Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.

zAmya Theater Project is a housing justice organization based in Minnesota. This October, they produced and toured a theatrical radio show called A Prairie Homeless Companion, set in Miserable Falls, Minnesota. The show spoofs the well-known A Prairie Home Companion, as people who’ve experienced housing insecurity take the stage and shed light on the real plotlines in small-town life. You can watch the show here

Enjoy my conversation with director Maren Ward and performer Kris Jackson, which took place before the tour kicked off. We talked about sharing stories, measuring rural homelessness, and challenging stereotypes.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Olivia Weeks, The Daily Yonder: Can you both introduce yourselves and tell me about your roles in the zAmya theater project?

Maren Ward: I’m the director of zAmya Theater Project in the Twin Cities. It’s been almost 20 years now. zAmya had started as an annual project that was dedicated to raising awareness about what people who are experiencing homelessness were going through, and about making connections with people. I’ve been involved with it since it started and it grew into its own year round organization. There’s probably a longer story I could tell just all about zAmya, but I’ll leave it there. I’m directing and performing in our show A Prairie Homeless Companion.

Kris Jackson: I got involved with zAmya last year through Oasis Central Minnesota in Little Falls. And then earlier this year, Ms. Rose at Oasis asked me if I was interested in meeting with Maren and talking about A Prairie Homeless Companion. We talked and ended up doing a workshop here in Little Falls for five weeks with a show at the end. In the workshops you’re working with people and just kind of getting to know their stories. And then you’re trying to help people put their emotions and their thoughts down on paper, you know, whether it’s in the form of a play or a small sketch or a poem. And then we had the show here and now we’re gearing up for the big shows. We’re traveling to six towns to perform and rehearsal starts next week. I was the ambassador here when we did the workshops and then I also ended up performing in the show, alongside my 11-year-old daughter.

Scenes from A Prairie Homeless Companion. (Credit: zAmya Theater Project)

DY: Can you tell me a little bit more, Kris, about the workshop and about Oasis?

KJ: Oasis Central Minnesota is one of the local nonprofits, maybe the only local nonprofit here in Little Falls, and it’s where I went five years ago when me and my four kids were fleeing domestic violence. We were homeless and they took us in. This is the only place we have in our area to go to when people need housing. Oasis helped me then, so I’ve just always tried to give back to them. 

We held the workshops at Great River Arts and we just invited local people from around the area that had either been through homelessness or were currently experiencing homelessness or its repercussions. So we got a variety of people that came through to share their stories and talk about the things that they’ve struggled with and things that have helped them. It was a good way to brainstorm for the show, but also, it ultimately enabled some of these people to create lifelines that they didn’t have beforehand with either like zAmya or Oasis or other people that were involved in the workshops. It helped to create a better informational community around homelessness issues in our area. 

DY: I’m just trying to understand – is the material from the workshop used in the script for the shows?

MW: The original script was developed in 2019 through our typical process where we have conversations and events we call “story circles,” and through creative workshops with people who have experienced housing insecurity and other interested community members. We advertise it broadly and we host events in locations like the libraries and certain shelters. Some of them were larger community gatherings and some of them were smaller one-on-one interviews. That all took place throughout southwest Minnesota, sponsored by the Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership. All of those stories and conversations influence the scripts and inform the issues we raise in the show. 

The other piece of it is that we were satirizing the radio show A Prairie Home Companion. That is not a necessary reference to appreciate the show itself, but just to explain a little bit: A Prairie Home Companion is a fictional show based around a fictional small town in Minnesota and the quirky events that transpire there. So we sort of satirize that a bit and then the way we’ve structured it is that the reality of what people are experiencing starts to interfere with the attempt at telling this fictional, humorous story. So by the end of the show, the host of A Prairie Home Companion – it’s not actually A Prairie Home Companion in our show, we call it something else – the host of that show is kicked off and the stage is given over to people to tell their stories. So the workshops like the one we did in Little Falls have sort of two main purposes. One purpose was to generate content and invite people to participate in the performance, in that open mic section of the show. So, for example, Kris was a big part of this workshop, and now is going to tour with us in the open mic section, as is another participant from those workshops. But also, like Kris said, the workshops themselves are part of the process of just forming connections between our company and our audience, and people around the state who are experiencing housing insecurity, and to build those networks like Kris was talking about.

