Stories from the Book of Harbor Light

zAmya theater workshop

zAmya Theater works with residents at The Salvation Army’s Harbor Center to create a new show about homelessness to premiere at Hennepin Theatre Trust’s 900 Hennepin.

A Mural: Portrait of a Community

Changing public perceptions about homelessness might seem like an unachievable goal. For the teams at zAmya Theater and Hennepin Theatre Trust, there’s a simple path to that goal: storytelling.

“The best way to touch audience members is for them to feel what they are seeing is real, explains zAmya Theater’s Corey Walton. “And the only way to get real stories about homelessness is to be with, talk to, interact with, rehearse with, share conversation with those who are, or have experienced homelessness.”

Walton facilitates storytelling workshops with people staying at The Salvation Army’s Harbor Light Center, Minnesota’s largest homeless adult outreach facility. Stories shared at those workshops have become the narrative for Stories from the Book of Harbor Light, a new production by zAmya Theater in collaboration with Hennepin Theatre Trust and the Harbor Light Center.

zAmya performers in front of the 1010 Currie MuralBut the story of this production actually began with a different kind of art project. In 2017, Joan Vorderbruggen, the Trust’s director of placemaking and public art, approached artist Bianca Pettis to paint a mural on the Harbor Light administrative building’s facade. The idea was to give a voice to residents and create a sense of community and belonging.

“Harbor Light Center is the largest adult shelter in the five-state area. The Orpheum Theatre, one block away on Hennepin Avenue, is one of the most prolific theatres in the world in terms of ticket sales,” says Vorderbruggen. “People need to understand the disparity of wealth in our downtown. The murals at Harbor Light and Stories from the Book of Harbor Light bring beauty and hope to a community that many people turn a blind eye to in our downtown.”

Pettis found inspiration for the mural by talking with and listening to people who call the shelter home. She used those stories to create a brightly colored mural featuring flowers, faces, patterns and words such as “love,” “prosperity” and “hope.”

“When I was painting the mural, a man I assume was staying at Harbor Light walked past and said ‘I call it portrait of a community!’” says Pettis. “I realized when he said that — that was my goal — to create a community of faces. To make people laugh. To have people see themselves in the work.”

A year later, zAmya Theater Director Maren Ward asked Pettis to be part of the creation of the play Stories from the Book of Harbor Light.

“Until that moment, I thought that the mural was flat and existed only to be seen,” Bianca said. “This pairing of the artwork and the work of zAmya Theater blows my mind.”

Creating a safe space

Stories from the Book of Harbor Light’s script is based on workshops that Walton facilitated with zAmya Theater troupe members, Harbor Light residents and others who have experienced homelessness or are currently homeless.

“The workshop process fosters the development of stories for the script, develops performance skills for the participants, and allows a safe space for all to tell their stories,” explains Walton.

They took words from the mural and turned them into writing prompts for the workshops, asking participants questions like “When is the last time you had a sense of ‘community’ or ‘prosperity’?”

“Once we have a draft of the script, performers may contribute additional content such as an original song or spoken word piece,” says Ward. “The script continues to evolve through rehearsal. Sometimes actors are playing themselves or characters inspired by their own story, and sometimes they step into the role of someone else.”

The Book of Harbor Light Workshop

A chance to be heard

Luke Zenker has a unique role as a performer in Stories from the Book of Harbor Light. He has experienced homelessness and received services from The Salvation Army, which he credits with providing him tools to help him get back to work and earn his associate and bachelor degrees. He now works as administrative assistant to the executive director at Harbor Light.

“This partnership [between Harbor Light, zAmya and Hennepin Theatre Trust] is brilliant, because it gives our people and anyone who has experienced homelessness an opportunity to speak their truths — and sometimes their truths are hard to hear.”

“It is really striking how so many [participants] had similar stories – all different ages, races, sexual orientations, able bodied, handicapped, college graduates, people who hadn’t made it past the 3rd grade – yet with similar experiences,” says Stories from the Book of Harbor Light playwright Caroline Mannheimer. “A big theme that has stood out for me is homeless people tend to feel alone. They almost all crave community, fellowship. Sometimes all a person needs is for another to listen to their story.”

“Hopefully we can work together to foster change in people’s hearts and minds about what it means to be homeless,” says the Trust’s Vorderbruggen. “Partnerships like this, which leverage creative expression from the community with our stages, truly find us being a part be of the change we want to see in the world.”

See Stories from the Book of Harbor Light March 15 at 6 p.m. with a reception at 5:30 p.m. at 900 Hennepin Ave. The event will increase awareness and dispel myths about homelessness and will bring together a socially diverse audience. A donation of $20 is recommended. Ticket proceeds will benefit The Salvation Army’s Harbor Light Center. No one will be turned away due to inability to pay.