Paula Possibility), Tahiti Robinson (Tahiti), Greg Tromiczak (David), Harry Waters Jr. (understudy) Arminta Wilson (Arminta), Cat Zevitz (understudy).