A Troupe with a Stage, but No Shelter 

A group of homeless Oaklanders tries out theater as a form of therapy.

Dennis Forester needed a line. He scrunched his eyes and punched an open palm, an addict sick with frustration. He looked to Donna Foley, his enabler, like a kid in need of sugar. "I had this down pat," Forester, 46, explained. "I just got a little nervous, that's all. Line?"

"As fears ..." Foley said, softly.

"As fears," Forester repeated, then continued on with his monologue. He was in midst of a dress rehearsal for his appearance in, Sleeping ... It's a Wake Up Call, a play written and performed by a group of Oakland homeless men. Forester, dressed in a shawl with fuzzy trimmings and a silver star pinned to his chest, symbolized a fairy godmother character who encourages the souls on the streets to keep hope.

"My character," Forester had explained earlier, "is someone, like God, who shows us our defects, and how we can come to live with those and improve on them."

The dress rehearsal, held last Wednesday at the Society of St. Vincent de Paul's dining hall at San Pablo Avenue and 23rd Street, still had the usual kinks to work out. The costumes needed fitting. The actors still needed to practice facing the audience and project their voices. Understudies had to step in and read for those who'd failed to show up. "This is already a success," said Stephen Krank, a guidance counselor who brought the troupe together. "No matter what happens at the actual performance, these men already showed us what they're about."

It's not the first time a theater group has carried a few recovering addicts. Nine months ago, Krank, who oversees Champions, a men's drop-in center in the same building, met director Foley at an Oakland Diocese event. During a coffee break Foley mentioned she'd taught Shakespeare to at-risk kids in San Francisco. The two advocates forged a modest proposal: Introduce Shakespeare readings to the men at "The Champ," as it's known on the streets.

The Champ is decorated with donated sports gear from the Warriors, Raiders, and A's. Krank calls it "the first homeless sports bar," the difference being that there's no booze in the house. He estimates that 1,200 men use the facility each month to pick up mail, do laundry, get medical check-ups, or catch a game on television. Some of the men, as long as they're sober, work ninety-day internships to pick up some job skills before they try to reenter the work force. "Empower them and get out of the way," Krank says of Champions' strategy. "Let them rebuild their history."

When word spread about a Shakespeare meeting earlier this year, only a handful of men showed up. But a few weeks into the readings it became clear to Foley and Krank that the men who enjoyed parsing the words of playwrights longed to give it a shot themselves. And if they were going to perform this stuff, they wanted to write it, too.

"I don't think they realized how much work they were taking on," Foley said. "The time commitment is tough for anyone, much less someone who doesn't have a home to go to. Some of these pieces were written in a park. It's not like they could go home and work on their computer."

The newly minted Seldom Seen Acting Company had considerable challenges. The biggest one was the rotating cast of characters. Men dropped out; some relapsed, went to prison, and then joined back in; others simply left never to return. Only three of the dozen men who made it to the dress rehearsal were around at the start of the project, and Krank figures he's lost at least a dozen others in the meantime.

The rules for writing their play were simple: No profanity and no man's written submission would go ignored. In the end, Foley suggested a string of monologues with ensemble scenes at the beginning and end. That way, if an actor left the flock, the show could go on. Collectively the pieces range from spoken-word sessions about addiction -- "Cocaine is my lover, cocaine is my wife. Cocaine is my friend, cocaine is my life." -- to pleas for spiritual redemption.

Isaac Okoronokwo, 33, who joined the group just a few months ago, chose to read a monologue from Othello, a parable on forgiveness. Originally from Nigeria, Okoronokwo has been living out of a downtown Oakland shelter for most of the year. "My first experience with the acting company, I thought this is impossible," Okoronokwo said in his heavily accented voice. "Speaking without a script -- impossible."

Okoronokwo practiced his lines at the shelter with a few of the others in the group. He memorized his five-minute piece in three days. "We were blown away," Foley said. "Isaac set the bar very high around here."

Linden, a recovering drug addict who's been clean 130 days and declined to give his last name, is the only performer with any stage experience -- and that came twenty years ago as a stagehand at the Berkeley Community Theatre, he said. Linden appears in the opening scene of Sleeping ... pushing a shopping cart and picking up pieces of cardboard that read, "Addiction," "Reality," "Depression," and "Humble."

This is his second stint with the troupe. In midsummer, after practicing his performance for weeks, he relapsed and entered rehab. Now that he's out, he's returned to Champions, and although he sleeps in shelters, makes it to rehearsals. "I'm not going to miss it," he promised of the upcoming performance. "We've practiced too much for this."

At the dress rehearsal, Mike Mitchell, 44, one of the few who's been with Seldom Seen from the start, hammed up his lines, but with shoulders closed to the audience. Director Foley waved her arms to get her performer's attention: "Come toward us, Mike. Let's hear it."

Mitchell opened up as directed but a few seconds later he'd slumped into his bad habit. He'd gotten out of prison in July after a relapse, he said earlier. He'd been using and selling since he was a teenager, locked in a rotation from prison to the streets. His character, "The Man on the Mission," wears a jester's hat and moves around in slick green clothing -- the high roller we're all supposed to envy. "This company has been a blessing for me," Mitchell said before he took the stage. "To be around people who trust in you makes you feel good.

"My girlfriend has been bugging me about all the time I've been spending here," he added. "Especially in the last two weeks. But I tell her I'm in invested in this. I can have all this type of joy in my life" -- Mitchell raised his arms and looked around the dining hall -- "or," he said, drooping in his chair, "I can continue on with all the misery that's followed me forever. I chose this."

Last Saturday, Sleeping ... It's a Wake Up Call played before a crowd of 125, its producers estimate, at Oakland's James Moore Theatre. Director Foley now hopes to put on two additional shows this season and perhaps even take the play into public schools. "It was real nice," Mike Mitchell said of the performance. "It went natural."

And all the actors showed up as scheduled.


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