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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 Jocelyn WienerCorrespondent / March 2, 2009

Showtime! Isaac Okoronkwo waits offstage before the start of a performance by the Seldom Seen Actors of Oakland, Calif.

Jocelyn Wiener

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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.

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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.

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.

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