THEATRE OR REALITY? HOW A HOMELESS MAN BECAME AN ACCOMPLICE

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How exactly do an East Country actor and a San Diego homeless man become friends? Theatre, of course.

Story and photo by Ron Logan

April 22, 2013 (Little Italy, San Diego) – Jerry is homeless. He likes movies and the arts. As a younger man he enjoyed watching the filmmaking students at Long Beach State University as they created their films near his home. As it turns out, he also has a knack for theatre.

Jerry is one of the estimated 10,000 homeless in San Diego County. He is a pleasant man. A San Diego native; intelligent, well-spoken and polite. Nearly 56 years young, he has been on the streets for about seven years now.

When I first heard about Jerry I assumed he might have fallen on hard times and wasn't very happy – that he didn't have control of his situation. I was wrong.

Jerry lost his job as a school bus driver circa 2006. He maintains a part-time job handing out flyers which is enough to keep him well-fed and comfortable. 

"I work three days a week," Jerry said. "I mean as far as being on the streets, financially, I take good care of myself … I did panhandling once and I knew I would never do it again. I have the ability to do something … my faith is in Him [Jerry points to the sky] and He is gonna take care of me … I always say I don't need the most amount of money, I need the right amount of money. If I have a hundred dollars in my pocket it is going to cost me a hundred dollars to get through this day. I always look at things in that way."

Jerry says, "If you go hungry in San Diego you're stupid. We eat better than you people do." 

Jerry doesn't have a daily routine. He believes that each day is different and that planning doesn't always work. He has a brother in Michigan, and a sister somewhere unknown. They don't really get along. He was hospitalized a few times including an eleven-day stay due to a spider bite. He recovered at the Rescue Mission. He frequents the Neil Good Day Center where he can watch television if he wants. He has acquaintances on the street, but generally doesn't hang around people. When I asked him if his name was spelled conventionally, he told me he wanted to be like Prince and just be a symbol – he has a good sense of humor. And he is happy. Genuinely happy.

"Don't let people around you bring you down," Jerry said. "People have no hope. You see all these people with houses and cars and that's all they got. They've got no hope. They're existing to exist … I've never been depressed. I've always known I'm gonna make it … I consider myself really successful out here."

Jerry wasn't raised on religion but he was certainly exposed to it. As a young man, many of his fellow Boy Scouts were Mormon. His brother is a Jehovah's Witness. Most of his friends in school were Christian. He drove a school bus at an Orthodox Jewish school. But, his real relationship with God didn't begin until he was on the streets.

"You want the true story?" he asked. "The way I came to Jesus was when I was in the hospital. About a month before, I got a fish bone stuck in one of my fingers while I was recycling. I was on an IV all day. No insurance, no nothin'. They gave me this and that, some prescriptions for free, some painkillers, some antibiotics, I came back every third day or so."

But, after a month he still had a problem with his leg.

"This is not a muscle pull or a sprain or something," he said. "My leg was swelling up. I ended up back in the hospital and in less than five minutes of being in there they said 'get him a room.'"

While lying in the hospital bed Jerry began to contemplate his time on the streets.

"I eventually found work. I never asked for money. I never asked for cigarettes. I stopped drinking until I made money. I had alcohol offered to me and I said, 'no, no, if I'm not making money I'm not going to drink.' I just came to the conclusion that someone's watching over me. I walked into the Rescue Mission and for the first time I asked if I could have a Bible. My first prayer to God Almighty was, 'God, I have to ask you a simple question. This is too good to be true, is this one big coincidence or are you watching over me?' and within three days I knew it. I had no doubt. I woke up one morning and said 'Okay, where do we go from here?' I've been a happy camper, a real happy camper, ever since." 

Jerry was careful to distinguish his faith as spiritual. 

"I consider the streets my church," he said. "I think it is the true believers that live on these streets. I consider [the streets] my congregation, my church … I'm spiritual, not religious. Spiritual. It's all about the one-on-one relationship [with God]… I'm in church right now as far as I'm concerned. We are the church."

Jerry's church is expansive. And wide open. And all-inclusive. It has amazing views of the city skyline, of San Diego Bay, and all of Little Italy. The sun was warm. There was a cool ocean breeze. And I can understand how he views this as a holy place. Jerry made me feel welcomed.

Jerry and I sat there, talking, eating pizza and drinking root beer. Joining us was one of Jerry's most recent friends – Tyler – an actor from East County. 

How exactly do an East Country actor and a San Diego homeless man become friends? Theatre, of course.

Last month a clever piece of interactive theatre began its run in downtown San Diego. Part theatre, part walking tour, part scavenger hunt, and fully interactive, Accomplice: San Diego successfully blurred the line between fiction and reality. 

