MIDDLEBURY — Some playwrights can spend months in dank libraries or other exotic places researching script material for stage performances.
But Middlebury native Mike Sommers has fashioned a 90-minute, one-man play just by drinking in the sights from the stoop of his house in West Oakland, Calif.
Sommers, 47, will unveil his latest creation, aptly titled “Vermont Boy in West Oakland — My True Story,” this Friday, Sept. 7, at Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater. There, he will regale friends, family, fellow Middlebury Union High School alumni and theater enthusiasts with what he calls a “dark comedy” about his new life in West Oakland rubbing shoulders with people of different colors, creeds and backgrounds.
“It’s very personal,” he said of the play’s subject matter, which chronicles his arrival in West Oakland five years ago, his purchase of a foreclosed-upon house and his interaction with his almost exclusively African American neighbors — some of whom proudly extoll their “mean streets” origins, noted Sommers.
Sommers’ journey westward actually began around 20 years ago. A member of the MUHS class of 1983, Sommers decided to chase his dream of acting — and his lady friend at the time — to California. Upon their arrival, she enrolled in graduate school and he obtained membership in the Screen Actors Guild.
Possessing an expressive, Jim Carrey-like face and a penchant for character acting, Sommers began collecting some steady work as a thespian. He has landed (and continues land) gigs for stage, film, television, commercials and video game voice-overs. He earned small roles in such films as “Bandits” with Bruce Willis and Billy Bob Thornton, “Patch Adams” with Robin Williams and “Mouse Hunt” with Nathan Lane.
He feels fortunate to have been able to feed himself through acting.
“I only occasionally have to pick up a day job,” said Sommers, who has supplemented his acting earnings through occasional handyman jobs and work at a friend’s gallery.
Meanwhile, Sommers’ personal life has taken some twists and turns. He is twice divorced and has moved to various locations in the San Francisco Bay area. As the play reveals, his most recent wife — a real estate broker — introduced him to his current West Oakland abode.
“My wife said, ‘We aren’t separating, we’re just living in separate houses,’” he said with a chuckle.
Though at first a little intimidated by the rough and tumble neighborhood, Sommers moved into the house and gradually made friends — and perhaps a few enemies. He was, and remains, one of the few Caucasians in his neighborhood.
“People were a little surprised to see me move in,” Sommers said, grinning.
It was a coexistence that got off to a rough start. Sommers’ home was burglarized twice in a short period of time. He learned that the culprit, on at least one of the occasions, is his immediate neighbor. But during the ensuing months and years, Sommers gained a gradual acceptance, and mutual respect for, his neighbors.
“The culture (in West Oakland) is also about a lot of caring,” he said.
That caring is usually exhibited on residents’ front steps, where it is customary for people to hang out and trade stories.
“Whenever I get lonely, I sit on my front steps and chat,” said Sommers, whose banter extends to the many people riding or walking up and down the street selling various items.
“I had someone ask me if I wanted to buy two oxygen tanks,” Sommers said.
He has also seen many parallels between Oakland residents and Vermonters.
“If something breaks, you fix it yourself,” he said. “You don’t whine and complain.”
Sommers decided earlier this year that his West Oakland experience would make good fodder for a play. He started writing stuff down and performing it in the living rooms of some of his friends. He would adjust the script based on feedback.
He ended up with a one-man play in which he portrays 28 characters, ranging from his neighbor to his grandparents. It is a show during which Sommers displays all of his performing talents, including singing, dancing, acting, harmonica-playing and even some miming thrown in for good measure.
He will first perform the play on Wednesday, Sept. 5, at the town meeting hall in Windham, Vt. His Town Hall Theater appearance on Friday will begin at 7 p.m.
If his play gets a positive reception, Sommers plans to take it to some West Coast venues. He’d like to come back to Vermont on an annual basis to act in other productions.
“We have been having excellent ticket sales,” Sommers said. “I have been very pleased.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]