An Elegy for Jon Mendoza
On June 1st we lost a prominent member of the LA Mission College theatre family, Jon Mendoza, when he took his own life. I hesitated noting how we lost him but, on the heels of the tragic suicides of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade which immediately followed his, it’s important to me to not try and gloss over the issue of depression and mental health in our community.
I met Jon in my first semester as a full-time professor at Mission, in my Intermediate Acting class. He was incorrigible, disruptive, unreliable, often late, and he belched constantly, without shame or apology. But then, in his final scene presentation, he was paired up with Bethany Redwood, who apparently kicked his ass, up street and down alley. The scene that they presented gave me a glimpse of what was to come from both of them—physically explosive, meticulously crafted, fully voiced, riveting performance.
The next semester, when I first started producing and directing shows at Mission, he played roles in three of the four plays in the Stage & Screen Fest—two comedies and one drama—that ran the gamut of light comedy, screwball madness, and a violent gang play (alongside and in the vicious clutch of Matthew Trujillo, who we also lost to suicide, two years ago). Jon's versatility as an actor, in both leading and minor roles, was on full display. With our next show, Super Like!, our modern theatre take on the myth of Tristan and Isolde, I turned to Jon for the lead role. We were all at sea, creating a devised theatre piece from scratch, writing as we rehearsed. Jon dove into his role again, going with the erratic flow, holding down the center of a show that was riddled with rewrites, recasting, and the growing pains of building something from nothing.
It was in Wildwood, however, that Jon came into his own. His portrayal of Tony, a hitman with a heart of gold, was crackling with everything that he possessed as an actor. I stood in the wings and watched his every move, marveling at his engagement, his impeccable comic timing, his physical prowess, and, most of all, his absolute joy in acting. He soared onstage. With each performance, his portrayal deepened, sharpened, and strengthened. We performed in-the-round, so I would watch him run offstage, covered in sweat, filled with adrenaline and abject glee. He’d sweep the mop of hair from his face, smile that Cheshire-grin-of-his to himself, and start prepping for his next entrance. I was so proud—this kid who I expected to belch his way into oblivion had turned himself into a deeply prepared, professional actor. This is how I want to remember him.
However, despite his personal triumph in Wildwood, he could never really accept praise. Whenever it was given to him, his eyes would drop and he’d respond with a muttered, “okay.” (Anyone who knew him heard his voice right now.) I chalked it up to humility. It wasn’t until the next show that I realized that, yes, he was humble, but this odd reaction to praise was more from a debilitating lack of self-confidence.
In spring of 2017, I decided to produce a 35-minute excerpt of Jon Patrick Walker’s musical adaptation of Dr. Faustus. I needed a male actor who could sing and I knew that Jon M. had done musicals in high school. I cast him in the title role. He strutted into Bungalow 3—our rehearsal room—sunglasses on, his tattered script under his arm, ready and raring to go. Jon always took up generous space in a room. His Jackie Gleason personality. His floppy hair. His foul mouth. His amiable shrieks of laughter. A heart that was so big that it could only be housed in his enormous barrel chest.
As before, he threw himself into the role of Faustus, dove into the difficult Elizabethan text, and learned the music. He had a rock-and-roll voice, more inclined to belting than anything else. It suited a lot of Walker’s music; some, however, especially when he had to enter on a note, was a challenge. We worked and worked, he and I getting closer than before. We bonded over a love of classic rock, of which his knowledge rivaled mine, despite our almost 30 years apart. We drummed together in rehearsal, on anything around us—chairs, boxes, our own chests, each other, the air. One of my most cherished memories is drumming to The Chorus Song, a beautiful three-part harmony a cappella number, from the show. The drum line that we invented for it lent itself to Keith Moon at Wembley Stadium—ear-splitting, bone-shattering, skin-ripping, stick-breaking drumming. We could barely contain ourselves in rehearsal. It was pure joy.
When performances came, however, he was terrified. The show opened with him alone on stage, a guitar strumming, and then he needed to open his mouth and sing. Not belt, but sing. In rehearsal, his off-notes and missed lines were always punctuated with an “oh fuck” or an “oh shit”—as if something came over him, an unseen force, and threw him out of whack. "You can't do that in front of the audience," I'd say. "Okay," he'd utter.
We did the show three times. He missed the opening note in the first two, stumbling around until he got into a groove. Once others joined him on stage, especially Bethany, he found his footing, his fear was quelled, and he was as good as I’ve ever seen him, finding subtle humor in all the right places and executing it with precision. The third performance was his best—every single thing was spot-on and I was so proud of him. No matter how many times I—and so many others—told him that his missed notes were okay and that he recovered well, he could not, by any stretch of the imagination, forgive himself.
