Cornerstone Theater Company's "Love On San Pedro" is a collaboration with the community of Skid Row, Downtown Los Angeles. Inspired by the stories of hundreds of Skid Row residents, playwright James McManus' new work sheds light on a neighborhood where homelessness and poverty are the norm, but a spirit of creativity, activism and determination thrives. Starring both professional actors and over 20 community members, the play is being presented November 7-24 at Los Angeles Mission, in the heart of Skid Row .
"Love on San Pedro" (LOSP) is a play I wrote after spending the last year getting to know the people of the Downtown Skid Row community. It is fiction liberally peppered with the details of lives lived on the streets of Los Angeles as told to me by those who were generous enough to share their time, pain, joys and sufferings over many hundreds of hours of interviews, both planned and unplanned.
The stories I heard were unsweetened by years of Pyrrhic victories fought out on alleys and streets that many in Los Angeles barely know exists. The tales felt epic to me right from the beginning. My guide was Raquel Gutierrez (Cornerstone's Former Manager of Community Partnerships), who was the community liaison for LOSP. She took me from one organization to another on Skid Row where those who people the tents and SRO's (Single Room Occupancy) lining the streets sat down with us for hours and poured their lives into my notebook and told us of hard won victories and easily lost dreams.
These outings took many forms. One night would find us in the parking lot of a Burger King making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that we would serve near one of the missions. The next morning we would sit at the mission and interview folks individually or in groups to gather stories. The next morning could find us interrupting a staff meeting at Skid Row Housing Trust or taking an impromptu tour of the neighborhood with Operation Face lift Skid Row. In the afternoon we would learn the political struggles from LA CAN (Community Actions Network) or listen to the women at the Downtown Women's Center give us the female perspective of living on Skid Row. I look back on it now as a period of stretching the canvas on which I would later paint the stories we were being told. Raquel's spirit of empathy and fearlessness in taking us from one adventure to another is infused in the play and I hope our joy in getting to know Skidronians is given back on the pages of the script.
Creating a piece for the stage is often a mysterious tapestry where threads begin and end and often begin anew without always knowing their source. This piece was different for me. I knew the source. I sat feet away and saw the faces, felt the words. I was always aware that I was engaging in a sacred trust of one human being sharing the most difficult moments of his/her life with another and hoping he would be careful with the pieces of what were often shattered lives. But at the end of long days, I was often shocked at how much I had laughed during the interviews and how often I witnessed palpable hope. Such is Skid Row. It is a place of recovery and misery and a place where faith, both secular and religious, is often rewarded. It is also a place where the community welcomes an outsider into their lives and whispers into his ear their confusions, their certainties, their humor and horrors and mostly their love...their love for each other. They allowed me to hear it, to mold it and to return it to them so they could share it on stage.
It is a mysterious gift to create "Love on San Pedro." There were moments early in the writing when I thought, "Am I finding the marrow of the community?" During most moments of self- doubt, I would remember the faces. The crevasses in the skin, the soft eyes flickering remnants of lives stopped and restarted and the breath of joy and fear that comes from letting someone in so close, and they would push my pen back onto the page. I wrote myriad scenes for LOSP and I often shared them with director, Shishir Kurup. I was layering the play with the poetry I heard in the language on Skid Row and Shishir's quick, "Man, you got it. Man, that's the phrasing we hear in the rooms." put indispensable air into my writer's balloon more times than he will ever know. And when it was time to take the play to the community for readings of an early draft, I was terrified. he fear of getting it wrong rose up in me as we handed out roles to the folks who would provide feedback. But this community again chose to give back to me with open faces. Whether it was a Deborah at LA Can clutching the early script and asking me if she could keep it or those nodding emissions of agreement that made me breathe again or a community member telling me, "I don't know what makes a good play, but if you open that window, this damn play is going on out there right now." Their confidence was oxygen. Because this story, I so desperately want to get right for them and for me.
I have spent my entire professional life writing about the poor. It comes from a place that is real and buried deep in my own DNA. Hunger first entered my bloodstream in my hometown of Donora, Pennsylvania at such a young age that I don't quite remember the first time that I became aware that we were poor. In the 70's and 80's, US Steel began shuttering all of its steel mills in and around Pittsburgh. As the children of those dormant smokestacks, we all became poor together. Before we were old enough to know what charity meant, we were familiar with Food Banks, cheese lines, the humiliation of food stamps and powerful pull of not always knowing if your next meal would be on the dinner table or in a church basement. At first, it felt sort of cool. My favorite food as a kid was a grilled cheese sandwich and down at the Donora Borough building you could show up on Tuesday mornings and they would hand you a block of government cheese. More cheese than a kid could ever want. And you got to see all of your friends while standing in line. And the free lunches at the church during summer vacation felt more like an opportunity to meet friends than a handout. But it wasn't long before the shame of it all encroached and made us understand that others looked at us as...less than. A Welfer. My mother would attempt to shop out of town in order to not be seen using food stamps and she would stand in the checkout line watching the total inch up and up and slowly begin putting items back that we could not afford. We thought she put mashed potato sandwiches in our lunch boxes because cheese and potatoes were our favorite food. It wasn't until the kids at school laughed at our sandwiches that I understood why she made them.