DY: So it sounds like the process is part of the performance, and might even be as important as the performance itself. Kris, have you performed yet?

KJ: Only when we did our first performance after our workshops. We had a performance and a meal at Great River Arts. That’s the only time my daughter and I have performed so far.

DY: But you’re going on tour soon, right?

KJ: Yeah, we’re going to Minneapolis for rehearsals next week, and then we jump right into the first show. And then over the course of like, two weeks, we’ll do all the different shows. My daughter is coming along for that. 

This last winter and spring, myself and my daughter went in front of the Minnesota House and the Senate and spoke to them about the “Pathway Home Act” that ended up passing. And that’s for helping to restructure and build shelters and bridge programs for the homeless. She had written a piece that she had just wanted one of the senators to look at. And it ended up being voted into the bill itself. So she’ll be performing that piece. She was ten at the time.

DY: Who’s more nervous about performing, you or her?

KJ: I would probably say me. As adults we care about how we’re perceived or we care way more about letting others down. Swazi, she’s all about wanting to save kids and help kids. And I mean, she’s got a platform. She’s going back down to the Capitol to try to convince our lawmakers to restructure the court systems to listen more to children who’ve experienced domestic violence. She cares a lot about children who’ve been shown that their voices don’t matter, that what they wanted and what they had to say didn’t matter to our system. When you do that to a child, you either crush them or inspire them, and it’s inspired Swazi. She wants to be a senator one day and she wants to make change for the better. So she has a lot of confidence and she’s just super excited. She’s all about trying new things.

DY: That’s so cool. Can you give a little overview of what you might talk about in the open mic section of the show?

KJ: My section of the show is actually a letter that I wrote to Ms. Rose from Oasis, just thanking her for things that she had done. I mean, if it wasn’t for her I don’t know where we would have ended up. She saved our lives. Without her we would have been on the streets. So I’m reading that and then we’re singing a small piece that was written by somebody else.

DY: What’s the statewide perception of housing insecurity like, and particularly rural housing insecurity, in Minnesota? Is there a lot of awareness about it?

KJ: I think people are aware of the fact that we don’t have enough homes to provide for people. But I also think that the word homeless has a negative connotation for people. People hear the word homeless, and they think, “those people made their own bad choices.” But in all reality that’s not true. You know, I was a business owner for 11 years, I’ve raised over 100 kids doing foster care in almost 25 years. I never thought that I was going to be homeless at 38 with four kids, and not a penny to my name. I never thought that that would have happened to me, but it only takes one thing to change in someone’s path and the next thing you know they’re homeless. Whether you pay your gas bill or your car insurance, or you put food in your refrigerator or keep the lights on, a lot of times it’s a balancing act for people. And there are a lot of kids out there that are struggling, that are being hurt mentally, emotionally, physically, because of the negative perceptions that people have about homelessness.

DY: Yeah, that’s really well said.

MW: I just want to add that one of the things we’ve heard a lot is that a lot of the support funding comes through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which has this system set up where their resources allocations are informed by these “point-in-time” counts. So that’s where you count, on any given night, how many people are without shelter. And specifically in rural Minnesota, it is harder to get accurate data from that. The count looks so different than it does in an urban area because people aren’t gathered together, they’re often couch surfing, staying in people’s homes, staying in sheds or in single encampments, rather than larger encampments. I’ve heard that from every single service that we’ve talked to, that counts don’t represent what they’re actually seeing. And the counts are overemphasized and taken as the reality that dictates the funding.

KJ: Yeah, I mean, the beds are all full. Here in Little Falls, we don’t have any shelters. We don’t have any of that type of stuff available. And Ms. Rose at Oasis doesn’t have funding to put you up in a hotel, or the hotel won’t take people in because too many other people have wrecked the place and they don’t want to do it anymore. There’s nowhere to put people. There’s no shelter, there’s no secondary location, and so then we’re sending people out of their towns or out of their communities into new places where they don’t have the support, they don’t have family.

This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.

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