All the fashionable hustle and bustle along Spring and Main Streets in downtown LA might lead casual observers to think that the once-blighted neighborhood is entirely gentrified — and booming. However, another block east, the streets are still busy, but the crowd is a bit different.
The neighborhood bounded by Main and Alameda Streets to the west and east, 3rd to the north, and 7th to the south is known as Skid Row. If you venture downtown, you probably avoid driving through this area, let alone walking, and if you find yourself here, you might avoid eye contact or even avert your gaze completely from the people.
Just a few steps from the vibrant cultural center developing around Spring Street, Skid Row is known for its homeless population, drugs, and crime — and for the myriad service organizations working to combat addiction, domestic violence, hunger, and lost hope. It is here that Cornerstone Theater Company is staging the fourth play of its Hunger Cycle, Love on San Pedro. And it is this stereotype of Skid Row that the creative team behind the play is trying to dispel.
The Big We
“It’s a community; it’s not just statistics,” community actor Lorinda Hawkins told DJ Feel Good on Cornerstone’s Skid Row Internet Radio. Hawkins used to live on Skid Row and loves Cornerstone. She laughed about “stalking” the company and then getting a role in Seed: A Weird Act of Faith, the first production in Cornerstone’s Hunger Cycle.
“Everybody [on Skid Row] aspires to be everything that they want to and can be, in the same way that we [who do not live on Skid Row] all aspire to be all that we want to and can be,” director Shishir Kurup says, during a dinner break from rehearsal in the fourth floor gymnasium of the Los Angeles Mission. He recalls the women of the Kibera slum in Nairobi (he lived in Kenya, though not in Kibera, for seven years during his childhood), washing their brightly colored clothes every day, showing pride in the face of abject poverty and degradation. “That’s part of the resilience,” he says.
Kurup goes on to talk about the big “we,” emphasizing that it is not an us-and-them situation — these are our people, and “this is our town.” Kurup has been thinking about the Thornton Wilder play a lot during this process, about the need to accept Skid Row as a part of our town, and to see its people as possessing “the same desires, ambitions, values as we have. … They shouldn’t be shoved in a corner with no light. These aren’t scurrying rodents, these are full human beings.”
Playwright James McManus wasn’t thinking about Wilder while he was writing, but he quickly ticks off a few similarities to Our Town — a sense of community, presentational staging, narration, agitprop/political element, death — and he sees Kurup’s analogy. “I was aware as I was writing that it had the feel of a big place with a lot of tiny stories amid the chaos,” McManus says.
Kurup acknowledges that mental illness and deep anger exist on Skid Row, but that is only part of the picture. These are not “failed people,” he explains. “These are people whom society has failed.” He has experienced a close-knit community, filled with people who are helping each other. Even when they go away for health reasons, they often return because this is the only place where they have ever felt community. “There is more community here, on every level,” says Kurup, “from its fractiousness to its brotherly love, so to speak.”
Community actor Cynthiaanne Cofell, originally from Atlanta, is new to the stage and auditioned on a whim. She told DJ Feel Good, “Skid Row to me is a love story, because everyone down there works together. They act like family, and they’ll take anybody in.”
At a story circle during the play development process, a lawyer described arriving in Pershing Square, destitute and alone, following an illness that left him with nothing. He looked out of place — and dazed, out of sorts. The people there directed him to the social services he needed, showed him where to go and whom to talk to. Kurup questions whether many of those in the wealthy 1% would do the same.
McManus grew up in western Pennsylvania, in a declining steel town outside Pittsburgh. When the steel mills closed, everyone in town became poor at once. There was no other work, and every family was hungry. McManus feels that all of his writing is driven by this experience and his “obsession” with the kids he grew up with — children of the shuttered steel mils. He chose Skid Row for his Hunger Cycle play because of the deep understanding he felt for this community.
He planned to write a play about physical hunger, but early in his research process, Darrin Wilkerson — one of the few cast members who also participated in play development — said, as McManus remembers it, “Nobody goes hungry in America. If you can’t find food in America, then there’s something wrong with you. There’s always a peanut butter and jelly sandwich; there’s always a meal being cooked somewhere.”
McManus had to rethink his approach. There is a problem with food on Skid Row, but it’s not availability, it’s quality. Overly salted foods and unbalanced meals have caused elevated rates of high blood pressure and diabetes, already a problem among African Americans, the dominant group on Skid Row. When McManus asked about hunger in story circles and interviews, people answered not about food, but about major life losses, things they’d had to give up. Their hunger is metaphorical. They long for basic things that most of us take for granted, like cleanliness, and for intangibles like their “best selves.”
McManus felt again and again that he was “talking to somebody who believed they’d left their best self somewhere in the past. And that if they just kept walking forward, if they could find that person again, that they were going to be able to move forward.” McManus wondered if, in the chaos of Skid Row, they would be able to find the peace and awareness necessary to rediscover that best self, and in rehearsals he met people who had.
Most of the community cast members in Love on San Pedro live in SROs — single room occupancies, with shared bathrooms and kitchens — or voucher hotels, but there are a few still on the street. During the rehearsal process, the housing status of several actors changed, due to life circumstances that Kurup did not feel comfortable asking about. Fanny Mayfield is one of the more fortunate. She was homeless on Skid Row for more than 25 years, living in a box. Two and a half years ago she got her very first apartment at Downtown Women’s Center. Her voice wavered as she told DJ Feel Good about it. “Everyone who’s homeless is not downtown for the same reasons,” she said.