Accomplice is the brainchild of Tom Salamon and his sister Betsy Salamon-Sufott, the show was first produced in 2005. Versions of Accomplice have appeared in Los Angeles, New York City, and across the pond. Neil Patrick Harris (Doogie Howser, M.D.; How I Met Your Mother; Harold & Kumar; and Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog) was a co-producer of the show in both Hollywood and London. The San Diego version is being presented by the La Jolla Playhouse as part of their WOW (Without Walls) series. Globally the production has gained considerable popularity, and Accomplice: San Diego was sold out before it even opened. It has since been extended twice. 

In the San Diego performance, the small audience (usually less than 12 people) meanders through the streets of Little Italy searching for clues – clues that reveal a scheme in which the audience itself has become an unwitting accomplice. 

As an audience member it is difficult to distinguish who are the actors and who are not. Actors are confused for bystanders – and vice versa – but the audience must continue to work together to solve the mystery.

As is the case with interactive theatre, things will happen that are unplanned – and in this instance – the wild card is Jerry.

Accomplice's actors are situated both indoors and outdoors across the width and breadth of Little Italy. Tyler is one of the actors who is outside during the show. 

Early in the show's run Tyler found himself in a quandary. While he waited for the next audience to arrive, he was approached by a homeless man whose 'living area' shared the same space as the actor's location.

Jerry had arrived off cue. Unscripted. Not even cast.

"I walked over and there were a whole bunch of [props] down here and I thought 'what the Hell is this?'" said Jerry. "I figured it was some schizophrenic guy down here." 

Tyler recalled exactly how he and Jerry met. 

"When we were setting up the spot, we saw Jerry's blankets down there," said Tyler. "The first group was on the way and I saw Jerry walking [toward me], and I thought 'Oh no, everything is gonna be messed up. We're gonna have to change everything.' I didn't want to kick him out of his home. But we got to talking and he was really cool with it." 

"One of the ways I knew we were gonna be alright is my dad's name is Jerry," said Tyler. "[The homeless Jerry] was also born the same year as my mom. And when he told me that, I was like, 'Okay, this is gonna be alright. That is pretty big coincidence.' Sometimes the universe works that way."

"And it adds a little bit to the adventure," said Jerry. "It's something I can add to my book one day when I'm off the streets. God willing."

Tyler welcomes the company. "It's been great for me because the few days we did [the shows] before Jerry was down here I was just sitting, waiting for people to come. Now I have someone to talk to all day." 

After talking to Jerry and Tyler for about 45 minutes it was quite clear that they were both fully capable of carrying on a nuanced conversation about the theatre communities in San Diego, Los Angeles, and England. 

Jerry has even become part of the show from time to time. The way he puts it, "I'm trying to play off [Tyler]. But I'm actually just playing reality." 

Tyler added, "Sometimes when I get back [to the staging area] I'm talking to people and they ask 'so that other guy, he's an actor too, right?' And I say, 'no, no, that's where he lives.'"

Originally from Georgia, Tyler was anxious to come to San Diego.

"I lived most of my life in north Georgia," he said. "But when I was in elementary school, my family lived in Orange County and I loved it. I've been incredibly fortunate. My parents gave me an incredible head start in life and I didn't want to take that and be satisfied with it … I needed to expand and be somewhere else. I knew I wanted to come back to Southern California because I loved it so much as a kid." 

"San Diego is not a huge theatre city," said Tyler, "but there's a lot of good theatre happening here, there're a lot of small theatres … It is a great place to build a résumé and it is a really supportive, tight theatre community here, I've found. It's really great … I've done some work here that I'm really proud of."

Tyler lives near SDSU where his girlfriend is earning her Master's Degree in the administrative side of theater – dramaturgy, and play development. 

"We hope to stay in San Diego for little while," he said. "If she gets a job offer for a big theatre in New York we'd probably have to go. But I'd still come by and visit Jerry."

And Jerry speaks kindly of Tyler. "He's a nice guy, he's got a good spirit around him. He's very real. For an actor, he's not putting on an act."

I asked Jerry about his future 'acting career.' He pointed to the sky and said "My agent's up there right now."

The house lights drop. Curtains rise. This is one stage in Jerry's life where he feels right at home.

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For more information about Accomplice: San Diego, please visit: www.lajollaplayhouse.org/accomplice-san-diego or call the La Jolla Playhouse Ticket Office at (858) 550-1010. Accomplice: San Diego has been extended through June 2, 2013. 

Full Disclosure: The author's girlfriend is a cast member of Accomplice: San Diego.