Before the show, Bishop is backstage in his dressing room, a few small boxes of his props (balls, coins, cards) lined up on a countertop, a mirror illuminated in fluorescent light stretching the length of one wall. He applies a mysterious substance to a deck of cards, and then begins to fan them. He likes to keep his hands moving right before a performance, and he always waits until minutes before he goes onstage to dress in his signature Diesel jacket, skinny jeans, and black leather boots. “If I stay busy,” he says, “then I never get nervous.”
But that this is a hometown show, the first that Bishop’s done in the Lehigh Valley in 10 years, means this particular performance in early February is loaded with emotion. Bishop grew up in foster care homes in the area, living in an orphanage in his earliest years. His biological parents, whom he barely knew, were heroin addicts. Less than 20 miles from the theater is where Jason, at the age of 7, went to live with one of his first foster families.
He bounced from family to family, attending the local middle and high school in an Allentown suburb, where classmates knew him as the foster kid. When he turned 18, he left government care.
The memories Bishop has of his early childhood are mostly defined by hunger. At 5 years old, Jason, then Jasane Castro, remembers asking his birth father for food, his stomach empty and grumbling, and the man ordering him to go to bed: a twin mattress on the floor that he shared with his five siblings. He regularly picked through trash for food, and sometimes his birth parents left him in abandoned buildings at night while his birth mother went in search of drugs.
Even now, years later, Bishop will stop himself from overeating, which is his inclination because whenever food was put in front of him as a kid, he’d eat as much as he could. He never knew when the next meal would come.
At some point later, a caseworker arrived, clicking a ballpoint pen—Jason remembers staring at the tip. Soon after, he was placed into state care. Once he left his birth parents, he was fearful at the idea that he might have to go back to them.
“Even though I was a little kid, I had this sense that I had to get out of there,” he says. “It may sound harsh, but I wasn’t sad to leave them. These people had never acted like my parents. They’d never even taken care of me.”
That Christmas, he and his siblings were living in an orphanage, St. Joseph’s. From the doorway of his shared room, he watched as an employee pushed a cart full of donated presents down the hall, stopping at each room to hand a gift to each child. Jason was 6, but the sight struck a chord in him, and to this day, he can’t tell the story without his voice wavering. In a past riddled with sadness, it’s this memory that rattles him; he can’t tell it without crying.
As a teen, Bishop spent endless hours studying his craft.
“Just picturing these kids gets me,” he says. “They deserved a family, but here they were on Christmas Eve waiting on this sad and lonely present cart. To me, they were better than that.”
It’s here that you get a glimpse into the unshakable mindset that has come to define Bishop’s relationship to his past: Somehow, rise above it.
“Jason has always chosen to reject that kind of baggage,” says his longtime foster mother, Suzanne Ernst, whom Jason calls “Mom.” “At some point, he was able to find a filing cabinet in his mind and close the drawer on the past. He said to himself: ‘I’m not going to let this affect my life.’”
Bishop was one of 25 foster children who came to live with Suzanne and her husband, Paul, in their large Victorian in Fleetwood, Pennsylvania, over a few decades. When he arrived at age 8, he had one of the longest honeymoon periods of any child she’d met. He remained on his best behavior for his new foster parents for six months, until one day he got angry about something—“It could have been that he wanted pancakes and I made eggs,” Suzanne says—and he began throwing himself against the stained-glass doors in the entryway.
Anger turned to sobbing. So she sat with him on the living room floor for more than an hour talking to him, assuring him that she was there to listen. Finally, he admitted why he was upset: He missed the foster mother at his previous placement. It was confusing for a young child to become attached to a loving adult only to be sent to a different family. (The previous foster couple had split up.)
From that moment on, Jason attached himself to Suzanne, and he came to her soon after, and while looking up at her with his sweet, big round eyes, he asked: “Will you be my forever mother?”