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Homeless Answer Curtain Call

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Darryl Spear says he's shared the stage with Leonard Bernstein. Now he lives in a rehabilitation halfway house on Richmond's South Side contemplating his alcoholism and drug addiction, wondering where the years went.

His story is one of eight that will be explored in a unique — and therapeutic — theatrical production being staged jointly by a Virginia Commonwealth University theater professor, Tawnya Pettiford-Wates, and the Daily Planet.

"How'd I get here? That's a long story," says Spear, who performed in a Bernstein production in Atlanta as a member of a local boys' choir and recalls his early days as a guitarist entertaining his neighbor, a young Andre Benjamin, on his front porch.

"I'm a musician. Have been all my life — sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll," he says, launching a few sentences later into a convincingly rendered Latin madrigal.

Think of the production, tentatively titled "Spades," as a "Vagina Monologues" of stories about being homeless.

Spear and the rest of the cast will share their stories through a series of soliloquies and songs woven into the loose narrative framework of a common card game. The stories are real and the script written by the actors, says Marc Taylor, a psychotherapist with the Daily Planet.

"I've long understood that all the world's a stage," says Taylor, a proponent of nontraditional therapy, including one he calls "theater of the homeless."

So it was a happy coincidence when he discovered that one of the genre's leading practitioners, Pettiford-Wates, was teaching at VCU.

"She has worked a lot with conciliation projects that relate to racism and other issues that bring disempowered or disenfranchised elements of society into a more cooperative relationship with the mainstream," Taylor says. Translation: She's used theater to help groups understand each other.

Native Richmonder Sharon Starkes, another play participant, worked 10 years as a waitress at Shoney's on West Broad Street before the restaurant closed, most of her family, including a beloved brother, died, and her fortunes changed.

"I'm like, dang, what am I going to do?" she says. "Then I started getting on drugs."

Eventually, she also landed at the treatment center with Spear. "I just didn't like being out there in the cold," she says. "This play, it makes me think how it was back then. I'm going to go forward, get my life back together."

The play's producers are looking for funding partners, says Maureen Neal, director of development and external affairs at the Daily Planet: "To have some sort of money to pay the actors — to give them some compensation for their work."

Performances should begin in early April, beginning with dress rehearsals at various homeless shelters around the city, Taylor says. Performance dates haven't been finalized, but venues include The Cathedral of the Sacred Heart. Taylor says he's still in talks with a local theater to put on performances there as well. S

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