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Karen Bardash

The Very Last Dance of
Homeless Joe

The many brilliant, lyrical passages of Rich Courage’s tragicomedy remind us of the importance of hearing stories, understanding others, and learning from them.

December 1-18, 2022
Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue
Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00 PM, Sundays at 3:00 PM
$18 general admission, $15 seniors & students
www.theaterforthenewcity.net, (212)254-1109
Reviewed by Karen Bardash December 4, 2022

Playwright Richard Courage introduces "The Very Last Dance of Homeless Joe" at Theater for the New City.

"I don't like that man. I must get to know him better.” This quote from Abraham Lincoln should be deeply considered especially now: a time of division, mistrust, and fear. Lately, the media and politicians have been obsessively focusing on the unhoused, the mentally ill, and their crimes. But who are these people that are gaining such infamy? The tragicomedy, “The Very Last Dance of Homeless Joe,” opens the door to knowing this segment of the NYC populace. Charlie, the main character states, “Those folks? They were all somebody’s baby once. They were clothed, fed, maybe even loved. Now they’re just adrift. Homeless and alone. And they’re everywhere… The disenfranchised. The outcasts. Society’s lost and forgotten children. Manhattan’s homeless people.”

Playwright and actor Rich Courage was once a member of the unhoused community who had been hospitalized for mental illness. With such a bio he might be easily dismissed, but his brilliant writing not only demonstrates that he should not be, but he needs to be heard. His play, which he introduced preshow to the audience as a tragicomedy, draws from his own personal experience and that of others he has met on the streets. He wrote his play to give them a voice, and he invited the members of the audience to laugh, cry, and feel. Over the course of the next 90 minutes, how could we not?

The main character is a young woman named Charlie, a “born and bred Manhattanite,” who works as a copy editor for a small local paper. With dreams of being a writer, she searches for a story that would grab the attention of New Yorkers and tourists alike. She found her inspiration when a man asked for money for a hot dog. “Homelessness. There’s a massive untold story there. Who are these people really? What are their names, their stories?” She proceeds to find out as she heads uptown on her journey, and along the way she meets the nine other characters in the play.

The effervescent Floyd (Pink to his friends) who claims to be Bernie Sanders’ son, “conceived in a wild purple haze. Love child without the love,” grew up in foster care, lived all around the country, and despite his colorful personality laments his loneliness. He tells Charlie that if she wants a good story, she must head up Broadway and seek out Homeless Joe (and his dog Mush).

Charlie next meets Blind Sally who had a loving family in her youth and dreamed of dancing with Alvin Ailey. At fifteen she lost her sight and shortly after that, she lost her parents. In her mind’s eye, she sees herself “leaping, spinning, dipping and soaring around like some beautiful black bird.” But with the clink of a coin in her cup, the memories fade and her mind’s eye goes dark. Sally tells Charlie that “Life is a dance… Dance is life. You can’t have one without the other.” When Charlie reminds her that she no longer dances, Sally retorts that she doesn’t really live either, and advises Charlie to dance while she still has the chance. A wise lesson.

Next, there is Jimmy Bag O’Donuts. Due to an injury, subsequent job loss, and mounting medical bills, he ended up losing his childhood home, his wife, and his kids. He turned to drink and drugs only to become “a pathetic, pointless, donut-eating ghost of the man” he once was. Robert Rishi Maffia’s embodiment of Jimmy, the infusion of humor with pain, successfully illustrates how easy it is to lose it all.

Modesto is a 73-year-old homeless Viet Nam veteran. We see too many of these men on the city streets; men who sacrificed so much for our country, who survived wars only to forever suffer. Charlie hears the details of Modesto’s deployment, dreams shattered by PTSD, guilt for the atrocities he committed, and his dependence on drugs and alcohol to soothe the pain. In his “Who’s Who”, actor Timothy Bonkema’s wrote that he pursues the character of Modesto because “it’s an authentic character portraying how war can spit and chew you out.” Having known someone who went to Nam and came back with PTSD he feels that it is an honor to portray such a character. Job well done! This scene compellingly shows how any young person sent off to war might have their entire life’s trajectory, hopes, and aspirations become unattainable due to trauma.

