Homeless playwright brings his work to Manhattan stage

By Devin Holt

Garrett Buhl Robinson calls the two-star hotel where he lives in Jamaica the shelter.

That’s because the room, which he shares with another tenant, is subsidized by the Department of Homeless Services.

He leaves most days by 6:30 a.m. Robinson said he would rather practice his one-man show in the park, or read at the library — or do almost anything, anywhere but the shelter.

“I just go there to sleep,” Robinson, 45, said. “I like to say, ‘I’m not homeless. I’m an itinerant poet.’”

Until recently, Robinson spent most days in front of the Bryant Park library in Manhattan with a table covered in self-published books and a sign that read “Meet the Author.”

The constant marketing has finally started to work.

Robinson was hired to read poems at an American Library Association conference in January. His solo show “Letters to Zoey,” loosely based on his life, plays at the Midtown International Theatre Festival at the Jewel Box Theater March 23, 25 and 27.

Robinson moved to New York City five years ago this month.

A successful job as a salesman in San Francisco was ruined, Robinson said, after he started using drugs.

“It was a mistake living in the Tenderloin,” Robinson said, referring to a downtown San Francisco neighborhood famous for crime and public drug use. “Eventually I got swept away. I lost everything.”

Robinson went back to Trussville, Ala., where he was born, and lived with his parents for a year. He blamed the drug use and financial mistakes on the fact that he had given up writing to focus on the sales job.

Robinson saved what money he could and then moved to New York, determined to make a living from his books and plays.

“I said, ‘I’ll sell them on the streets if I have to,’” Robinson said.

And for the last couple of years that is exactly what he’s done. He doesn’t work in front of the library as often these days because he is focused on the show. Robinson said he starts rehearsal first thing every morning. He doesn’t get coffee, or do warm-up exercises before practice.

“I just go out into an open field and perform,” Robinson said.

The sun was still rising over an empty Bailey Park in Jamaica, near the hotel, on a recent Wednesday when Robinson launched into a monologue from “Letters to Zoey.”

He spread his arms wide and leaned his head back, which showed off his height. Robinson is 6 feet 4 inches tall, but looks shorter because he always slouches. He has ash blond hair and wears glasses, and simple, but clean clothes.

The monologue morphed into a song. It was about Robinson’s first time sneaking onto a freight train.

After rehearsal Robinson rode the E into Manhattan. He stopped by a storage locker in Midtown to pick up his books and sign, then walked to the Bryant Park library.

He dragged a table and chair from the public seating area to the base of the library steps. About 30 minutes later, Karen Tufano, a schoolteacher from Queens, paused at the table.

“Check them out,” Robinson said, as he tapped his finger on a white book cover. “This one is a poem, and it’s my greatest achievement.”

Tufano leaned over the table.

“All of that is one poem?”

Robinson offered to sing for Tufano, and then launched into his life story: the trains, the novels — which are $10 — and the upcoming show. He ended the pitch on a sympathetic note.

“I’m hoping this musical is going to get me off the streets,” Robinson said.

Tufano bought the book.

Robinson has told more than one potential customer that he hopes the play will get him out of the homeless shelter.

But by itself “Letters to Zoey” probably won’t change much. The Midtown International Theatre Festival doesn’t charge a rental fee, but takes the first $400 in sales from each performance. Artists keep the rest. The Jewel Box Theater has 35 seats, and 15 folding chairs. Tickets for “Letters to Zoey” are $20. This means that the most Robinson can earn is $1,800.

“Letters to Zoey” played at the United Solo Theatre Festival in October 2015, and Robinson, like many artists in New York, remains stubbornly broke.

Calvin Ramsey, a playwright and friend, said Robinson is qualified for plenty of jobs that might lead to a more stable lifestyle. Ramsey thinks his friend is just determined to succeed on his own terms.

“It’s not beating him up,” Ramsey said. “I don’t think his financial situation affects his personality. He’s almost like one of those old-fashioned troubadours.”