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'The BenchMark' Play Tackles Plight of Homeless

By Serena Dai | August 19, 2013 6:44am
 "The BenchMark" will debut a new version in Lakeview's  The Athenaeum Theatre  in September 2013.
The BenchMark
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LAKEVIEW — Richard Roberts was 13 when his father Clarence came home drunk, toppled through a pane of glass and landed with shards in his skin and his tongue hanging by a thread.

Roberts' mom was not yet home, and, not wanting her to see the mess, Roberts took out the glass, wiped up the blood and dragged his father to the hospital.

Clarence Roberts, who passed away, was an alcoholic and regularly lived on park benches in Chicago.

It wasn't until Roberts started working for the now-defunct Chicago Christian Industrial League homeless shelter that the anger toward his father diminished a bit. He started to understand what his father was going through.

"The pain that I didn't really grasp that my father experienced when he lived on the streets was easier for me to see when I looked at the face of the homeless 8-year-old boy, or his mother, or his father," Roberts said. 

It's that understanding that Roberts wrote into "The BenchMark," a play about a homeless man based on his father and two other men. Next month, the play debuts a new version at The Athenaeum Theatre by Step Up Productions.

While the story of his father's near-death experience doesn't make into the play, "The BenchMark" does address other scenarios that homeless people face — from the cops they meet to what it's like to sell StreetWise on corners.

"They are humans. They’re people," said Elizabeth Antonucci, the artistic director of the production. "[The play] has taught me to really look at a person."

"The BenchMark" follows Mark, a homeless man living on a bench in Chicago. He sells StreetWise. He's articulate. He's obsessed with going to the library and reading everything he can find. He also rants and rave and drinks. 

"He essentially has a brilliant mind but refuses to face up to his personal issues," Roberts said.

Roberts worked as executive director for a homeless shelter for eight years. 

Besides his father, Roberts drew inspiration from a fellow named "Wino Joe", who was constantly battling illnesses, and a quiet man from the shelter. The quiet man, a recovering alcoholic, shocked the shelter after he gave a rousing speech dedicated to a pastor who had passed away.

"With no notes, he stood there for 25 minutes and had people spellbound," Roberts said. "He quoted Descartes and Shakespeare. We thought he was an uneducated homeless man living [among] our residents."

Though Antonucci and Roberts hope the audience walks away feeling challenged about their beliefs, the play is not intended to "preach," Roberts said. The play is also supposed to be funny, he said, and it should connect with people of all different experiences.

"I want people to look at [the] homeless in a different way, but also look at everybody else in a different way," Roberts said. "We are all Mark. And Mark is really us."

A portion of the proceeds from the play will be donated to the Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness. It runs at The Anthenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave., from Thursday, Sept. 19, to Sunday, Oct. 20., on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

Tickets cost $30, $17 for students, $25 for seniors and $16 for rush tickets. They can be purchased at www.stepupproductions.org and www.athenaeumtheatre.org or by calling The Athenaeum Box Office at (773) 935-6875.