As soon as he was there, he was gone.
In the fall of 2017, we produced Peter and the Starcatcher. He sent me a message asking what role to audition for. I told him "Mrs. Bumbrake,” as this was the role that Jon Walker, who was co-directing, had played on Broadway and I wanted him to have the chance to work hand-in-hand with a professional actor. When he showed up to rehearsals, something major had changed. We were now in our new theater. He was dwarfed in the space, a Lilliputian amid giants. But there was much more than the theater that made him small.
A new third-shift job changed him the most. He was profoundly sleep-deprived—eyes open, but essentially asleep. Every single interaction had a lag. He would disappear for long swaths of time. Napping? Possibly. Alone under an ocean of fatigue? Absolutely. He experienced chest pains. He gained weight. He missed rehearsals, barely worked on the role, only remotely took direction, and vaguely remembered any of his blocking. As rehearsals and my patience were coming to an end, I started taking line-after-line from him and removing him from group scenes. I had to protect the show, but I was also protecting him, trying to ease the pressure, knowing that he now was underwater, always underwater, all the way at the bottom of the sea in a pair of lead boots.
In one of our final rehearsals he failed yet again to say one of the most important lines at the very end—a line that helps the audience understand how the entire story connects to Peter Pan. Stutter. Stumble. "Oh, shit." The run ended. He was flush with having just completed the rehearsal; I was flush with anger. He suddenly lit up with inspiration and came downstage to me.
There was that smile. There was the joy. There was the light. There was Jon.
He said, “How about we…” and quickly told me his idea for the very end of the show, buoyed by laughter. I immediately said, “How about you learn your fucking lines?” And then all of the light within him went away. And all of the light in the room evaporated, as I rarely respond like that. I continued, lecturing him once again, in front of everyone, about learning his lines and how we were past this point in rehearsals blah blah blah. It makes me sick to my stomach to recall. I deeply regret that I reacted as such—immediately when I did it, and for every day moving forward from then, for the rest of my life. I’m so sorry, Jon.
I apologized to him then, as I always do when I behave like that, even when the reaction is warranted. He accepted my apology. We hugged and moved forward.
His performances were rock solid. He didn’t miss lines and even seemed to be enjoying himself at times. But it was all filtered through an overwhelming fog of darkness hanging over him—no anger, no regret. Just a soupy haze. It’s a small theater and we had open wings that acted as “offstage." In the group scenes where I had removed him, I could see him sitting alone, in his nanny apron and kerchief, having to watch others do what he couldn’t. It filled me with sadness.
We decided to remount the show in the spring. When requested a meeting right before rehearsals began, I knew that he was dropping out. That meeting was one of the most harrowing I’ve ever had. Without sharing what I still consider private, I’ll just say that he was in a highly distressed state. I inundated him with love, support, empathy, sympathy, and encouragement. He assured me that, even though he had to drop the show, he was coming out on the other side, better than ever before, seeking the help he needed. I was so proud of him for sharing with me, making himself vulnerable in a way that he never before dared. I gave him a big bear hug and we said our goodbyes. I made sure that he had my number and told him to use it. He never did.
Late in the second run of Peter, we were about to close the house and start the show. I looked up and there was Jon, wanting to buy a ticket to the show. He was quiet as a mouse. I let him in, concerned that it would only make him feel bad. For the first act, he sat in the front row center. I couldn’t see his reactions. For the second half, he was seated on the side in the front row. I was across the house, and could watch him watch the show. He had a odd smile on his face throughout—placid and distant. At one point, a prop was kicked off the stage and it landed right in his deft hands. He broke out into a smile and a laugh. There was Jon again! And there he went, just as quickly, back into the fog.
It was the last time I saw him.
None of this is an attempt to explain why he did what he did. Whatever was chasing him finally got him alone in a room. That's as good as I—or any of us, really—can do. It caught Kate Spade. It caught Anthony Bourdain. It caught Jon. It's catching more and more people, in this deeply uncertain time, when it seems harder than ever for any of us to get the peace of mind that we need.
All I know is that we—the LA Mission theatre family and I—provided for him what I imagine was the most joyful, fun, supportive environment that he had. He was loved by us. Really, truly loved. And he loved us right back. He thrived in our midst, and we thrived in his. We are all better for the time spent with him.
If you see yourself in Jon, in the challenges he faced, I want you to know that what we gave him at Mission is here for you. You will be accepted. You will be loved unconditionally. You will be supported. You will be given laughter and purpose. You will be given the opportunity of joy. You will thrive among us. You will be welcomed at the door, in my office, in our theatre, and into our family.
We will miss you, pal. The ghost light in the theater is now for you, too.
Peace and love,