Michael Sommers returns from the ‘hood with heart

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury native Michael Sommers was so taken with his adopted neighborhood in West Oakland, California, that he wrote and performed a one-act play six years ago about his interactions with other folks on his street — a collection of eccentrics, street toughs and down-to-earth folks. He called his play “Hick in the ’Hood,” which summed up his experience of being an admitted country bumpkin suddenly thrust into an urban setting and surrounded by people of different colors, creeds and backgrounds.
As an encore, Sommers has created a new show serving up another, heaping helping of his Oakland observations. Only this time, Sommers will be playing the roles of the 17 real-life characters that have shaped his life for the past decade.
“This is a neighborhood where there are poor people, people who’ve been in prison, people who are pushing shopping carts collecting bottles and cans,” Sommers said. “In a lot of neighborhoods, some would look down on these people. But they belong here.”
The one-act, one-man show is called “Heart in the ’Hood,” and Sommers will perform it this Sunday, May 6, at 2 p.m. at Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater.
He completed the show three years ago and is just now bringing it back to his hometown of Middlebury. It’s a show made for small towns and audiences. The THT will be the largest venue so far to stage “Heart in the ’Hood,” according to Sommers.
Showing a diverse range of talents while using his amazingly malleable face, Sommers will morph into different characters as he tells his autobiographical tale. All the protagonists are his Oakland neighbors, each of whom has made an impression on Sommers.
There’s an ex-con who returns to Oakland to help his mother.
There’s “Sophie,” an Arkansas transplant and the neighborhood’s senior stateswoman who helped unite the disparate, lonely souls along the street.
There’s an expert panhandler and a temperamental dude nicknamed “Purple Man” who’s constantly scavenging for household items.
And there’s an elderly pastor who yearns for the good old days, when the church was the center of the community.
In his new show, “Heart in the ’Hood,” Michael Sommers morphs into 17 characters from his West Oakland neighborhood that he originally feared, but had grown to love.
Photos by David Korman
“The over-arching theme of the play is ‘inclusion,’ and how people can be healed through inclusion,” Sommers said.
“It makes all the difference.”
As the characters increasingly feel included, the neighborhood transforms into a true community, according to Sommers.
“There are a lot of people in this world who feel like they don’t belong; they feel like outcasts,” Sommers said. “Saying to them that they do belong is a powerful thing.”
He’s pleased with the feedback he’s received thus far for “Heart in the ’Hood.”
“So many people have said to me things like, ‘Your neighbors must have learned so much from you,’” Sommers said. “It’s the opposite … I am the one who has learned.”
He’s learned, among other things, to let his guard down.
“I used to protect myself — ‘Don’t get involved, Mike,’” Sommers said. “My life is messier now. I’ve allowed myself to care. This is why I call my show ‘Heart in the ’Hood.’”
Sommers is no stranger to the Town Hall Theater. Not only did he perform “Hick in the ’Hood” there in 2013, but in 2014 he was at the THT screening of “The Green Mountain Upset,” the film about the 1983 state championship won by the Middlebury Union High School boys’ basketball team, of which Sommers was an important member.
Sommers has had a nice run of acting success — not only on the stage, but on the small screen. He was recently in the recurring character of “Bug” on the Netflix cable television series “Sense8,” a science fiction drama developed by Lana Wachowski, co-director of “The Matrix” film series. “Sense8” explores a variety of topics, including politics, identity, sexuality, gender and religion. Sommers was originally cast as Bug for one scene on one episode in the first season of the show. But his character became so popular that producers brought him back for every episode in the second (and final) season.
Sommers believes his stage work is helping him become a better and more successful actor.
“I’m learning as a performer how to better tell a story and connect with the audience,” Sommers said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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