Red Beard performance blends past and present

Thirty years ago, John Malpede founded the Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD), a theater troupe composed of homeless and previously homeless performers.  Fifty years ago, Akira Kurosawa directed Red Beard, a Japanese film highlighting a doctor’s relationship with impoverished patients.

On Jan. 15, USC students will have the opportunity to view a unique tribute to these two anniversaries through an excerpt of LAPD’s acclaimed performance, Red Beard/Red Beard.  The show blends the original 1965 film with a live performance from LAPD’s actors.

For the performance, the film is shown in Japanese without subtitles on a television on the center of the stage.  Meanwhile, actors perform on both sides of the television.

John Malpede, LAPD’s founder and current director, described how the performers work in tandem with the film being shown.

“Often [actors] enact scenes in counterpoint to the film and at other points they perform as a chorus, and use gestures to foreshadow, refer back to and otherwise amplify emotionally significant moments,” he said.

The event is just one part of a three-part series hosted by USC’s Visions and Voices.  The series also includes a screening of the entire film on Jan. 14 and a LAPD Performance workshop on Jan. 16.

“John Malpede is a remarkable artistic director, [he is] just an uncompromising, deep, and committed person,” commented Sasha Anawalt, one of the event’s organizers.

Red Beard is one of 16 films that Kurosawa created with actor Toshiro Mifune, who starred in Red Beard.  Kurosawa was a highly regarded Japanese filmmaker whose films feature existentialist and humanist themes.  He directed 30 films during his 57-year career, which spanned from the 1940s to the 1990s.

Red Beard takes place in 19th century Japan and centers on Dr. Yasumoto, the film’s protagonist.  Yasumoto begins his medical career with high hopes of working with an elite clientele.  However, to his dismay, he is sent to a rural medical clinic for his post-graduate training.  While there, he is mentored by Dr. Kyojo Niije, otherwise known as “Red Beard.”  As Yasumoto adjusts to his circumstances, the film tells the individual stories of the clinic’s patients, revealing dark cycles of pain.

Eventually, Yasumoto learns from his experience, gaining not only skill but also compassion.

Malpede first saw the movie in Oaxaca, Mexico shortly after Kurosawa’s death in the late 1990s.  He believed that the film’s themes would connect with a modern audience, leading to LAPD’s adoption of the film.

“The depth of the stories resonated as I knew it would in Los Angeles.  I was immediately convinced that the LAPD performers could penetrate and illuminate these stories,” Malpede said.

Though the film is 50 years old, it remains relevant through its portrayal of social injustice and poverty, issues that continue to prevail today.  Its performance depicts to audiences how these issues are still pertinent and the ways they affect victims.

Red Beard/Red Beard has gained international acclaim. In 2008, the Los Angeles Theater Department performed far from Los Angeles -— in Paris, France.  Because their venue, the Theater de Gennevillers, was fairly large, the production included four separate casts performing simultaneously for four audiences.  This unique set up earned the LAPD a nomination for the “Best Ensemble” award in Paris Theater.

After bringing Red Beard/Red Beard to Paris in 2008, the LAPD took a short break from the performance.  The Visions and Voices event represents the first Red Beard/Red Beard performance LAPD has staged for a few years.

“We are extremely lucky that USC is going to be the launching pad for this revival [of Red Beard/Red Beard],” Anawalt said.

LAPD boasts an impressive list of accolades, including the LA Weekly Theater Award, an Otto Award for political theater, the San Francisco Art Institute’s Kent Award and New York’s Bessie Creation Award.

LAPD is open to any Skid Row resident, and though many actors are veterans of the program, others are new to the stage.  For example, Kevin Michael Key, one of the actors who portrays Red Beard, also performed in the 2008 Paris production, while the other Red Beard actor, Tony Williams, just recently joined LAPD.

When LAPD was first founded in 1985, it was with these actors in mind; the primary purpose of the program is to motivate residents through the arts.  LAPD was both the first performance group and first fine arts program for the homeless in Los Angeles.

“LAPD has contributed … to creating a neighborhood with vibrant recovery, artistic and activist cultures,” Malpede said.

LAPD is a theater troupe with a mission — the underlying focus isn’t just acting, but activism.  With the upcoming three-part Red Beard series, students can experience LAPD’s uniquely artistic activism firsthand, through a 50 year old film which directly explores the poverty that the actors face themselves.

Reservations for Red Beard/Red Beard, the Red Beard film screening and the LAPD performance workshop can be made through the Visions and Voices website.