When we think about the unhoused, we envision people who are ignored, huddled on the sidewalks or in doorways. Then there are those who are pacing franticly, screaming, or talking excitedly to the air, those who are impossible to ignore. The character Soul, is the latter. A young lady with a hospital bracelet on her wrist, an escapee from Manhattan Psychiatric Center on Ward’s Island, Soul asks Charlie, “Can you please help me? I’ve lost my mind. Can you help me find it?” Emma Littig’s flighty, semi-incoherent poetry-infused acting was brilliant in this perfectly paced short scene. Before we know it, she just flitted off the stage. To where? To what delusional destiny?

Charlie continues up Broadway where she meets a middle-aged somewhat feisty woman pushing a shopping cart. This scene contained wondrous wordplay riffing off the woman’s name, Nobody. Think Abbot and Costello’s “Who’s on First!” We hear rap from a character named Q. The words were written by the actor Roger Rover who plays Q. Mr. Rover, formerly homeless himself, states in his bio that some of his “best stuff was written when the mental illness was very strong.” Kudos to him for bringing that to the stage and sharing it with us. Charlie then encounters The Great Banzini, an exuberant, quirky man who reads her aura. This encounter left me a bit confused, and Charlie as well. By this point in the pay, it had been a long journey.

Finally, Charlie reaches her destination one more block up Broadway. There sits the optimistic Homeless Joe, his dog Mush, and a sign reading “Let’s All Have a Great Day!” As soon as Joe sees her, he begins to play his harmonica and sing, and immediately actor/playwright Richard Courage steals the show! I could tell you Joe’s story, the lowest of lows, and the most incredible positivity that bursts from his being even in the face of his sad reality, but if you are curious, please buy yourself a ticket! With his booming, melodious voice, confidence, empathy, a heart of gold, and tear-stained face, Mr. Courage melts our hearts in his portrayal of Joe, or does he break them open?

Regarding his play, Courage explains, "I wrote it to break folks' hearts. To break them open, that is. to stir feelings of compassion, empathy, and love for folks who need it most. I hope that audiences come away realizing that people who are homeless are, well, just people. And they have as much to offer us as we do them if we just give them a chance." He 100% succeeds in his mission.

Playwright Rich Courage as Homeless Joe and Selena Donayre as Charlie.

When homeless Joe turns the tables and asks Charlie about her life, we learn that she was not so dissimilar to the characters she met. Her alcoholic father gave her a boy’s name because he wanted a son; not be a good way to start one’s life journey. Her mom was manic depressive, and the family home(s), 13 houses in nine years, was fraught with fighting and fear for this only child. She had few friends due to the chaos of her life. Her dad died early and her mom shortly after by suicide. Charlie moved from place to place and job to job, alone. Life is tenuous. What turn of luck kept her from the streets that the other nine characters missed? Was this story she longs to write also a source of personal introspection?

Charlie, played by Selena Donayre, was the glue that held the production together. She was onstage for the entire ninety minutes and she did not falter. Her introductions to and summaries of each encounter, ponderings actually, contained beautiful poetic writing which she delivered very well. However, her responses to the stories of the others were a bit flat, and all the physical, albeit friendly, touching between them was not credible. I would have expected extreme emotions from Charlie versus what seemed to be a quiet awe and naivete, especially once we learned her story. The set and sound design by Angelina Meccariello were very effective. The constant subtle street noise in the background was present enough to remind us where the play was taking place without being overwhelming. The guitarist (busker), however, off to the side intermittently strumming his instrument could have been louder. The music was barely audible and not used to its full potential. The acting of the cast was uneven, and the play, even at 90 minutes, could be pared down by cutting some dialogue or consolidating characters. It need not be so long to be successful in the deliverance of the message, a message that is important now more than ever, and Mr. Courage’s Homeless Joe was so striking that we shouldn’t have to wait so long to meet him.

Joe and the others represent a population that is disliked and distrusted. From early childhood, there is an innate fear of certain people, and society has been conditioned to turn away from that which is ugly or not pleasing. "I don't like that man. I must get to know him better.” Let Lincoln’s words, along with the many brilliant, lyrical passages of Mr. Courage’s play, remind us of the importance of hearing stories, understanding others, and learning. If we allow ourselves that, we might just find that we are not so different from those whom we “other,” and that for a bit of misfortune we might find ourselves in their shoes.


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