Homeless people act out realities of life on stage

The Seldom Seen Actors perform plays with a mission - saving others from addictions and a life on the street that they’ve faced themselves.

By , Correspondent

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    Showtime! Isaac Okoronkwo waits offstage before the start of a performance by the Seldom Seen Actors of Oakland, Calif.
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OAKLAND, CALIF.
One hour before curtain call, Dennis Forester realizes his acting troupe has a problem. “We forgot the crack!” he hisses.

The other members of the Seldom Seen Actors look up, surprised. A few giggle. But the missing prop worries him. Drugs figure prominently into tonight’s show. The script depicts their experiences with addiction and homelessness on the streets of Oakland, Calif.

They have lived this play. And tonight Mr. Forester wants to make sure they nail it.

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The audience of 200 teenagers is already beginning to file in. They perch on the folding chairs lining the gym floor. “We need a prop,” Forester concludes. He heads off in search of an empty plastic bag that can do the trick.

For more than three years now, the Seldom Seen Actors have reenacted their life stories on the stages of churches and high schools around the San Francisco Bay Area. The scripts, which they write themselves, refuse to gloss over the hard truths of drug addiction. They avoid self-pity in favor of brutal honesty: I wasn’t there for my kids. I lied. I cheated. I stole.

Some of the cast members still spend nights on the streets, or in crowded shelters. Others lean on disability payments to rent furnished rooms. After years in the throes of addiction, estranged from his family, Forester now works as the director of a transitional housing program. He and the rest of the cast share a goal of telling true stories of their lives on the streets – the grit, the pain, and the humanity.

Tonight, inside a poorly ventilated, sweat-scented church gymnasium, the actors hope to save some of their young audience from starting down the path toward grief and desperation. And in so doing, they say, they’re also trying to save themselves.

•••

Seldom Seen Actors was born three years ago out of a support group at the Oakland office of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul of Alameda County, a member of the national Catholic charity. In collaboration with staff, a local theater instructor named Donna Foley began introducing some of the homeless men and women at the center to Shakespeare and the late, great African-American playwright, August Wilson.

“I wanted to aim high from the very beginning,” she says.

The men soon linked theater with their own stories of addiction and recovery. Ms. Foley decided to help them write a script.

Forester was one of the troupe’s founding members, as was Jose Rodriguez, who’d slept in his van after losing a job at the airport, and Philip Wilson, who grappled with his addiction problems through his poetry.

The group began rehearsing every Wednesday in the organization’s squat brick building next to a freeway in a depressed corner of Oakland. They quickly discovered that performance was therapeutic.

At their first show, in December 2006 at the Oakland Museum, 200 audience members gave the cast a standing ovation. Last fall, the actors flew to Kentucky to perform for the national convention of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. The organization now seeks a donation wherever the cast performs, to help cover a $50 stipend per actor, per show.

On this rainy winter evening, the Seldom Seen Actors are preparing for their final performance of “Now You Know.” An hour before the show begins, the actors gather on the scuffed wood stage, surreptitiously eyeing the students in the audience – who are in turn are eyeing them. The actors claim they’ve performed this play too often to feel nervous.

But as the final hour slips away, the actors retreat to their respective corners and begin reviewing their lines in earnest.

Edith Hunt wraps a white sheet around her shoulders. She leans over and whispers to her husband and fellow trouper, Gary Coppock, “Do I look homeless?”

“Yeah, you do,” he reassures.

Just before 7 p.m., the group gathers in the small closet that is their “green room.”

“Dear God, let us project,” someone says. “Holy Spirit, set us on fire!”

“Amen!” the actors yell.

“As it is said,” William LaCour, the narrator, pronounces, “‘Break a leg.’”

Out front, the audience appears somewhat skeptical. They lean over to look at each other’s cellphones, giggling. They stare at their hands.

Finally, Reuben Garza, of St. Vincent de Paul, takes the microphone. “These individuals had one thing in common,” he says. “First of all, they wanted to change their lives.”

With that, Alfonso Williams, a former professionalactor who became homeless while grappling with addiction, depression, and some jail time, runs down the center aisle. “The stories you’re going to see here tonight are true stories,” he booms. “I know. I’ve lived most of them.”

The drama that unfolds depicts a homeless woman, played by Ms. Hunt, whose husband is dying unnoticed by passersby. Beyond that, the plot line skips from an emotional Bible study, to a dream sequence in which voices tell a recovering addict that he’s destined to fail, to an inspired poem by Mr. Wilson, who’s too ill to be here.

“Cocaine is my darling,” his poem begins. “Cocaine is my pet/ Cocaine is my sweetheart/She’s my Juliet.... Her love song resembles/The music of doom/But she is the bride/I am the groom.”

The final stanzas drive the metaphor home: “This fatal attraction/Is ever so odd/ Why must I love cocaine/I want to love God/I try to break loose/ From her hold on my heart/ She always reminds me/ Till death do us part.”

After half an hour, the play ends with Hunt, in her white sheet, screaming for help as her husband’s heart fails.

•••

Pulling chairs to the front of the stage, the actors begin what they consider the most important part of the performance: the question-and-answer session. Especially with a teen audience, like this one, these sessions are rarely easy. The questions are blunt, and often painful – “How did you take care of your kids when you were homeless?”

The actors don’t shy away, though. Instead, as the first tentative hands go up, they lean forward intently. “Are you guys afraid of falling back?” asks a young girl wearing a Raiders sweat shirt.

“Of course I am, every day,” answers cast member Laverne Thomas.

“Some of us do fall back,” adds Forester. “That’s the reality of being an addict.”

“What did you lose when you were taking drugs?” asks another girl.

The cast answers, in unison: “Everything.”

“It’ll take you off the planet,” one man adds. “You can’t lose more than that.”

They talk about what it was like to have children who didn’t know them, families who didn’t trust them. They tell the students to stay close to God, and to ignore friends who try to persuade them to experiment with drugs. With a final round of applause, the performance concludes.

Outside the gym, the actors pause for a moment in the rain-soaked parking lot. Some will catch rides home or to a shelter. More than one will bed down on the city’s cold sidewalks.

For a moment, though, a warm glow seems to surround the group. For the most part, the drama of each actor’s life is ongoing; the scripts of tragic pasts all too easy to memorize. But tonight has reminded them once again: Their final acts are not yet written.

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