Today Jonathan sounds like any hard-working young performer. The 21-old New York native attends classes at Stella Adler's Studio of Acting while taking shifts at a restaurant in Chelsea. But eight months ago, in a winter of record-breaking lows and snows, Jonathan was facing time on the streets.
"I was living with my mother in the Bronx, Gun Hill Road," explains Jonathan, "And we had this altercation. She was screaming, she got rowdy, she was hitting me, she called the cops on me. So I had to leave." Fortunately, Jonathan could stay for a few days with his girlfriend and her mother in Brooklyn while he researched youth shelters. And he found Covenant House.
One of the largest agencies for homeless aid in the US, Covenant House provides shelter, food, and a variety of services to homeless youths. To support this remarkable organization, the theatre community will stage its third annual Sleep Out: Broadway Edition. Aug. 17-18, theatre notables Audra McDonald, Stephanie J. Block, Jeff Calhoun and Capathia Jenkins will sleep out on a 41st Street sidewalk. They'll be joined by many more actors, dancers, designers, producers and even two members of Playbill's staff.
Denis O'Hare (An Iliad, "American Horror Story") participated in the first two editions of Sleep Out: Broadway, and he notes that it helps to know what you're getting into. "You don't really get much sleep, and part of that is because of excitement. But then just there's the sheer fact of sleeping on the ground. It's difficult, it's painful [and] after a half-hour, everything hurts. And that's sort of the point." Despite the hardship, O'Hare has found sleeping out for Covenant House to be a profound experience. "It's a way for us to literally put ourselves in someone else's place, to imagine what that life must be like. Things like fear for bodily harm, insecurity about what's going to happen tomorrow night, not to mention the psychological ramifications of isolation and your sense of self-worth. It's a very small way to try and imagine what that life is like. That act of imagination helps you to have more empathy."
When asked to participate in the sleep out, Vanessa Williams did not hesitate to say yes.
"Covenant House has been dear to me since 2012, when I was honored by the organization in California for my charitable work to empower and transform the lives of children in need," she said in a statement. "When Darius asked me to join him at the Broadway Sleep Out this summer, and shared with me how touched the young people are by welcoming us into their home to share an evening and an overnight with them, my reply was, 'For you and these kids, anything.'"
New Yorkers have found their sense of empathy taxed in recent years. In February the population of the city's homeless passed 60,000, the highest since the Great Depression and its Central Park shantytowns. In May, the number of homeless youth neared 25,000. In these circumstances Covenant House provides an invaluable support — and not simply by sheltering adolescents who've been set adrift.
For Jonathan, what stood out about Covenant House was the organization's programs. "They have therapists here, they have clinics, they'll help you with short-term goals and long-term goals. And they'll also help you to save money. You pay in, weekly or bi-weekly, so by the time you leave, you have money saved up. Then they'll help you find an apartment, they'll help you find a job."
O'Hare also finds this facet of Covenant House compelling. He notes how the non-profit doesn't simply ask people to donate but also to participate. "They provide jobs for an 18-year-old or a 19-year-old. My accountant has employed at least two graduates of Covenant House in a receptionist position. He actually steps up and gives a job to somebody."
The actor sees the Sleep Out: Broadway Edition as a way for the theatre community to advocate on behalf of others. Posing a basic social question, O'Hare asks, "As a society, what is our obligation to our fellow citizens, especially those who are vulnerable, like teens?" His answer: "We are a community, so we have to act like a community and speak in our common interest."
As the date of Sleep Out: Broadway Edition approaches, the Tony winner frets that he may miss it for screen work in LA. Meanwhile in New York, the novice will take the stage for the first time: Jonathan has won the male lead in a workshop staging of Romeo and Juliet. He jokes about memorizing all those lines before optimistically contemplating his future:
"My next few steps? To save enough money to get to my own place, start doing some commercials, go to a good college. Right now I'm going to conservatories, but I definitely want to go to a college, somewhere they have an acting program. And just further my education in the profession that I'd love to get into." In a way, Covenant House is an extraordinary mend in the social net. As Jonathan says, it helps its residents to solve their problems, not just manage them. "My path has been tough, a lot of ups and downs, a lot of sad moments and stressful moments. But I've made the best out of the situation. Nobody's going to force you to save money, or take care of what you have to take care of. That's up to you. But Covenant House will help you out."
Sleep Out: Broadway Edition will take place Aug. 17 at Covenant House on West 41st Street. To participate or to sponsor someone else, go to Sleep Out: Broadway Edition. For information on the shelter and its programs, go to CovenantHouse.org.