Strong Messages from 'The Streets' Theater Troupe of Homeless Actors Performs Searing Drama Based on Real-Life Experiences

Article excerpt

AMONG the many adjectives that leap to mind after a Los Angeles Poverty Department performance, "entertaining" is not one of them. Shocking, biting, aggressive, depressing, frightening, searing, gritty, revealing, or provoking - yes - but entertaining? No.

The LAPD (the anagram is deliberate) is John Malpede's baby. A veteran of performance art, Mr. Malpede turned his socio-political attention to the problems of the homeless in the early 1980s. He took up residence on skid row in Los Angeles and invited homeless actors, artists, and others to participate in a form of theater meant to give voice to a voiceless minority.

That voice is not sentimentalized. It is not made pathetic. Rage, wit, sorrow, and suffering characterize it. It is very hard to listen to because the violence enacted is so intense, making most movie treatments of street violence seem tame by comparison.

LAPD is based in L.A. but not bolted down there. Company members travel to major cities at the invitation of arts or community organizations and move into the local skid row, throwing open rehearsals to anyone who is interested. They have only three rules: No drugs, no liquor, no violence.

The actors work with core LAPD members to tell their own stories, filtered only slightly by the dramatic process. Thus a dramatized version of a true story, the killing of a grocery clerk by a homeless man, will be invested with the actor's real emotions when he was fired from a menial job. It's really a kind of psychodrama, where the most terrible moments in a person's life (or in the life of the local streets) are acted out.

There's more to it, of course - a method in all the madness. There is a good deal of humor (mostly very dark), and there are recurring themes that ultimately help local communities see where the cause of so much agony lies.

LAPD has had a positive effect in many places where it has performed. In some cities, productions have continued independently after the troupe leaves. In Boulder, LAPD's presence has raised the issue of opening a day-center in the town, and committed people are pressing for it. Some of the performers who are mentally disabled have been assisted in getting government aid and their lives have drastically improved. Such changes have been an example to others, who have then sought help, say Malpede and others in the group.

In a recent performance here, sponsored by the Colorado Dance Festival, LAPD took a large rehearsal room at the Boulder Dance Collective, placed the audience in the center of the room, chairs pointed every which way, and built small stages in each corner, though the performers used the entire space. Here we saw men and women lying about as if in shelters or out on the streets. Gradually, their stories unfolded, some of them overlapping or recurring through out the performance.

No mention of homelessness was made, nor was daily activity, daily mundane reality, part of the picture. In one story, a woman (played by a male actor) plots with her older son to torment the younger son.

In another scene, a young couple drives around endlessly looking for amusement. Drugs and liquor are the main antidote for their boredom. It is this man who will kill the clerk. …