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 .
As I show Olusheyi Banjo the first photo of himself, he begins laughing and exclaims, "Oh, wow. Oh, wow." It's Monday afternoon and we are looking at a picture of Olusheyi that captures the morning after the opening night of "Love on San Pedro," Cornerstone Theater's production in Skid Row.
In this photo, Olusheyi is sitting on his bed, eating cereal. His room is simple and unassuming: the white walls, illuminated by the early morning sun, are bare. He sits upon a twin bed with built-in drawers, his laptop sits on a dresser that seems to double as a desk, and a chair, which looks like one found in a classroom, holds his backpack and sweatshirt. The utilitarianism of the room and its minimal furniture does not differ drastically from the rooms of many young men in Los Angeles; however, Olusheyi, a resident of Skid Row, has led a life invisible to the majority of L.A. residents.
For this photo essay, Olusheyi was followed from the very beginning of his day till his evening performance at the Los Angeles Mission by Los Angeles-based photographer, Sam Comen. Perhaps best known for his project Lost Hills and poignant blending of photojournalism and commercial photography, Comen's portrait style photos present viewers with an image that is refreshingly honest, raw, and moving. He uniquely captures his subjects in a way that prompts the viewer to examine the subject from a unique vantage point, subverting traditional celebrity by presenting people who are often regarded as living on the periphery of society as the focus of his photography.
This presentation resounds with the broader efforts of Cornerstone Theater Company and its focus on including marginalized communities in public view and discourse. Cornerstone works to build bridges in the characteristically disconnected culture of Los Angeles, through partnering with communities. James McManus' "Love on San Pedro" explores the lives of Skid Row residents, allowing audience members a glimpse into a community rendered invisible and largely ignored by much of the broader culture of Los Angeles.
Both Olusheyi and Sam shared the experiences of the day with me, each in his own way getting to explore a day in the life of a community with which few are familiar.
Olusheyi Banjo, 33, lives in housing provided by Skid Row Housing Trust. The organization provides permanent supportive housing to the formerly homeless, as well as a variety of support services to equip its residents with the tools necessary to combat the mental illness, poverty and addiction that characterizes much of the Skid Row community. Olusheyi plays the "The Pastor" in "Love on San Pedro," a role for which, as the son and grandson of pastors and an aspiring pastor himself he seems born. He tells me that he felt - almost as though moved by intuition - that this was the role for which he would be cast. He had not bothered to practice reading for another role; this, it seemed, belonged to him. In observing Olusheyi throughout numerous rehearsals, this seems to be self-evident. Olusheyi is naturally charismatic and consistently seems to be motivating those around him. He easily breaks into broad grins, his face in a near-perpetual smile, and frequently erupts into contagious laughter, often providing the warm support and motivation for his fellow cast members that a pastor might.
When discussing the experience of having a photographer follow him throughout a day, Olusheyi humbly but enthusiastically expresses gratitude. Having one's day catalogued is a unique experience for anyone, and Olusheyi's reaction is no different. As we go over the thirteen moments captured in photographs, he is at once amused, self-conscious, and excited at the opportunity to reflect upon his everyday experiences. As he looks at the second photograph cataloguing his day, he describes his walk to visit his "rapper friend," Uncle Bean, a long-time friend of Olusheyi. Together, he describes to me, they spend time sitting in front of Bean's shop.
Olusheyi enjoys "observing the world around me." Skid Row's streets offer Olusheyi the opportunity to reflect upon the world he currently occupies: "It's not what everyone perceives it to be. Most of the people that are homeless are not all bad. Most of them are not crack-heads. Some of them are really nice people. Most people will say 'hi' to you. It's not as much crime as people would think it was. Some people just lose their minds; that's prevalent inside of the Skid Row community. It's not as bad as people think it was. When I first got down there, there was stabbing and shootings ... Even though I lived in South Central L.A., it wasn't as bad as this." When asked how his move to Skid Row has shaped his perception of the world, Olusheyi concedes, "Yeah, now that I've been home and had my own stuff, I see the world a lot differently than the way I used to live. Some of the differences I see are people. I see a sense of people trying to get together, to build a sense of community. I see them for what they really are than for what they have."
Olusheyi is currently working on a gospel album, which he hopes to have released in June of 2014. When looking at a photo of himself riding in his friend's 1990 convertible to the recording studio, Olusheyi reflects on the feelings of joy and gratitude he had at that moment, simply grateful for the opportunity to make music that day. As we come across a photo of Olusheyi at the studio, his arms extended in exuberance, he begins laughing and I ask him to describe that moment: "I was like, 'Yes, that's the perfect! The verse is perfect! That verse is perfect!'" His enthusiasm is contagious; Olusheyi holds a special gratitude for each day and it is evident in the music his writes. When I ask him about the song he's singing, he tells me, "It's about how people search for love and it's about how you don't really need to look for love - you already have it inside of you. Why you looking elsewhere for something you already have? And that's really what the song is about."
Similar to the pastor he plays, Olusheyi's advocacy of love through the arts is thematic throughout his life's course. An active artist, Olusheyi has participated in the Skid Row Art Festival, a two-day festival put on annually by the Los Angeles Poverty Department, a non-profit theater company. "There's so much talent on Skid Row - undiscovered talent," he states emphatically. "I believe if a talent agent was to come down here - and to see all this talent - I think so many of these people would be stars. And it also just amazes me - some of these people in the cast are going through so much stuff - they don't have stable homes and yet they're so dedicated to making something great. I'm humbled."
After interviewing Olusheyi for this piece, I asked photographer Sam Comen about his impressions of the day. He intimated to me the themes that most stood out to him as, "Praise, gratitude, and perspective." Like many unfamiliar to Skid Row, Sam shares that his experiences on Skid Row differed from his initial expectations. The cast members of "Love on San Pedro" have a perspective that is uniquely refreshing: in a city whose reputation has been built upon glitz and glam, wealth on Skid Row is measured by opportunity and community. Olusheyi's gratitude for the simple opportunity to be in the play is echoed by many of its participants; joy and gratitude permeate the green room at the Los Angeles Mission.
When I ask Olusheyi what he hopes the community might gain from the visual journey of his day and participation in "Love on San Pedro," he reiterates his gratitude:"I just want them to know that this is the time of my life and hey - if I can do it, you can do it. I never thought I'd be doing this - I mean, hey, don't ever give up. Keep going for your dreams, keep going for your goals. You're going to make it. Just because people keep telling you 'No' all the time, that doesn't mean you're not going to make it. If I can do it, you can do it, too."
I've had the privilege of speaking to numerous Skid Row community actors throughout the course of "Love on San Pedro" and perhaps the most resounding word in describing their experience in the play is "Wow." This simple word underscores the awe the Skid Row residents experience through their participation in the play. As Sam Comen articulated to me, "One of themes I noticed throughout the day was gratitude. If you look through the photos, Olusheyi has his hands extended in praise three times; those three shots were chosen for a reason." Perhaps this is the most profound lesson "Love on San Pedro," Olusheyi, and the community members of Skid Row have to offer: that in a city as glamorous as Los Angeles is perceived to be, the real gems one acquires are not those that can be purchased; rather they are constructed upon a foundation of love, community, and the simple dignity of having one's voice heard.
Sam Comen lives and works in his native Los Angeles where in the last decade he's photographed luminaries from across the worlds of entertainment, science, and business for publications including Esquire, Rolling Stone, Details, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal. In his personal work Comen focuses-in on small geographic and psychographic communities salient in the collective American historical memory. To see his workvisit his website.