When the play Stand opens tomorrow night at Belmont's Black Box Theatre, it will have much in common with the man who inspired it. It will eventually be seen all across the city. It will bring into contact a variety of organizations and people from all walks of life.
And it will have no home to call its own.
The work of Jim Reyland, a Music Row commercial audio producer turned playwright, Stand is the third play in what has turned into a kind of unintended trilogy, after his earlier plays Stuff and Shelter. Over many years of writing, Reyland has turned out a diverse group of scripts: short, long; musical, dramatic. But his newest stands out for several reasons — chiefly the story behind its writing.
For more than 25 years, Reyland has worked as a volunteer for Nashville's Room in the Inn and the Campus for Human Development, assisting homeless citizens in finding shelter from life's vicissitudes, the natural elements and, very often, themselves. That experience has found its way into his work before, but never as directly as it does here.
In recognition of the project's importance, Music City's theater community has rallied around the play in an all but unprecedented outpouring of support and solidarity. After Belmont, the play embarks on a 36-performance tour of 14 venues across Middle Tennessee, while representing the collaborative marketing and support efforts of 26 theater companies and participating organizations ranging from Hendersonville to Dickson to Murfreesboro and back again.
Stand's run will benefit the city's homeless population in tangible ways, funneling a share of its proceeds to Room in the Inn's many vital services. But Reyland hopes it will have a broader, harder-to-define impact. He wants to reframe how people discuss and address homelessness — not as an abstract social ill involving faceless statistics, but as a concrete problem affecting individuals. Among them is the Nashville street dweller whose life provided Reyland with his subject, his incidents and his drama.
Sadly, he will never see the work performed.
The story behind Stand began about 15 years ago, when Reyland started walking from his office to Mass at the Cathedral of the Incarnation on West End. "It was a way to de-stress and break my day apart," says Reyland. "And I had just turned 40."
As always, there were people outside the church, some of them street dwellers. Reyland knew a few of them from his volunteer work with Room in the Inn. He also knew from his work that the longer they stayed on the street, the lower their life expectancy became.
"It's not an easy life," Reyland says, "and there's peril at every turn."
But a face Reyland kept seeing was a lanky, thin, charismatic man who'd speak to him in passing. His name, Reyland learned, was John Robert Ellis, though he was known to many as J.J. With his dark eyes and disarming friendliness, he was well known to those who worked or attended church in the neighborhood. He traversed about a six-square-block area around the cathedral, and had a habit of offering to "watch your car for you" in Blackstone's parking lot across the street.
He'd been married once, apparently. According to Reyland, he was "at one time one of the hottest, most sought after drug dealers in town" — a calling that reduced his prospects for longevity to roughly zero.
"He had it goin' on," Reyland says with sarcasm. "Most of those guys end up destroying themselves on the other end. Too much free drugs."
But in Ellis he thought he saw a hope for something better.
"I thought I really needed to see if there was something that could be done to help him, or he would end up like the rest of them," Reyland says. "I had this sort of thing: Like I'm really gonna see if I can get him to do something to help himself."
The chance came one rainy afternoon. In the back of the church Reyland saw someone crouching, seeking refuge from the downpour. It was Ellis, holding the tatters of a half-ripped umbrella.
"John," Reyland remembers saying, "let me help you do something. Let's try and take a step forward."
Reyland got Ellis into his car and over to the Guest House at the Campus for Human Development, where people with substance-abuse problems can stay to detox and heal. Thus began a decade-long journey in which Ellis struggled, with Reyland's help, to try to regain some dignity and some semblance of the person he might have become had his life headed in a different direction.
"It took a long time for us to connect on a friendship level," Reyland recalls. "John had a lot of defenses. Yet I was charmed by him. His personality was good and kind. He was like a little child lost in the wilderness, and I had no idea whether I could have an impact on his life.
"What I hoped was that maybe by throwing some energy and resources his way, I could get him off the street. In our ministry and cause, we're always looking to get them 'inside.' That's better than being under a bridge somewhere."
Reyland quickly learned what a challenge that would be. He had no idea how sick Ellis was mentally and physically. He had a stockpile of self-destructive habits, as major as addiction, as seemingly minor as jaywalking. "John had a terrible problem with jaywalking," Reyland remembers.
The struggle to keep him on the straight and narrow — in group homes with some structure, off drugs and alcohol, taking advantage of his opportunities for medical assistance — continued for years. Reyland went so far as to find Ellis a positive living situation in Memphis (which failed after a month or so) and helped him search for his foster family in East Tennessee.
"He and I logged lots of hours in my van," Reyland says. "Every time he went into a new home, we'd go to Walgreen's to get him his personal items, and there was this incredible feeling of hope. For a while he did fine. He'd start to gain weight. But John's issues were huge: paranoid schizophrenia, HIV, not to mention all the emotional scarring. He was like an outside cat — at some point he felt like he needed to get inside, but he wouldn't stay there."
