CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Michael Ullman, former director of programs at the Institute for Human Services, drew on his experiences to write a musical called "Truly Dually," based on the chronically homeless who are plagued by the dual afflictions of substance abuse and mental illness.
Homelessness set to song
Even this most serious topic can be presented with uplifting humor, the play’s creator says
I can do that. Just like the characters who sang that line in "A Chorus Line," Michael Ullman was confident that he could write a 22-song musical about Hawaii's chronically homeless.
'Truly Dually: A New Musical About Homelessness'
On stage: 7 p.m. Wednesday, State Capitol Auditorium
CD release party: 6:30 to 9 p.m. Nov. 16, the Arts at Marks Garage
On TV: Broadcast of "Truly Dually," filmed at Paliku Theatre, 9:30 p.m. Nov. 16, 7:30 p.m. Nov. 19, 9 p.m. Nov. 20 and 10 a.m. Nov. 2 on NATV (channel 53)
Never mind that he had never written a song before.
Or that some might pause at the appropriateness of a light-hearted musical about homelessness, possibly even interpreting the project as minimizing the reality of people dually affected by substance abuse and mental illness.
But Ullman made good on his intention to write a play that was both serious and uplifting.
"It's important that dually diagnosed people are given the kind of respect they deserve and to see their generosity and humanity," Ullman said. "Homelessness doesn't define a person. But it is important that (the play) be uplifting and funny, because people do see homelessness as being a really dark subject. Even homeless people still joke, they do have lives."
"Truly Dually: A New Musical About Homelessness" centers on two homeless men -- "Park Man," who serves an educator to one average family about his experiences, and another who is severely uncommunicative, even with a case worker who has been through the system himself and is trying to help.
Ullman takes the audience along the man's journey through social services, while that they see themselves in the roles of the average family and Park Man.
"The family offers the Park Man a place to stay, but he says no because he knows of someone who needs it more, someone with needs greater than his. It's about showing the humanity of the homeless," said Ullman.
COURTESY MICHAEL ULLMAN
The Boy (T.J. Tario) offers a sandwich to the Park Man (Dion Donahue) as the Outreach Worker (Matt Pennaz) observes in "Trully Dually."
As the former director of programs at the Institute for Human Service, Ullman began writing about the subject for two reasons: to feed his own creative energies and to do as much as he could to decrease negative images of the dually diagnosed homeless.
"Well, I am a writer -- a grant writer. But I always wanted to write songs," Ullman said. "Like a lot of people, I do creative projects on the side, and I like musicals. I wrote the first song, 'Shelter Plus Care,' and thought, 'Hmm, this seems to be good.' So I jotted down more stuff. And thought, 'This seems to be good ...' "
The play took about a year to write. His final efforts will be shown at the State Capitol this week after months of polishing. The play will also be shown several times on NATV next week, National Homeless Awareness Week.
"Hawaii does have a significant amount of homeless, like other metro areas," he said. "There's a need to explain homeless services not only to that population but also to people who work in the system. There's a lot of programs available."
The story is loosely based on his tenure at IHS, which provides the only emergency shelters in Honolulu. Ultimately, he saw the potential in using the stage as a platform for a morality tale about the dually diagnosed -- fleshed out characters that both adults and children could understand.
"What's interesting is that the characters don't have names and the roles can be played by men or women. It's genderless and ageless."
Ullman had a little bit of luck on his side when he enlisted the aid of musical director Roslyn Catracchia, who co-wrote the remaining music and cast the play. Sponsors raised more than $10,000, with United Self Help providing a substantial amount of the financing.
More than 6,000 people are homeless on any given day in Hawaii. "One notion I try to dispel is that a lot of people think they want to be homeless -- that's commonly false," Ullman said. "It just means an individual might need a lot of engagement."
If a person takes away one thing from the play, Ullman wants it to be a sense of hope. "A good amount of the population understands the problem in terms of education ... but still don't know about the programs and resources available."
His next goal is more showings of "Truly Dually," and possibly to write a follow-up.
"I want to convey (optimism). Maximize resources available. We think there's no hope but there is ... When I used to work at IHS, I was often asked, 'Isn't that too depressing?' I would say, 'No, it's depressing to me that people don't come together to solve the problem.' "