Local Arts

‘Call Me By My Name’ puts the faces of homelessness in front of an audience

A StreetsmARTs reading takes place at First United Methodist Church with Belinda Hunter, from left, Mary Subach, Mark Sutton, Hilda Mojica, Christina C. Williams, Paul Lessard and Jinny Mitchell.
A StreetsmARTs reading takes place at First United Methodist Church with Belinda Hunter, from left, Mary Subach, Mark Sutton, Hilda Mojica, Christina C. Williams, Paul Lessard and Jinny Mitchell.

Productions regularly lose performers because of better-paying jobs, unavoidable time conflicts or creative differences. Murder rarely threatens to stop a show.

But the cast of “Call Me By My Name” learned in April that fellow playmaker Scott Anderson had been killed near the tent where he lived on Morrow Street. That made them even more determined to tell their stories about the chancy nature of life on the street. They incorporated their friend’s slaying into their drama and pushed on.

You can see the results Sept. 23, when “Call Me” takes the stage for two shows at Duke Energy Theater. The piece starts with a documentary about the play and its writer-actors; it ends with a staged reading by the quintet of interwoven personal stories.

Director Steve Umberger and the cast see this as one more step on a trek that has no end, until Charlotteans abandon stereotypes about homelessness. This performance, the third of “Call Me” but the first in a theater, continues a journey that began 18 months ago in a classroom at First United Methodist Church.

Senior Minister Val Rosenquist wanted to emphasize the third part of the church’s motto: “Practice inclusion. Pursue justice. Promote the arts.” Up to 200 homeless folks were showing up for Muffin Ministry on Sundays, so she offered outlets from photography to beadmaking.

She knew Steve Umberger from his 2017 production of “The Christians” at Booth Playhouse and asked the founder of The Playworks Group to teach a class in this StreetsmARTs program.

You wouldn’t have called it a traditional theater class — more like an exercise in self-expression. But Umberger quickly makes connections between self-exploration and getting people onstage, as he did in “Acting Our Age” with seven eloquent Aldersgate residents last spring.

Yet at StreetsmARTs, only two people showed up for initial sessions in March 2018.

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Scott Anderson (left) was among the first to participate in the StreetsmARTs program at First United Methodist Church when it started in March 2018 but was killed near the tent where he lived in April 2019. Belinda Hunter (center) and Paul Lessard (right) soon joined the program and have continued. WILLIAM GUERRANT

“For weeks, only Scott (Anderson) and Mary Subach committed to it,” Umberger recalled. “Think of all the issues involved: the unpredictability of life on the street, being honest enough to assess your life, having the courage to spill those beans in front of other people. And you had to come every week. One (participant) told me, ‘This is work.’ “

‘The sky’s the limit’

In the end, four more people came aboard. Subach immigrated from Poland as a 6-year-old; Paul Lessard moved to the U.S. from Canada; New Yorker Hilda Mojica traces family roots to Puerto Rico; Belinda Hunter came from the Bahamas, and Christina Williams from Columbia, S.C.

Umberger said they share, “a toughness that’s necessary to deal with the selfishness, the greed and the violence they encounter. I saw that edge soften over time, as they began to trust (the playwriting process). The rules of their lives didn’t apply here.

“Scott’s death was a turning point. Before that, there had been a sense that they were immune, and this was real evidence of their vulnerability on the streets. It brought them together.”

Early in the process, Umberger imported theater veterans Mark Sutton, Rebecca Koon and Jinny Mitchell (a longtime First United Methodist Church member) to guide these novices. After the writers learned to speak for themselves, though, they didn’t need much outside help.

And do they speak now. Bluntly, intimately and sometimes poetically in “Call Me,” and with a newfound vitality in person.

“At first, I just wanted to support this church and have a learning experience,” Subach said. “I’m the sort of person who used to sit quietly in the back of the room. This really took me out of my comfort zone, but eventually, I felt comfortable with these people. The acting part became easier because it was like being with family.”

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Steve Umberger (left) leads a chat between the audience and StreetsmARTs participants Belinda Hunter, (from second to left) Mary Subach, Mark Sutton, Hilda Mojica, Christina C. Williams and Paul Lessard. WILLIAM GUERRANT

“I didn’t know we’d be out there ourselves,” Lessard said. “I got into it to learn the process of writing a play. It’s a great place to vent our frustrations with police and city council, which we do in the script. We’re a small group making a small statement now. But the sky’s the limit.”

Lessard’s especially passionate about getting the city to sponsor a shelter for single men with children because minors aren’t admitted to the Men’s Shelter, and men can’t stay in the Women’s Shelter. He hopes decision-makers will stop by to hear the show’s message.

Rosenquist has invited local officials to the performances and arranged talks afterward with county commissioners Mark Jerrell at 3 p.m. and Pat Cotham at 7 p.m. They’ll be joined by staffers from Urban Ministry Center, with therapeutic art coordinator Heather Bartlett at 3 p.m. and executive director Liz Clasen-Kelly at 7 p.m.

“The purpose of the play is to get the public to see our homeless neighbors as individuals with their own ways of navigating that world,” she said. “The expertise they bring, the skills and ideas they have — they could help our government find better ways of doing things. That’s why we want to continue doing (this production) beyond Duke Energy. It’s an eye-opener.”

“Call Me By My Name”

When: 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. Monday, Sept. 23.

Where: Duke Energy Theater, Spirit Square, 345 N. College St.

Tickets: Free, but donations will be accepted.

Details: playworksonline.org.

This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.

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