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‘The Benchmark’ play profiles a homeless life

Fri, Sep 27, 2013

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Step Up Productions kicks off its 2013-14 season at the Athenaeum Theatre with Richard A. Roberts’ Chicago drama The BenchMark, which chronicles the life of Mark, a charming, eloquent homeless man who calls a Grant Park bench his home.

Step Up Artistic Director and Founder Elizabeth Antonucci said, “Mr. Roberts’ beautiful and haunting play, The BenchMark completely altered my perspective on the homeless people we, as Chicagoans encounter nearly every day. Similarly, I hope this production challenges and inspires our audiences to look further beyond what they see on the outside.”

The play is based on the true story of Roberts’ own father, who moved to Chicago from Kentucky during the Depression and who died in 1987. Roberts also wove into his protagonist elements of an African-American SRO resident he knew when he was executive director of the Chicago Christian Industrial League (CCIL). This man read Descartes and Shakespeare as an escape and rose to the occasion when asked to do a eulogy on a moment’s notice.

The play has been expanded from its 2008 staging at the Silk Road Theater to give larger roles to a wise and sympathetic African-American cop and to a bag lady. She is a composite of CCIL clients he knew – possibly abused in the past.

Roberts said during an interview with StreetWise that his script does not preach. Still, he hopes audiences “will look at homelessness with a deeper understanding for the individual, that many of the stereotypes will be diluted. I want them to see homeless individuals as having many of the same dreams and challenges as you and me.”

Mark is a manic-depressive alcoholic, “someone who is higher than a kite, excited about life and the next minute in the depths of despair. He has a funny, sardonic view of life. I expect people to be laughing when they leave the theater.”

Looking back now, Roberts said his father was also probably manic-depressive, due to heredity and because he didn’t finish high school. He was trying to live up to his own father, also unschooled, who had 17 patents.

Roberts’ father worked as a house painter, a street fighter and a day laborer, which was why he chose the bench in what is now Grant Park, close to Cloud Gate. Facing Michigan Avenue, he could waken when he heard people approaching.

Mark, meanwhile, is a proud StreetWise vendor who quotes Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “if you are going to be a street sweeper, be a good one.”

“A perfect gentleman when he was sober,” Roberts’ father would spend two or three weeks at a time with the family when they lived in Lawndale and then in Garfield Park. Then he would disappear for six months. He sobered up in his last years.

Yet Roberts sees the humor in his dad’s ability to hustle. He made $6,000 playing poker on a troop ship from Japan after WWII and lost it all before docking in San Francisco. He and two buddies would listen to sermons at a Chicago shelter and then rush up, claiming to have been “saved” in order to be first for good food and a cot. Another time his mother came home from church with Roberts and his two sisters, flipped the light switch, and wondered if she had forgotten to pay the light bill; his father had sold the lamp to buy liquor.

Roberts was Emmy-nominated for The Corner Pub and The Long Way Home, documentaries produced for PBS in Chicago. He also won a Gracie Award for The Hunger Heroes, which covered hunger in the US during prosperity. He has also served on a White House/U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Affairs subcommittee on homelessness and social entrepreneurism.

Director Tara Branham also has to her credit the world premieres of Patria Libra with Prologue Theatre Company and The Last Daughter of Oedipus with Babes with Blades. A former intern at the School at Steppenwolf, she has been an assistant director for Amy Morton, Tina Landau and Lisa Portes at Steppenwolf.

The Athenaeum Theatre is at 2936 N. Southport Ave. Previews start Friday and Saturday. The regular run is Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. between Sept. 19 and Oct. 20. A benefit for the Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness will be Sunday, Oct. 13. Tickets are $15-30 at www.stepupproductions.org, www.athenaeumtheatre.org and 773.935.6875.

By Suzanne Hanney
StreetWise Editor-In-Chief

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