On Stage: LAPD's theater of the homeless | Calendar | Chicago Reader

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On Stage: LAPD's theater of the homeless


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A young black man stands in the middle of a bare floor, holding a broom. He's quiet, passive, virtually paralyzed. Standing next to him is another young black man, high-strung and shouting at nerve-racking volume: "Stop standing there and go out and do something with your life! Stop staying in these fucking boxes, missions, airports. Jesus! I don't know why God put me in this body!"

In the upcoming performance piece LAPD Inspects Chicago, which premieres this weekend at the Randolph Street Gallery, the two men play different aspects of the same person. But as stylized a theatrical experience as this alter ego device might suggest, LAPD Inspects Chicago promises to be an unusually real piece of theater. Developed under the guidance of the Los Angeles Poverty Department, which lays claim to the distinction of being the first performance group in the nation made up of mainly homeless and formerly homeless people, the show is a collage of stories about urban homelessness, based on the real-life experiences of those creating it.

Take Mark Dorsey, for instance. He's the young man holding the broom. About a year ago, Mark was fired from his janitorial job because he didn't follow his supervisor's instructions. A very introverted man who has trouble expressing himself, Mark believes that he was set up--that the supervisor ordered him to perform a task not on his schedule, then fired him when he stuck to his original schedule. Mark's side of the story comes through loud and clear in the show, but it's not unchallenged. The scene, as it was developed improvisationally by Dorsey and others in the LAPD workshops, airs other viewpoints too. Perhaps Dorsey's problem was due to his own timidity; or perhaps--as Julious Jenkins, the actor who has assumed the role of Dorsey's alter ego, states--he is the source of his own problems because he failed to follow orders. In fact, it was Jenkins's angry criticism of Dorsey's material during one rehearsal that gave the upcoming piece its provocative subtitle: I Ain't Doin' No Material That Make My People Look Dumb, Stupid, Lazy, or Artistic.

Since its formation in 1985, LAPD has used theater to explore the ambiguities of the homeless problem--the clash of socioeconomic and emotional imbalances that can both lead to and be exacerbated by not having a job or a place to live. This approach is the key to the company's double mission: to give voice to the concerns of homeless people, and to help homeless people change their behavior and attitudes in a productive way. Six LAPD members--all men, though the 20-member company does include women--came to Chicago for a 45-day residency sponsored by the Randolph Street Gallery under a National Endowment for the Arts matching-grant program. Workshops were held at Cooper's Place, a day shelter for homeless men west of the Loop, and at the Prop Theatre's garage space on North Avenue; of those who took part in the workshops, four stayed consistently enough to become part of the show.

"There's a stereotype that 'community art is bad art,'" says John Malpede, LAPD's 44-year-old founder and artistic director. "That's an easy way in which things are dismissed, but it's often true. In our work, we don't try to cosmeticize anything. Obviously, in what we're doing there's some belief that art matters--that it contributes to the betterment of society. But we're not going to put restrictions on the art to make it conform in advance to some value structure. This isn't about 'upgrading people' or anything like that. It's about embracing the reality that exists."

Reality means conflict: the long rehearsal process leading up to this weekend's performances produced its share of arguments among the cast of approximately ten. But Malpede is careful to channel conflict into productive areas. Everything is fodder for the show. And Malpede himself almost never asserts his authority with criticism. "These people can't handle any more negativity," he explains. "They've had nothing but negative energy their whole lives." Instead, he prods and shapes the scenes by stepping in as an actor or making appropriate comments or sounds from the sidelines.

"It's an open-door situation," Malpede says of the workshops. "Anyone can walk in, and it's very hard to get booted out--you really have to do something bad. Of course, people can walk out whenever they want--or fall asleep, read the newspapers, just watch, whatever. It's a very open structure."

Malpede, a 1963 graduate of New Trier East High School who pursued philosophy studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and at Columbia University, is a former performance artist who was active in New York in the 1970s. New York then was "like a big wasteland where I could do whatever I wanted," Malpede recalls. But in the early 1980s, disillusioned by the growing commercialization of the avant-garde, he moved to Los Angeles and became a welfare advocate. In that job, he found what he calls "a catch-22 in most of the social welfare programs: in order to partake of them, you have to act right. That means that the people who are most out there are gonna stay out there: the ones most in need aren't going to qualify for the programs. So I was interested in creating a situation where that wasn't true."

LAPD has a good track record for improving participants' lives. Take Daniel James Smith--D.J. or Deej, as his friends call him. A burly white 25-year-old ex-marine, Smith was staying at the Weingart Center, an emergency housing center in Los Angeles, on Christmas Eve 1986 when LAPD recruited him. "This man [Malpede] gave me $5 and told me to buy a present and draw a name for the grab bag," Smith remembers. Now he's a full-time company member and handles the company's bookkeeping. Recently, Malpede notes with pleasure, Smith has begun to open up emotionally about a very troubled childhood and offer it as material for the group. The show--at least in its rehearsal phase--contains scenes depicting Smith's mother, who vented her anger at Smith's father by verbally abusing the boy, then tying him up and locking him in his room to keep him from running away.

Dorsey is another potential success story for LAPD. Though too shy to take part in workshops at Cooper's Place at first, the 29-year-old caught the attention of a company member because he was watching the sessions with such intensity. Invited to participate, Dorsey said he didn't feel he was an actor, but he had some ideas for scenes--including his own account of being fired.

"I had my story and I felt it should be heard," Dorsey says. "It just might make a difference. Somebody out there might say, 'We're doing something wrong.' When you're talking about helping people, you first have to change the laws." But Smith disagrees: "Changing the laws ain't gonna change shit, man."

"We try to create multiple points of view, not a party line. That creates the richness of reality and puts it back to the audience," Malpede says.

LAPD Inspects Chicago will be performed Saturday, May 19, at 7:30 and 10 PM, and Sunday, May 20, at 7:30 PM at Randolph Street Gallery, 756 N. Milwaukee. Tickets are $6, $4 for students and RSG members, and free if you're broke. The late show Saturday is a benefit for Arts Against AIDS/Chicago. For more information call 666-7737.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/John Sundlof.

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