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LAPD Inspects Chicago




Los Angeles Poverty Department

at Randolph Street Gallery

The first scene in LAPD Inspects Chicago shows what the Los Angeles Poverty Department does best: create arresting moments drawn from the real lives of the homeless. A quiet, reserved young man (Ameir Tahir) inadvertently crosses the path of another more aggressive young man (Julious Jenkins), resulting in the latter's unleashing a barrage of veiled threats. "What's wrong with you, man?" he incessantly asks. "Why you walking in my path?" Jenkins is clearly aching to start something, so that all that Tahir can do is protest "I wasn't doing nothing." Jenkins's anger builds until he finally shows Tahir where he has written his own name on the wall, and act that he believes makes him "immortal."

LAPD, according to press material, is "the first performance group in the nation comprised mainly of homeless and formerly homeless people." Under the direction of performance artist John Malpede, LAPD visited Chicago for a 45-day residency based at Cooper's Place, a day shelter for homeless men. This show, performed both at Cooper's Place and Randolph Street Gallery, is the result of workshops there.

The opening scene is gripping not only because of the wholehearted commitment of Jenkins and Tahir, which makes the exchange appear spontaneous and truly dangerous, but because of the complexity of the emotions involved. It's clear that Jenkins's character, for all of his aggression, is desperately insecure, trying to leave his mark in a society that hardly acknowledges him. Tahir, while seemingly weak, does all he can to keep Jenkins's dignity intact. He responds with touching kindness, telling Jenkins, "You're my people."

A later scene, a reenactment by Robert Topaz of his life in a foster home, is brutal in its portrayal of a system that does everything but pay attention to the people it's meant to help. From the foster mother who constantly insults Topaz as stupid and lazy to the callous social worker to the judge who seemingly speaks a foreign language, Topaz is surrounded by figures of authority who refuse to see anything from his point of view, or even acknowledge that he has a point of view. The foster mother, for example, berating Topaz for not cleaning up the house, laments "Can't you see you're making me upset?"

What gives the scene its weight, though, is Topaz's remarkable performance. He hardly moves or utters a sound, but simply stares back at his tormentors with a mixture of hatred, frustration, and pride. He can't explain himself, because he isn't really a person in the eyes of the others. They all seem to be playing by rules that deny his rights as a human being, so all he can say to explain his constant attempts to run away is, "I don't like it here." It's a simple statement, but enormous emotions lie behind it, emotions that can't be expressed in such a way that anyone around him will understand.

These two scenes are by far the most successful in this hour-long, loosely improvisational theater piece, because they hint at lives unknown and sadly ignored by most of us in the audience. At its best, the show empowers both performers and audience with its humanizing story telling. At its weakest, the piece degenerates into skits that seem uncomfortably and at times embarrassingly close to group therapy role-playing sessions. Performer Mark Dorsey tells us he was unfairly fired from his janitorial job. He relives this moment from his past three times, and in the third scene gets to play his boss. Performer Daniel James depicts himself suffering sadistic abuse as a child, then lashes out at his torturers and screams that he will kill them if they ever touch him again. These scenes lack complexity, simply giving the performers a chance to turn the tables on their abusers, doing little more than making us feel sorry for the two abused men. And pity doesn't exactly address the problems that cause abuse in the first place.

All of the scenes are loosely scripted, the performers making things up as they go along while those not in the scene, including director Malpede, shout out encouragement or objections. This chaotic style, while interesting in its refusal to acknowledge any central authority--everything seems up for grabs here--too often buries the performers. Much of the time it seems as though these men are trying to be improvisational comics, when, as is made clear through performances such as Jenkins's and Topaz's, they are most engaging when simply allowed to be themselves. It is enough for them to just be themselves, yet the structure of the evening by and large does not allow them to show their strengths. Malpede may be imposing upon his performers a style and format with which they are not wholly comfortable.

In fact, Malpede's role in the performance in general is problematic. He sits in the audience and shouts out directives incessantly, at times encouraging his performers but usually contradicting them or telling them what to do. His authority is never challenged; when he interjects, the performers onstage stop and listen to him. Certainly he seems intent on destabilizing the narrative, forcing us to question the facts presented instead of blindly believing anything put on display. But I found his voice intrusive, as if the director couldn't keep his hand out of the material. And since the material is supposed to belong to the performers, his constant "corrections" seem to undercut their authority.

For all of the show's good intentions, creating a forum for normally silenced voices, it shockingly omits those of women. While LAPD does include women in its company, only men came to Chicago, and they were based in a men's shelter. In the piece itself, the women who appear are a nameless woman who is raped (she is simply mentioned in passing), an abusive foster mother, an abusive mother and grandmother, and an ineffectual social worker. Twice women are referred to as "bitch" and "cunt." The unchecked misogyny that runs through this piece is inexcusable.

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