So it went for Ellis as he bounced from private commercial rehab to non-recovery group homes, then back out onto the street. In late 2009, a car mishap landed him in an Ashland City nursing home. He stayed for about three months, long enough to get a walker and a cane. Reyland suspects he sold them, presumably for drug money. By 2011, at last report, he was living in a transient hotel on Murfreesboro Road.
"Some people can be helped," Reyland says, "but John never had the ability to heal at a level that would put him back into society."
On Jan. 15, 2011, he gave in to his bad habits one time too many. It was not the substance abuse that caught up to him, but the jaywalking. As Ellis was crossing Murfreesboro Road, away from a crosswalk, an oncoming truck struck him full-force. The truck left the scene of the accident, where Ellis lay mangled. To this day Reyland wonders why no further investigation was made to find the driver.
The impact was so devastating that an open-casket funeral was out of the question. But a number of people chipped in to provide a proper burial, among them General Sessions Judge Gale A. Robinson at Phillips-Robinson Funeral Home. After a closed-casket memorial service at Cathedral of the Incarnation, attended by more than 100 people, John Robert Ellis was laid to rest at Woodlawn Cemetery. He was 46 years old.
His grave still awaits a headstone.
In a sense, the play that Jim Reyland wrote to remember his friend serves for now as that marker. It's a two-character script that uses as its starting point the first tentative talks Reyland and Ellis had all those years ago. The author's stand-in, Mark, strikes up a conversation with Johnny, the homeless man he sees leaning against a building. It's a setup that allows Reyland, through Johnny, to give voice to the hopes Ellis felt, and the hardships he encountered.
Other than Jim Reyland, perhaps no one knew those troubles better than Father Charles Strobel, the founding director of Room in the Inn's Campus for Human Development and a pioneer in Nashville's fight against homelessness.
"I knew him for many years," says Strobel, who donated Ellis' burial plot. "Not as well as Jim Reyland, because Jim became so invested in his life and personal habits. To the extent that Jim took an interest was rare. We have a lot of volunteers, but we remind them that sometimes it's good to have some boundaries, because the needs are so great and they can become all-consuming.
"There was always hope for John, but there was also the realization that at any day it could reverse. Addiction is so unpredictable, and there was a point he was so wasted that you wondered if you were going to find him dead on the streets. Strangely enough, I think he was more sober than not when he was killed."
Strobel has seen sad variations on Ellis' story many times over the years. A Roman Catholic parish priest first assigned to East Nashville's Holy Name Catholic Church in the late '70s, he began his extracurricular ministry by handing out peanut butter sandwiches to Nashville's disenfranchised. By 1983, that had morphed into a soup kitchen called Loaves and Fishes.
Room in the Inn began in 1986, with four congregations. Now there are approximately 180 interfaith congregations participating in the program, ensuring that homeless people throughout the Nashville area have a place to stay 24/7/365. Shelter, taken for granted by so many, is literally a life or death issue.
"I can't tell you how many people have died from freezing to death," Strobel says.
In partnership with law enforcement and city and public health officials, Strobel's efforts over the years have helped reduce the jail population, as homelessness has increasingly been treated as a medical and social problem, not a criminal one.
"Homeless persons have changed from being the classic street alcoholic, wino or bum," Strobel says, "to folks who have come from losing their jobs, or other life-changing circumstances, such as divorce or a conviction for drug addiction."
That has led to other ongoing difficulties, as basic as getting exact counts of the homeless population.
"On any given night we estimate 4,000, with about 2,000 chronic," Strobel says, "and over the entire year as many as 10,000 total."
Room in the Inn and its Campus for Human Development is a nonprofit charity, reliant on donations and whatever the city can contribute. (That amount currently is $200,000 per year for the Guest House, Strobel says, after budget cuts in the recent era.) Its mission to provide a comprehensive site to provide food, shelter, clothing and other assistance for the homeless is an unending one. And as Ellis' story shows, happy endings are as rare as they are elating.
"There are lots of slogans," Strobel says. " 'I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired' — and the clichés and truisms are absolutely dead-on. Lots of people want the great success story of someone coming off the street and getting married and finding a job and moving out of here, but so many people don't make it.
"The recovery community is a beautiful group of people. They really do know the value of a higher power in their life, and they've reached a depth of humility that's inspiring. They are not fakes."
A bond as strong as that between Reyland and Ellis, Strobel says, is rarer still.
"Jim really loved John as his own brother," Strobel says. "I don't think I remember Jim ever having a conversation with John that was not tender. What happened to both of them together was redemptive."
And it did not end with John Ellis' death.
Producing a play is hard enough. But for the Stand project, Reyland had even grander aspirations. He envisioned finding collaborative partners who could help spread the message beyond Nashville, out into the rest of Middle Tennessee. It would mean joining the efforts of multiple theater companies across the area, which would relay the production like a baton to different audiences. It would also take a large commitment of schedules, venues and resources.
But Reyland's scheme for sharing marketing and revenues found receptive ears everywhere. The first theater exec on board with the project was Jamey Green, artistic director of Franklin's Boiler Room Theatre.
"I was having coffee with Jim about a year ago, and he gave me a copy of the script," Green says. "The subject matter hit me. He told me the true story first, then I read the play. It felt good, and we said, 'Let's do it.'
