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Playwright Richard A. Roberts aims to aid the homeless with his new play, ‘The BenchMark’

Richard A. Roberts

Richard A. Roberts

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Updated: October 18, 2013 2:25PM

It’s been said that life imitates art. Perhaps it’s the other way around — or just that both are true.

My late father was a periodically homeless alcoholic whose addiction cost him his home and family. Growing up with him informed my decision to accept the position of CEO of the former Chicago Christian Industrial League back in 1988. I was amazed at the stories that accompanied the people who walked through the door of what was then the largest homeless service provider in Illinois. We were assisting upward of 1000 people a day in all of our programs, leading to a White House Point of Light Award. (Unfortunately, that venerable organization no longer exists as an independent social ministry to the homeless.)

Though I was proud of our accomplishments, I wondered how I could make more of an impact, to help more men and women like my father. While still at the League, I met a volunteer who was a TV producer. He asked me to co-host a pilot that would look at untold acts of kindness across the United States.

Our goal was quality storytelling. My co-host was to be a famous young starlet, but for a variety of reasons — including her demand for an unrealistic contract — the project never got picked up. The concept however, led me to realize that by telling the stories of those struggling to persevere, I might have more of an impact than I did at the League. So I began writing and producing documentaries.

One of my first was “The Long Way Home.” It explored the issues of homelessness and aired on WTTW. Our wonderful director asked me to close the one-hour program in Grant Park sitting on the bench my father once called home. I was uncomfortable adding my personal history into the film, but she persuaded me that it would add legitimacy to the documentary. It was there, in what is now Millennium Park, that I began to consider writing a play about a homeless man who lived on a park bench.

Today, that play, called “The BenchMark,” is being produced in Chicago. Mark, the lead character, is a Streetwise vendor and a voracious reader, an inherently intelligent man — just like my father. It’s a satirical yet serious look at homelessness. Step Up Productions, the theater company producing the play (and its dynamic founder, Elizabeth Antonucci) is donating part of the proceeds from the production to the Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness. This allows us to entertain while taking practical steps to address the issues I present in the play.

My hope is the next time you encounter someone selling Streetwise — or any homeless individual — you’ll see the person beneath the homelessness.

For tickets to “The BenchMark,” playing through Oct. 20 at the Athenaeum Theater (2936 N. Southport), visit

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