On a particularly gray Saturday in Western PA, the Donora Mighty Mites traveled to a small town up river to play a football game. We knew that our uniforms were raggedy but we were also proud to be undefeated and the best football team in the Monongahela Valley. As we lined up for our first defensive series the kids on the other team started yelling CHEESE at us. We looked around. "Is this an audible? Man, are they sophisticated to call audibles. What play they switchin to?" But when they lined up for the next play and again greeted us with chants of CHEESE, a few of us started to understand. All of the anger and shame that we had been swallowing for years entered our huddle as we shook with anger. What may have at first been a good idea to get the boys of Donora rattled must have quickly seemed an insidious plan. It was true that we were going home to cheese sandwiches and bath towels used as window curtains, but for one glorious Saturday afternoon we exacted our pound of flesh on the boys who called us CHEESE. We jumped off sides on purpose to whack them in the mouth. We hit them after the whistle and during the play. We tackled the ball carrier and then anyone who was wearing a uniform. We made them feel for one day how we felt...beaten and afraid.
And it was not long before I understood the precarious nature of our food situation. I had a neighbor who sold pizzas and pastas at weekend flea markets in our area. When he saw how we were struggling to make it, he asked if I wanted to work for him on the weekends. At the end of the first weekend, he paid me $12 and boxes of food to take home. I hated him. I could not believe that I had spent an entire weekend working for him and missed the Pittsburgh Steelers game so that I could carry home boxes of pasta and pizza and pepperoni. When I walked in through the back door carrying the food, I saw my mother at the kitchen counter looking washed out as she often did by the impossibility of being someone who was not quite providing what she wanted to provide her children. I was ashamed to tell her I had little cash and I stared at my shoes as she began looking through the boxes. I still remember her kissing my head and her tears that plopped down onto the cheeks of my face. I had brought home food. Enough for days, maybe a week. It was better than any currency. As I began to understand and warm to her embrace, a pride that I had never felt swelled my ribs. I felt like a little man...a man who could provide something and who was worth something. In some ways I have always written stories about the poor in order to feel that same sort of pride I felt in my mother's kitchen that Sunday evening. And so when I heard about what Cornerstone was doing with their Hunger Cycle, I wanted the opportunity to collaborate with them. I wanted so deeply to give others the chance I have been given. A chance to tell stories about places most don't want to know exists. I didn't know what poverty looked like in Los Angeles, but part of me has always believed that poor is poor and that we share a bond, a desire to instill poetry and meaning into our lives that were so lacking and shattered. Cornerstone Theater and the community of Skid Row have given me that chance.
And so as I write this today, I will be seeing the performance space at Los Angeles Mission for the first time. I have spent a lot of time in the rehearsal room at Cornerstone, but this will be special. There is always that wondrous moment when you realize that the hours you spent hunched over scraps of paper in an office or friendly tavern trying to cobble together something that looks like a play has evolved to the place where designers have erected a world that resembles the one your mind envisioned. My excitement is exponential with LOSP because I will get to see community members inhabit their world. A returning of their world to those who gave it to me. I am not sure what they will think of it. Will theater and make believe do for them what it once did for me? Will it show them a world so expansive, so sugared with possibilities that they will never feel cornered again? Will it make them feel alive with the electricity of human connection? Theater always feels like a first kiss to me and an escape from a place where we are all too aware of an encroaching past and a foreboding future. Theater is always now. Live. A moment to live. To be seen. To be heard. To look at the girl and wonder what her lips feel like, what her skin smells like, what her whisper sounds like to ears that have just brushed against her hair. A place to reimagine, reinvent and redo your own life, your own person. And that is how I view Love on San Pedro and the people I have met. I will never be the same writer I was before Cornerstone allowed me to collaborate with them and the folks of Skid Row opened their lives to me. Something happens to both the giver and the receiver when intimacy is exchanged. And so now, for a couple of hours each night, we will share our intimacy with an audience and hope that transaction changes us all. The words have gone through my prism and are now given back to the Skid Row Community. They own them, I was just borrowing. The sacred trust has been exchanged, the lives are laid stark and with much hope, we make a play. That is the power of this art form and of this community. We invite you in.
Top image: Darrin Wilkerson | Photo: Kevin Michael Campbell.
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