They bumped into one another as they tried to hit their marks. Their wheels became entangled during a group scene. One of them missed her cue because a prop blocked her path.
Things like that happen when a cast of wheelchair-bound actors takes the stage for the first time to rehearse a play that shines a spotlight on the challenges that the physically disabled face every day.
But it was smooth rolling soon enough for performers in “There’s Help in Gimp City,” a play that tells the story of the struggles of a paralyzed man -- and of a society that sometimes seems to be afflicted with a moral paralysis of its own.
Performed by a troupe that includes paraplegics and quadriplegics, the play opens tonight at a theater near downtown Los Angeles for a three-weekend run.
“We want to reach those who don’t want to deal with the fact that they can become just like us at any moment. You can be one step off the curb away from this,” playwright Ernest Hamilton said.
Hamilton, 55, knows first-hand. His life changed in a split-second on Sept. 6, 1978, when a flat front tire sent the car he was driving careening into a ditch near Macon, Ga. The crash left the onetime Los Angeles all-CIF football and basketball star a quadriplegic.
“There’s a stigma to being disabled,” he said. “With the play, we’re confronting stereotypes head-on and dispelling them.”
Which explains the play’s jarring, politically incorrect title.
“I chose it for shock effect,” Hamilton acknowledged. “I explain that ‘gimp’ means ‘Gee, I’m paralyzed,’ and that it’s not a slam. It means you have to get up and move along with your life.”
Lead actor Jason Goulet agrees with that. He was told that he was paralyzed from the chin down after his neck was broken in a football scrimmage during his senior year at his northern Minnesota high school. After 16 years of nonstop therapy, the 32-year-old Sunset Boulevard entertainment law firm employee can now walk short distances with a cane.
In “There’s Help in Gimp City,” Goulet portrays fictitiouswheelchair-bound NFL player Tip Kelly, whose life spirals downward after he breaks his neck in a football game and is paralyzed. He loses his wife, his home, his family and, eventually, his life. An angel helps Goulet’s character backtrack and retrace his life in “Gimp City.”
“It’s a harsh title. That was one of my biggest concerns. Granted, the guy who wrote it is disabled. But when you’re trying to sell tickets it’s going to be a hard sell to the general public,” said Goulet of North Hollywood. “And my character dies. I asked if they really wanted able-bodied people to see this, and they said they wanted to be brutally honest.”
The able-bodied world can be brutal too. Goulet said he has struggled 10 years to break in to show business and “can count on my two hands the number of auditions I’ve gone out on.” His goal now is to create his own production company in which the disabled can work either in front of or behind the camera.
The play shows how some people dismiss the handicapped as incapable of doing anything. It depicts others, meantime, as unwilling to help when the disabled genuinely need assistance.
In one scene, a wheelchair-bound man who has recently suffered a paralyzing injury is partying with an old friend when his bladder catheter slips out. His friend’s response is disheartening. “Oh, man! I’m drinking beer with you, not cleaning up after you. I’m out of here,” he says as he stalks off.
That imagery rings true with actor Charles Whitehead. He has used a wheelchair since his car slid off the road and over a 150-foot cliff in Pacific Palisades 19 years ago.
“We want to get people to understand some of the things you face living a life in a wheelchair,” said the paraplegic, who lives in Montclair and works at Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center. “We want to let them know the good and bad challenges you face.”
Whitehead, 43, owned a small limousine service before his crash. “I’m blessed,” he said. “I could have been killed.”
Those in wheelchairs “are just like everyone else,” he said. “It’s the person sitting in it that makes the chair. The chair doesn’t make the person.”
The play’s “gimp” title is fine with him, Whitehead said. “People may not like that term, but it doesn’t bother me. This is a way of bringing a good out of what some consider a slur.”
Actress Blanca Alvarado, 34, of Long Beach, a paraplegic whose spinal cord was hardened by lupus, said the play should show that those in wheelchairs “can still do a lot of things.”
Play director Gregory Glass, who is able-bodied, said he had never worked with actors in wheelchairs before setting out to cast and stage “There’s Help in Gimp City.”
“This is my first experience, and it’s been an eye-opener. These people are solid, tough. We’re conveying a message that even though you lose your ability and have the same mind and even more determination than you had before the injury, the world will not accept you as normal or needed.”
Glass, of Hawthorne, went through nearly two dozen prospective actors before filling the cast of 13, which includes able-bodied performers. Many balked at working with actors in wheelchairs. “They took one look and gave excuses of all types,” he said.
Jonathan Mesisca, a 21-year-old USC theater arts student who is able-bodied and portrays the angel in the play, said he has learned plenty from his fellow actors.
“It’s just amazing all of the simple things in life we take for granted,” said Mesisca, of Arcadia. “The play is a serious call to the nursing profession and to society as a whole.”
The play has been endorsed by the Los Angeles County Commission on Disabilities. It opens with an 8 p.m. performance today at the Scene Dock Theater, 1029 W. 37th St. on the USC campus and runs Saturdays and Sundays through May 21. Sunday shows are at 2:30 p.m.
Proceeds from the play will go to Personal Care Technology, a South Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization that trains home-care providers for those with spinal cord injuries. Hamilton, the playwright, formed it in 1991 after discovering there was a shortage of skilled caregivers.
Hamilton was an ambulance company emergency medical technician at the time of his life-changing car crash. So he says he knows what he should not have done when he found himself lying on the pavement near his wrecked car.
“I made the mistake of standing up. As many accidents I’d been to and instructed victims to ‘be still, don’t move,’ my stupid self stood up and looked down at my car in the ditch. And then I collapsed.”
Hamilton’s co-workers were in the rescue squad that came to his aid. They cried as they strapped him to a backboard and loaded him into an ambulance. “It was the same ambulance I’d driven,” he said.
Hamilton and Glass say a sequel to “Gimp City” could be in the wings.
“I’ll go with the same guys if they’ll do it again,” Glass said. “I like these guys. I don’t see them as injured people anymore. And I don’t think they do, either.”