"We've got so many things going on at BRT that it's hard to market too far ahead of time. But we've got the website and social media and press packets, so we're doing what we can."
The next on board was Actors Bridge Ensemble, where co-producer Jessika Malone has known Reyland and his family for many years. "Jim expressed over a year ago that it was his dream to tour this show," Malone says. "Since Belmont University has been an ongoing home to ABE and other collaborative theater projects, this was a natural fit. The story of Stand offers an awesome personal narrative, and Belmont theater department chair Paul Gatrell readily made space for the production."
Tennessee Repertory Theatre, perhaps the city's biggest and most visible troupe, also pledged its involvement. But its position is unique, as it doesn't have a theater space of its own and rents from TPAC. So The Rep hooked up with the W. O. Smith School of Music on Eighth Avenue South to co-sponsor two performances of the play.
"The Smith school has a wonderful venue," says Rep marketing director Pat Patrick. "We've had an ongoing relationship with them, having hosted RepAloud programs. We support getting the theater community mobilized for a good cause. Like last year's benefit for marriage equality, this raises awareness and empathy. Theater can do that."
Besides the marketing of Stand at the individual venues, there's a media/TV event Thursday, Aug. 23, at the Campus for Human Development. Plus the many Room in the Inn parishes will connect with their thousands of families. Reyland in particular cites the importance of performances at Belmont, Lipscomb and MTSU — university settings that afford the opportunity to raise awareness with the next generation.
"From a single idea came all of this," says Reyland. "And you'll find very few people will say no when there's something involving Charlie Strobel. He's widely loved. This was meant to be. Now if we can get folks in the seats ..."
Toward that end, Stand engaged two of Nashville's finest and most popular stage actors, Barry Scott and Chip Arnold. Another excellent performer, David Compton, signed on as director.
Scott portrays "Johnny" and Arnold is "Mark," the characters based on Ellis and Reyland, though the playwright claims Mark is much more interesting than his creator. "He's fictitious," says Reyland. "Mark represents every question that any person might have about Johnny when they see him leaning against a wall: Where did he come from? Should I help him? Why would I help him?"
"This is a combination of art and real life," says Arnold, "in the sense that you are exposing a problem that's very real and chronic all across the country. But mainly this is a buddy story about two people who come from different places of brokenness and learn to love and respect and care for each other."
As for Scott, he's playing somewhat against type — the real John Ellis was frail, where former football player Scott is decidedly not. But Scott has an edge other actors wouldn't have.
"Barry knew John," says Reyland. "Barry has the heart for all this."
"I've played homeless guys before," says Scott, most memorably in Kevin Shaw's award-winning 2002 short film "Jeremiah Strong." "Johnny was such a sweet person, and I want to embody the spirit of that sweetness. But what really amazes me is how the theater community has come together for this. It speaks not just to the importance of the issue, but to who we are in response to it."
Meanwhile, director Compton focuses on shepherding a good piece of theater and being respectful of the fact that it's a true story. "I want to make sure that the emotional investment the audience has continues," he says. "We don't want a documentary on stage. We want to raise their awareness and empathy without them realizing what we are doing."
"What I've tried to do with the works in this trilogy," says Reyland, "is present the audience with the same theatrical experience they'd get anytime — laughing, crying, edge of their seat. But woven into that is this educational moment or artistic connection I'm trying to make. Hopefully it seeps in nicely without hitting them over the head."
During Stand's historic run through Nov. 10, the play's modest setpieces, representing different locations — in church, a hospital bed, the front seat of a car, etc. — will make the rounds from venue to venue inside a van. (A full schedule of venues and performances can be found in the sidebar accompanying this story.) In this way, the production means to travel as lightly as the late John Ellis, and to bring his spirit to countless others.
When asked to describe the problem of homelessness, the only term Father Strobel seizes upon that's broad enough to contain its complexities is "baffling." Jim Reyland is no less baffled by what led him to offer his help to Room in the Inn, or to strike up those first conversations with John Ellis. Or what kept him from walking away.
"I'm not sure why I started working with Charlie and the homeless," Reyland says. "I've been asked why I spend time with people who are at the end of their lives instead of with people who are at the beginning of their lives.
"Are people like John Ellis guilty of making bad choices? Yes, but maybe he was affected by people who made bad choices before him. Choices were made for him before he knew what choosing was.
"I just felt that these were the folks at the very bottom of the rung, and it seemed like they needed the most help. Call it grace, call it warm and fuzzy — it's a very powerful thing that happens emotionally, with the possibility that you can make a difference. I call it the best-kept secret, because if everybody knew that you could just do that and have that feeling, they would all be out there doing it right now. You can't buy it in a bottle, you can't cook it on a stove, you can't order it on the Internet.
"With John, it was a continuous opportunity for that, and so, yes, it was frustrating and I lost a lot of sleep and money and time, but in the right situation I'd do it again. We need more people coming from the outside offering encouragement and strength. We gotta have a bigger army.
"The Bible says, 'We'll always have the poor.' The question is, how many?"