Actress Elisabeth Omilami goes for ‘Broke'

Elisabeth Omilami compares her life to the wild wild west. The wife, mother, actress and advocate for the homeless and hungry, says she is an extreme multi-tasker who depends on the kindness of a cast of characters from strangers to intimates.

Omilami's current juggling act includes the role of Evalyn Rentas in Janece Shaffer's newest play, Broke which runs through October 23 on the Hertz Stage at the Alliance Theatre. The play addresses the too close for comfort economic realities of the day as experienced by the Eliason family. Liz Eliason (Tess Malis Kincaid) is a high-powered exec for the fictional company MPI who suddenly loses her six-figure job and with it her sense of self. Her family begins to grapple with the loss just as Omilami's Rentas shows up looking for the money that MPI has donated every year to her nonprofit.

"She becomes the person that forces Liz and the Eliasons' out of their rich insular lives in a bubble and introduces them to the real world," Omilami said. "I like that about her. She brings that clarity of responsibility that we have for one another to the play."

On a recent night, a performance to benefit Hosea Feed the Hungry drew a predominantly African-American audience, reminding Omilami why she loves live theater.

"They were a character in the play. They were talking, talking back to the actors, they did everything except get up on the stage. That is why I love the energy between the audience and the actors," she said.

Here Omilami shares a bit more about the various roles she is playing, both on stage and in real life.

Q: Tell us about your role as Evalyn in the play "Broke."

A: In the early versions of the play, Evalyn was Puerto Rican, modeled after a woman named Aida [Rentas] who runs a nonprofit in Atlanta called Grass Roots Institute. [The character] turned more African-American during the readings of the play when they discovered that this role seemed to be written for me. Evalyn is a self-starter and created programs in the community for children. She has been writing proposals to MPI, which has been funding the camp every year. This year she doesn't hear from them, but she doesn't give up. She finds a way to find the woman's home address and shows up at her house looking for her check. There begins a relationship between Liz and Evalyn that is quite interesting. She becomes the prophetic voice of the play.

Q: Broke is very timely. What lesson can the audience take away from the play?

A: It is how we interact with the world as a family and who we are responsible for. Liz raises money for the summer camp that the company couldn't give. She finds out these children are her responsibility. Another thing is what makes us special. For Liz, for many years the fact that she had a job and a fancy car and a big house and her degrees made her feel special ... her daughter asks her the question, "Are you not so special now?" What gives human beings value has less to do with that kind of thing than it has to do with us as a people caring for each other, and loving each other.

Q: That's a good segue into your work as director of Hosea Feed the Hungry and Homeless. How will we ever combat the issue of homelessness in this country?

A: I think it is going to require us to have a real paradigm shift when it comes to simple things. We teach our children to share ... but we don't want to share when we grow up. Evalyn has a homeless guy move in with her and she takes care of him until he figures out what to do next. Well, who does that? We can solve the problem of homelessness and hunger ... it is easy, but are we willing to make the sacrifice? I am so tired of people doing studies. I heard about Emory University doing $3 million study on homelessness, you could take that $3 million and build some affordable housing.

Q: In addition to your many other endeavors, you founded a theater company in the '70s. How do you think theater in Atlanta has evolved since People's Survival Theater?

A: I expected more from Atlanta in terms of theater. For Atlanta to be a so-called African-American mecca and not to have but one African-American theater company is very strange to me. The value of the arts, particularly since it was taken out of many school systems, has deteriorated in our minds. The less money there is, the more art can be elitist. We have just as many people today who have never seen a play as we did in 1975 when we founded People's Survival Theater.