The community actors chose to participate in Love on San Pedro for a variety of reasons. Cornelius Kincy told DJ Feel Good that he auditioned to challenge himself, to try something new and see if he could succeed at it. Lee Maupin has always wanted to be a star but was afraid to audition. He took a risk and landed a part in San Pedro. Maupin hopes this experience can be a springboard to a brighter future, “an opportunity to get out of the ghetto,” and to be “the best,” he said to DJ Feel Good.
He’s not the only one with aspirations in show business. Cynthiaanne Cofell sees the play as “an open door” to another role in a play or movie. She also wants to learn new things, to understand the play more deeply. “I really wanna do well, and I really wanna do justice to the character,” Cofell told DJ Feel Good.
“She already is,” says McManus, impressed with all of the actors’ efforts to “get it right.” Mirroring their desire to honor his play, McManus says, “I hope they are able to bring it off the way that they want to.”
While Kurup credits McManus’ script for the actors’ success, the playwright attributes the high-quality performances to Kurup’s direction. He noticed in rehearsal that the director spoke to the entire cast — three Cornerstone company members and 23 community actors — in the same way, as veteran professionals. The expectations and standards are high, and everyone takes the job seriously. It doesn’t matter that they are in a gym, that the stage stretches between the basketball goals and the scoreboards loom over the seating on either side.
“When you come to this level [Skid Row], there’s no more bullshit,” says Kurup. “That’s why the acting can be quite good … authentic … and you feel it in the grain of the voice, the texture.” Community actor Kincy is clearly proud of this production. “We are of Skid Row,” he said to DJ Feel Good. “People will recognize us, and point at us. ‘Isn’t that…?’ Yes, it is.”
E’Vet Thompson lives in the neighborhood with her two children. Originally from Detroit, she started acting as a child in church, so she is one of the few community cast members with stage experience. She loves the grittiness and poetry of the play, likening the language to Langston Hughes. It’s “an epiphanizing piece of art,” she told DJ Feel Good.
Upon hearing Thompson’s comparison, McManus says, “that’s super cool,” then goes on to give all credit for the language to the residents who contributed their stories to the development process. It is their poetry, their musicality, their cadences — and their humor — that McManus says he put into the play.
And to make sure he had captured that language, McManus did what he always does: He read the scenes out loud, with voices and all, to his black Schnauzer, Riley, who doesn’t seem to listen, but also doesn’t mind. According to Kurup, McManus seems to have succeeded — with the words flowing naturally from the actors’ mouths. And these rookies are able to remember and internalize their lines — a sure sign, says Kurup, that the writing resonates with the performers.
Of course, there are always missteps, and the cast was quick to point out the lines that rang false. “No one on Skid Row is afraid to tell you if you’ve gotten something wrong,” says McManus with a laugh, although there were times when they had to be reminded that this was a play, and not everything could or would be exactly true to life.
One element that is definitely drawn from reality is the music. In the last few minutes of rehearsal before his interview with LA STAGE Times, Kurup ran through a scene in which the entire cast sat in a big circle. E’Vet Thompson started singing “Feelings,” a little shyly at first but gaining in strength until, on the chorus, everyone joined in. Singing is an important part of life on Skid Row. It is part of the church services and part of the recreation; karaoke night at the Church of the Nazarene is one of the most popular weekly events. Both McManus and Kurup felt it was important to include music in the play.
Cofell hopes the play will “shed light on Skid Row … inspire more people to come down and help.”
Thompson feels similarly but is a bit more philosophical. “I hope everyone walks away with a sense of brotherly love… [the play] transcends culture, it transcends color, it goes beyond what your stereotypes were for certain types of people and speaks to the heart of man.”
Like the works of Victor Hugo, Love on San Pedro is a romance that exposes the underbelly of our society and finds beauty and grace there — “and if I can help us to—, if we all can pull it off, that’ll be great,” Kurup says, aware of the size of the shoes he has set before them. For him, one of the most important themes of the play is the idea of humanizing the invisible people. It asks how there can be so many people that are “so easy to ignore, walk past, run from, even,” he says. “Shouldn’t we be trying to understand them? Because, are we really any different?”
The play also looks at responsibility — are we our brother’s keeper? And from the people he’s met there, Kurup finds that on Skid Row, the answer is yes. People do take care of each other and feel a deep sense of agape — the Greek concept of love — brotherly love, filial love, love for all mankind. He contends that if Jesus were around today, he would be on Skid Row, with the missionaries and service organizations.
Rehearsals and performances of Love on San Pedro are at the Los Angeles Mission. There has been some criticism from the community that they are in a religious center, so that criticism has been included in the play, too. “The play has a sense of agitprop to it,” Kurup explains, “but the agitprop is an advocacy for human life, and the desire to not differentiate between who does and doesn’t deserve what.”
Kurup has clearly been thinking about homelessness and is deeply affected by his experience on Skid Row. “If we are two paychecks away from the street, or even five paychecks away from the street, we’re not that far,” he says. “Will we be as resilient, will we be as loving, will we be as kind when we are tested [as] some of these folks have been tested?”
Love on San Pedro, Los Angeles Mission, 303 E 5th Street, LA 90013. Opens Thursday. Wed-Thu 6 pm, Fri-Sat 7:30 pm; Sun 2:30 pm. Through November 24. Parking will be at Downtown Women’s Center (442 South San Pedro St.) with a shuttle and walking guides to escort patrons to the venue. Tickets are pay-what-you-can with a suggested donation of $20. http://cornerstonetheater.org/loveonsanpedro.
**Love on San Pedro production photos by Kevin Michael Campbell.