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 .
In August, rehearsals started for "Love on San Pedro." Cornerstone artists and staff have been engaging with the Skid Row community for over a year and a half, gathering stories that our commissioned playwright, James McManus, wove into a beautiful play.
Since rehearsals began, a cast of more than 20 community members and four professional actors have been sharing Cornerstone's space in the Arts District with administrative staff - offices in the front, rehearsal space in the back. We've gotten to know each other, joking about our collective inability to stay away from the snack table and how our Assistant Stage Manager makes the best coffee.
Meeting with three Skid Row community members on a one-on-one basis to talk about their personal stories, however, was a whole other level of acquaintance with this community. It expanded my perspective on the city, on personal connection, and on the importance of engaging in art-making.
The bridge from superficial banter to life story is shaky. You can sometimes find yourself staring down into an abyss, especially when you know the story you're walking towards is difficult to tell and requires a level of openness that's often counterproductive to surviving on Skid Row. I spoke with each community member in an airy office at Cornerstone, lined with theater books and illuminated by a skylight overhead. The conversations were at times enthusiastic, at times grimly realistic, but always an honest look at life on Skid Row.
Fannie Mayfield, a long-time friend of Cornerstone and now community actor, buzzes through the Arts District gleaning empty bottles and friendships, though her enthusiasm sometimes belies her guardedness. She is a resident of the Downtown Women's Center, and a chorus member in the play.
Cornelius Kincy, a dapper gentleman dressed impeccably in royal purple for our conversation, is articulate and energetic about his involvement in the play, and proud of being known as a musician in the community. He is Musical Director and also in the chorus.
Monica Maxwell, the gregarious "DJ Feel Good" of Skid Row Radio, which has been transmitting from Cornerstone since mid-August, is a resident of the Downtown Women's Center. Her show features music in addition to announcements about special events and resources for the Skid Row community. Since our talk, unfortunately, Monica has had to take a leave from the radio and return to Detroit due to a family emergency.
In these first person narratives that were told to me, we hear their stories in their own words. We learn of life on Skid Row and the inertia of existence, where pain and hardship blends with simple joys and hope.
We were all born here in Los Angeles. My mom was from Mississippi and she moved here and we were all born in East L.A. in General Hospital. I'm the third sibling in my family. There were six of us. My oldest sister passed away and my oldest brother. So, I'm the next oldest. I'll be the only sibling making it to 60, if God says the same. My oldest sister died when she was 52 and my brother died two years ago and he made it to 59 so I'll be the first one making 60.
I had children. Both my boys are deceased. They were born with a muscle disease. The doctor told me in genetic counseling -- they were born two years apart -- after my first son passed and I had my second son born with the same disease. So, I don't have children. I have two sisters and a younger brother. And I have nieces and nephews.
I've worked with mental kids in the school teaching them to read numbers and spelling. I worked in Long Beach as a security guard and I worked for the board of education making cinnamon rolls and coffee cakes. Now I work for this guy named Jeremy over here in the Arts District. Every Monday. He has a construction site and I clean up inside and outside. I was working before but I had to stop because they started my SSI and you got to stop working at least a year in order to get it. And I finally got it but I really want to go back to work again. I'm not used to sitting around. I'm used to working. I've always had a job. Many jobs.
After my sons passed away I came downtown and lived in the streets of Skid Row. I came in the 80s when the bums were hopping the freight trains and getting off and drinking and getting back in the boxcars and going to the next state. I became homeless after my kids passed away. After my second son passed away, that's when I came to Skid Row, in the 80s. I've been here 25 years.
The first apartment I ever had was at the Downtown Women's Center. Before I lived at my mother's house with my children, here in L.A. She's 81 now. I see her all the time. She comes down here and visits me. I go home any time I want to, spend the night with them and come on back home. I don't know why I didn't stay with her when I was homeless. I just wanted to be by myself. When I lived on the streets I wouldn't see her for five years at a time.
The worst thing about living on the street is people bothering you all the time, asking you for money. Do you have a pipe? Do you drink? Do you date? All those different kind of things. There ain't nothing redeeming about living on the street. You suffer the consequences for living on the street. You got people coming by and kicking your boxes. People come by and beat you down for no reason. There's a lot of things that happen on the street.
It's been two years since I've been coming around Cornerstone but this would be my first play. I go around to the Novel Cafe, the Pie Hole, the sushi place, all over picking up recycling. I came in one day and they were reading the script and I asked James who works there and he said it's a play we're putting together and it's called Love on San Pedro. So actually I read the whole script for about two months before the play started. My favorite character was the Preacher's wife. I liked that part. I thought it was very interesting because it was very real. You know, these are things people really do on Skid Row. They sell drugs, they sell alcohol, they eat at the food lines. Half the time people don't get to eat because people go back two and three times and that person gets left out. So, it's actually what people do. And I think it's a good play, letting people know that these are the things that go on in Skid Row because not everyone is down there for the same reasons. You have people that can't afford to pay their rent because the rent went up. You have people with medical problems and people don't want you staying with them because you have a mental illness or medical problem and they don't want that responsibility. So, a lot of times they depend on the Mission, or they depend on the drug and the drink to, you know, take away the pain. But it doesn't take away the pain. It still be there. And then you wind up dying on the streets of Skid Row.
