Reggie Mullins' ringing baritone can command a room.
On this night, that room is the sanctuary at First Congregational United Church of Christ in downtown Asheville. He's standing on a newly built stage as the rehearsal swirls around him, and despite the hubbub, Mullins' booming voice demands attention.
It's been roughly 20 years since the actor and musician was last involved in a play. But with opening night approaching, it's clear that he's found his form and is relishing his return to the spotlight.
"I play a shape-shifter," Mullins explains before the night's run-through, noting that his character narrates the production. The role is fitting, notes Mullins, stating matter-of-factly that he's been shunned by his family in Alabama for the past few years, since he told them about his homosexuality. The resulting upheaval almost left him homeless, says Mullins. But he found help in Asheville and now lives in The Griffin Apartments with the help of a federal rent subsidy.
Elements of Mullins' life saga have actually been worked into the play. Titled Always Expect Miracles, the piece incorporates stories collected from a number of Asheville residents. It's being produced by an outside contractor under the auspices of the nonprofit Homeward Bound, whose mission is to end chronic homelessness in Asheville. Besides serving as a fundraiser for the group, the stage show — the first production of the nonprofit's Just Home in the Mountains Performance Project — is also a way to highlight stories of residents who often get overlooked while bringing city residents together to learn from one another in a creative setting, Homeward Bound staffers explain.
Mullins, meanwhile, says: "It's nice to be able to share my story from the stage. It's unfortunate that people don't understand we're all human — that we cannot accept one another despite our differences.
"We're all human beings, [and] no one is better than anyone," he declares — a message Mullins hopes his performance delivers loud and clear. If it does, he observes, "It will certainly get people thinking and talking."
That's exactly what Homeward Bound and the rest of the folks behind the production hope for, too.
Fran Harvey, the nonprofit's executive director, explains it this way: "What we do at Homeward Bound is create trusting relationships in the community" to help move people out of chronic homelessness. What better way to extend that mission, she says, than by creating a community production that draws on residents' stories and puts regular people into roles that help them learn from one another?
Homeward Bound runs the A HOPE Day Center in downtown Asheville, which offers food, shelter and a range of other services to the homeless. Looking to rev up its annual fundraiser, the organization's board hit upon the idea of a community-based play. And while casting about for ways to make it happen, they found Community Performance Inc., which specializes in just such events.
With a cast and crew of about 75, the play has drawn together students, members of the local clergy, veterans and business people ages 6 to 80, Harvey reports. And bringing all those people together will help boost everyone, not just the homeless, adds Rebecca Williams, Homeward Bound's project director for the production.
"The gift of acting — what a great way to build empathy and understanding," says Williams. "It allows everyone to give the stories," and that act of sharing and listening, as well as just working together, helps build relationships that might not otherwise exist, she notes.
The process of creating the play began last summer. Homeward Bound held a series of local gatherings to collect people's stories. After that, Community Performance playwright Jules Corriere took over and started melding those pieces into a dramatic whole.
"This theme of transformation began to emerge," she says. "Asheville is a place where people come to reinvent themselves and find new things." Armed with some 60 local tales of courage and personal strength, Corriere shaped the piece as a series of vignettes tied together by the theme that became the play's name: Always Expect Miracles.
"We're not talking politics here — we're talking people's stories," she emphasizes. "We're honoring people's stories. The best thing to do is put a face on that seeming other, and when you do that, people start to care for each other."
Director Richard Geer echoes that sentiment, noting that people "need an opportunity to stand in each other's shoes." Each night, two different people will perform all the roles in the play, giving the production an ever-changing feel, he explains, adding, "There are no stars."
Instead, continues Geer, "This is a play about our values and what we stand for, and if it's any good, it's about life and death, because that's what all great theater is. The question is, is there something beyond our core differences to explore in our humanity? The answer is yes, but it's hard."
Amy Sawyer, who coordinates the Homeless Initiative, says she's excited about the production. Sawyer oversees Looking Homeward: the 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness in Asheville and Buncombe County, which both local governments adopted in 2005.
"By hearing stories of people in all walks of life, and by bringing them together to produce this piece of art and then asking the community to come and participate — it's planting seeds in a way that formal meetings just can't do," she says. "We need that as we address the root causes of homelessness."
Asheville alone has a known homeless population of 500 to 600, notes Sawyer, adding that the number is probably soft due to the transient lifestyle of people on the street and other factors, such as the current tough economy.
The city recently held a meeting to get community feedback on what's working in the 10-Year Plan and what's not. This year, the project is continuing to focus on getting more people involved with the issue, Sawyer reports.
Meanwhile, other activists are forging their own solutions. The 7-year-old Asheville Homeless Network seeks to give homeless people a direct voice. The nonprofit regularly provides its homeless members with bus passes, can sometimes help with a rent payment or utility bill, and even lends out a few netbook computers.
The group recently transformed its Web site into a blog called the Asheville Street Sentinel. The goal is to collect news and information relevant to people on the street and get it back out to them, volunteer David Mayeux explains.
"The homeless community as a whole tends to get stereotyped. Overcoming those stereotypes is going to be key to getting people out of chronic homelessness," he maintains, adding, "They love and they laugh and they cry just the same as everybody else does." Seeing that — whether through the Web or via a community play — "is when people will begin to respond," says Mayeux.
Local activist Michael Muller has a different Web-based plan to aid the homeless: providing technical assistance to help them establish and maintain a presence on Facebook. He's working through the Church of the Advocate, based in downtown Asheville's Trinity Episcopal Church, to make that happen. Helping people connect creates better understanding, which can lead to solutions, says Muller.
"Most people treat the homeless as somehow less than human — if they see them at all — or as a commodity, a statistic," Muller said via e-mail. "My hope is that by allowing stories to be told, to share insights into who they are, we might reach a better level of understanding.
"I think that for most of us, the worst thing in the world is feeling that you don't matter — that the world never knew you were here. This'll maybe help to heal some of those wounds."
Tony Nimmons, who's performing in Homeward Bound's community play, couldn't agree more. The Vietnam veteran, who now lives in the Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministry's shelter for veterans in east Asheville, says he'll use his role "to make some statements about homelessness."
"It's going to take much more help than we're getting now. Homelessness is not something we're going to eradicate overnight," notes Nimmons. "I'd like to see more of the community come together, and let's do this together. We're creeping toward solutions, and we should be running toward them." Performances of "Always Expect Miracles" will be held at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturdays from Feb. 11 through March 6. Saturday matinees are at 2:30 p.m. Cost is $16 for adults, $14 for seniors and students and $12 for children. All performances will be held at First Congregational United Church of Christ, 20 Oak St., Asheville. Advance tickets are on sale at Pack Place on Pack Square in downtown Asheville.
Jason Sandford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 251-1333, ext. 115.