Just into Ron Jones’ monologue/solo show, adapted from his book, When God Winked, the protean Jones—who takes on the mannerisms and voices of his charges and colleagues from the Recreation Center for the Handicapped in San Francisco—blows out through the exit, into the lobby of The Marsh’s new Berkeley theater in the Gaia Building, and shepherds in (like a Border Collie) late arrivals, with high-pitched admonitions: “Don’t be tardy! Have you seen Carol?”
But neither the latecomers nor those seated feel particularly institutionalized. Jones, who will retire this year after 30 years at the center (now named after its founder, Janet Pomeroy, one of the play’s characters), has said the show is his answer to a retirement party.
It’s certainly not very retiring. Anecdotes from his rollercoaster career are mixed with the crazy life of the center. Raconteur gives way to mimic, punctuated by Jones’ remarkable video clips of basketball games with celebrities playing his challenged team (which always wins, he says, “because we cheat!”). He also includes movement theater workshops and performances led by a blind woman with dreamlike inspiration, as well as the breakfast club regulars at John’s Ocean Beach Cafe cutting up, and a freaky solidarity rally when the center’s workers go on strike.
Pulitzer Prize nominee Jones has been hailed by Studs Terkel, who has called Jones “perhaps the most important story of our time,” and the late San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen, who called him “one of my favorite San Francisco heroes.”
When God Winked, a work-in-progress, showcases Jones’ many talents. Sometimes his monologue is a little too literary, like he’s reciting from the page. But the “constant improvization” of his job breaks through, and his ironic observations are hijacked by the acting out—often just a split-second—of his clients’ acting out.
Jones himself is a valedictorian who gets lost in the episodes he brings back to life, both a Don Quixote and a Sancho Panza—even acting out some of the windmills. He refers to the center as a kind of heaven or paradise, and he wanders through it in memory, a Walden of human nature that he contemplates.
But just as he ushered in the “tardies” with a bang, he’s a guide who constantly shakes up the audience’s reveries—and his own—with laughter and the harsh realities of life that progressively encroach on the Utopian life of the center.
Hysterical highs of improbable victories over disability and convention are undercut by budget cutbacks and layoffs, driving some of the center’s stars back into a homebound existence, onto the street or to suicide attempts. Fantastic stories of the playful “inappropriate behavior” of Carl, “The Pope of The Sunset,” who kisses hands outside St. Ignatius, end with his funeral. The solemnity is broken up by “Aka God,” a woman from the center (who answers questions to the divinity, even in Spanish) approaching the casket and pouring in the contents of her purse, followed by the other challenged Centerite ladies, while the Irish priest struggles to keep up by speaking of “this act of kindness.”
The story of the Wildcats, the center’s “undefeated” basketball team, ends in a blaze with Jones torching their uniforms on Ocean Beach.
It’s a sidelight to his extraordinary presentation of day-to-day offbeat experiences in a very special community that Jones’ sometimes rapt monologue is also a paean to the improvised conviviality of postwar San Francisco, as it fades beyond recognition. He is a native of the Sunset, where his family owned a burlesque theater.
“There’s no frame of reference for it now,” Jones remarked afterwards, answering questions in the lobby, backed by a drum solo next door at Anna’s Jazz Island.
As he says, “After all, it’s showtime!”
When God Winked plays at the Marsh Berkeley in the Gaia Building, 2120 Allston Way, 7 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through Sept. 16. $10 Thursdays, $15-22 Fridays and Saturdays. For more information, call 1-800-838-3006 or see www. themarsh.org.›