I have a friend named Sheila who just passed last year. She had HIV and then she didn't know that she had HIV and it was too late and it turned into Aids. So she was very sick all the time and then she finally passed away in her room. She stayed in SRO housing. She would come visit me and I would go visit her. She is well missed. She knew a lot of people.
But there's a lot of resources. You've got the Midnight Mission, you've got the Union Rescue Mission, the L.A. Mission, you've got all kinds of missions. You know, in missions, you can't talk to everybody. Because you're not supposed to trust everybody. If you see this person is all right and say they've been all right for two weeks and then suddenly you see them go off, after you sat and told them your personal life story, all your business. Then you begin to wonder, should I have done that? Say they get angry but you've always seen them calm all the time. Never switching off. Then all of the sudden you see them go off on somebody one day. So then your thinking begins to change.
They need to clean up them streets. Get everybody off that street curb. Not put them in houses, make them get themselves a place. Because a lot of them got GR and SSI and are still sleeping outside. Then you have some people that are so immune to sleeping outside that they don't want to go inside. And there's nothing you got to do about that. And when it's time to move them, just make them understand that they've got to go with the flow. You got to go.
It is better these days though. It's the people who don't want to make it better. It's them. They don't want housing. And the officers, they have to do what they have to do. That's their job. When they say you have to move you have to move. They get you up at six o'clock in the morning. There's nothing open at six o'clock in the morning. No mission is open at six o'clock in the morning. You've got to wait at least till about nine o'clock. So people just sit around on the sidewalks. Go wherever they can go to get inside somewhere.
I enjoy the Art District more than I enjoy my own home. This is my home away from home. It really is. Because in my residence you don't get to see too many people. And most of them are coming down talking crazy. You know, most of them are severely mentally ill people. And you don't understand what they're talking about. My place is the Arts District. I love the Arts District because people are about their business. If you need help, they will help you. That's what I love about over here. And there's so much love that everyone has for everybody here at Cornerstone. It's not the kind of play where people argue and fight over where they're supposed to be standing or who says what. You don't have a lot of people correcting you, when you're wrong it's just one person doing it, the director. I like that because it keeps down confusion. And there's a lot of learning. A lot of people came into the play and some of them have never been in a homeless situation so it was interesting for them to sit and listen to the stories of those who have been in homeless situations.
I'm in the chorus in the play. I like it! It's not really hard to learn all my lines because most of it is moving around and pretending like you're talking to someone or something like that. But now I'm getting the hang of the different spots we have to move to in order to do what you're supposed to be doing. So, it's pretty cool. I'm excited and I can't wait until the first night starts when we actually perform in front of audiences. I'm really geared up for it. I'm ready to go.
My biggest wish is to travel. I've been to Chicago and Mississippi and Portland, Oregon. I would like to see the Bahamas. I would like to go to a third world country and see how those people live. It's dangerous going to a third world country because you never know: are there tribes? You just don't know. But I would like to go and see how the people live. What kind of people live on those islands? I think I'd like to go to the Galapagos Islands.
I was born and raised in Los Angeles. Never really been anywhere else. My grandmother took me and my brother to Louisiana. Didn't really like it there. I'm 62 years old. I cook for myself. Through my life I've learned to do a lot of things for myself. I've modeled and I worked for a hospital for 20 years. I was going to school to be a paramedic until my wife had our first child. I've learned a lot of things.
Before I came downtown I was a security guard. I worked in a high-class grocery store. The store closed. People didn't have the money to come in and buy specialty items. They had a winery. You could go in and taste wine. It was over on Lankershim and Wellington. When I lost the job, I got on unemployment. I couldn't stay where I was, that was a given. It took me a month and half to get an SRO. I was lucky because usually it takes a year and some people wait longer. Living in an SRO filled the gap when I needed it. I have a nice place. I've been there four years. It's not bad at all.
Let me tell you, when I first came downtown I thought it was a movie set. People were on the curb smoking crack, women were selling themselves and I just stood there and stared. I was like, where was the police? It looked like a movie set.
Some people live there because of the freedom that they have there. They don't want to live under any type of regulation. "I want to be able to do whatever I want to do. Spend my money on what I want to spend my money on." Their lifestyle -- they become accustomed to it. Me, I'd be scared to death, but some people get used to it. Young ladies stay on the street. Just as it would be hard for me to stay on the street, it would be hard for some of them to stay in a place. Some of the problem has to do with mental illness, but some people want to be there because they want to be on drugs. But I am careful to never think that I am better than them. I always stop to shake hands and talk. I always take time.
Living downtown you see these long lines because people come down to feed people. Sometimes the food they serve is elaborate, other times, like in the play, it's just a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. But I imagine if you are hungry and you've been doing drugs all night, that sandwich is not so bad.
One time I was walking down the street and a guy asked me for money. And he was lying down on the street. And I said I wouldn't give him any money unless he stood up. That was bad. But I've seen worse. I've seen people sleep in their own vomit. I've seen ladies pull down their clothes. One time I was going to the cigarette store and over by the police department I saw a guy and a lady in the bushes.
There are so many distractions downtown. It's easy to get on the wrong street. The people who know me, know me for singing. And that feels good because there are a lot of things one can be known for. I was quite proud. I called my daughters and my son and told them I was in this play. They're scattered- Inglewood, Riverside, and the Valley. They're all going to school. My two oldest daughters are nurses. My youngest daughter has a real nice IQ. She's very intelligent. The school she goes to sent her to France, to Barbados, she's met President Obama, she belongs to an organization called Junior Future Leaders of America -guess I said that right. You would think that people who have children with high IQs are professors themselves but it doesn't always work like that. She's remarkable.
I heard about Cornerstone from a friend of mine, Wendell. He said they were having auditions down at the James Wood Center. I know Wendell for years. About five years ago Wendell gave a talent show at the James Wood Center and my friends and I won. We sing in a group. We've won most of the talent shows downtown. They hate to see us coming. They say: "here come the old dudes."
Auditioning for the play was kind of easy. I still remember my line. It was: "Excuse me, but the lady in chair 34b is staring at you." So I said it. And he asked me to say it like I was angry, like that was my woman! And then asked me to say it like I just won 22 million dollars. I wouldn't have nothing to say! They called me back and told me we were going to have some singing parts, which is right up my alley. We get to work on the song today! I have never acted before. It's very exciting. I like learning technique from [Love on San Pedro director] Shishir. Man knows his stuff. My favorite part about the play is being an actor, reciting the lines of the play. Listening as Shishir takes us through our exercises. "A big black bug bit a big black bear and the bear bled." And there's another one I can't even do about the sun and the shine. It's a learning experience. Every day you come and there's something new, something to do. And my friends are going to see me on stage!
My day is simple. I get up in the morning. I'm always cleaning up. I pay attention to the clock. I'm thinking about what I want for breakfast. For example, today I had hash browns and sausage with bell peppers. And I had a flakey biscuit. After I eat breakfast, I turn on the television, I do some singing, I shine my shoes, shave my beard. This has been busy coming up here to rehearse, but I just take it easy. It's good to be busy. I stay downtown and I know it's good to be busy. It's good to have things to look forward to. It causes a type of discipline. I can't do this or that because I have to go to rehearsal tomorrow. Let me get my clothes ready. What am I going to wear? It's a good thing.
My retirement kicks in next month and my plan is to move to a low-income senior citizen complex. I'm not going to stay downtown forever. I imagine that it will affect you. I mean, I've seen some awful things. I go down to the corner store and I see awful, terrible things. People allow themselves to fall low. Sometimes you have to step over people on the floor. I haven't become numb for suffering, but you see it so much you can. I don't want to become numb. I want to have a sensitive heart. I want to be who I am.
Monica Ellen Maxwell AKA DJ Feel Good:
I am originally from Detroit, Michigan. Born and raised there. Matter of fact my birthday is October 27 and I'll be 50 years old. I feel so sure of myself. The best thing about right now is that I know myself. If this is what 50 is all about, then I'm good.
I always liked music, even as a kid. The house was always full of music. My mom and went to school with many of the Motown singers. My grandfather played the piano, his brother played the saxophone, by great-grandmother played the piano at church. But I never really had enough time to sit and learn because I always wanted to go out and have fun. I play a little drums now an then.
I lived in Sacramento from 1993 to 2007. My mom called me in 2006 to tell me she was ill with Crohns disease. I dropped everything to help her. People ask me if I'm bitter about doing that, but of course I'm not. She's my mother and I loved to help her.
She started feeling better in 2008/2009. And she bought me a train ticket for the train. I researched the Weingart Center. I stayed there for six months and applied for the Downtown Women's Center. If you really want to do something, you can do it. Skid Row is not a stigma, it's a subculture that offers you a way to get on your feet. I'm from out of town and I ask myself why people from L.A. aren't taking advantage of the resources. If you need help, you can ask for it. I'm in a great apartment. I will stay unless my mother will ask me to come home. I am in the middle of transition and authentic struggle and I think that is good.
I was on the train for two days coming from Detroit to L.A. I had a lot of time to think. I thought to myself that I would come out here to do all the stuff I wanted to do--from my creativity to my independence, being bold, and just happy. Just, really being a free spirit.
I started DJing at the Downtown Women's Center. They have a day center there. And I went down there really as an excuse to crank up my music. I also went and bought one of those big speakers that you just plug the iPod and pay music. It was just a hobby. I like being on Skid Row and smiling, being receptive to others. Any kind of way I could help. Music just took it to another level.
When I walk through the jungle of Skid Row, I've got my iPod on to listen to my music and keep my peace of mind. One day when I was down here just listening to music I thought, wow, music really makes me feel good. And I said DJ Feel Good is the perfect name. I love having a positive outlook on life even while being in the midst of Skid Row and I want other people to feel good too.
Top Image: Cornerstone Theater Company | Photo: Dave Gaw.
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