Skid Row theater troupe defies odds, inspires

One by one, the bodies fall.

Standing up · Jennifer Campbell, playing the role of community organizer Chris Mack, addresses a small crowd at a rehearsal of the Los Angeles Poverty Department’s new project The Biggest Recovery Community Anywhere. The LAPD will perform at the Skid Row edition of film fest Reel Recovery. - Eddie Kim | Daily Trojan

Standing up · Jennifer Campbell, playing the role of community organizer Chris Mack, addresses a small crowd at a rehearsal of the Los Angeles Poverty Department’s new project The Biggest Recovery Community Anywhere. The LAPD will perform at the Skid Row edition of film fest Reel Recovery. – Eddie Kim | Daily Trojan

Some of them settle slowly to the carpet, inch by inch, evoking the collapse of a tired beast. Others drop more suddenly, their limbs casting jagged shadows on the walls as they tumble in spurts, lurching back and forth and side to side. One even gargles a lonely moan as he shields his eyes from the light.

A woman gently enters and examines the scene, tiptoeing over bodies, and addresses the small audience in front of her.

“This is the elephant graveyard. The place where elephants go and just lie down and die,” she says, eyes scanning the limp figures around her. “The elephant graveyard — Skid Row. Where people go to lay down and die. That’s hopelessness.”

A few voices in the crowd murmur sounds of understanding. Others nod in agreement.

Right outside, on the intersection of 6th and San Pedro streets, dozens of Skid Row denizens rustle about, yelling trash talk across the road, sharing food, throwing dice, cracking jokes. But in the Church of the Nazarene, the 13 members of the Los Angeles Poverty Department dutifully run scene after scene of their project, The Biggest Recovery Community Anywhere, in preparation for their upcoming weekend performances.

The Los Angeles Poverty Department (the other LAPD), founded in 1985 by director John Malpede, was the first theater and arts program made for and by homeless people from the Skid Row community. The group garnered attention for its innovative and emotional performances and projects.

Now, they’re collaborating with Writers In Treatment, a nonprofit that produces works from writers in recovery from addiction. The partnership has led to a Skid Row edition of REEL Recovery, a national film festival produced by Writers In Treatment that presents works that delve into drug and alcohol abuse, as well as recovery, in honest and complex ways.

The festival is slated for May 3-5 in Inner City Arts, located in Skid Row, and highlights films such as the Oscar-nominated drama Flight as well as lesser-known features and shorts.

But it’s the LAPD’s performance that truly grounds the event, offering compelling plotlines, a deep sense of environment and stellar performances from the cast. The Biggest Recovery Community Anywhere is told through short vignettes that highlight both unique personalities and problems, ranging from the trauma of leaving a dope-sick friend to die in the hospital to the vicious battle of competing desires — to get high, to stay clean — that plays out in an addict’s head.

The show is experimental without being overtly abstract, but more importantly, it feels breathtakingly heartfelt, offering viewers moments of hair-raising drama. Rightfully so, considering that much of the script was culled from the real-world narratives of the cast members and their experiences in the community.

And in his almost three decades of heading the group, Malpede has seen LAPD grow and change with the shifting environment and population of Skid Row. Yet, the most important constant has been the need to give the community a voice beyond just headlines of tuberculosis, crime and filth.

No one denies that Skid Row suffers from both a cracked reputation and the realities of rampant drug abuse and homelessness. But Malpede’s greatest weapon has always been the ability to show both Skid Row residents and outsiders alike the silver lining that surrounds the city’s most maligned neighborhood.

“This show really looks at recovery and how positive that process is, and just how so many people with different stories are realizing how to be better,” Malpede said. “People come here for free programs to heal, and we have the most affordable housing in L.A. — even though you just hear about smoking crack and people dying on Skid Row, it’s an actual, thriving community.”

Fittingly, LAPD’s members come from various walks of life, yet share the common thread of living and working in Skid Row.

Like many other group members, Jennifer Campbell, who delivers the elephant graveyard speech in the role of legendary community organizer Chris Mack, struggled with an addiction to drugs and alcohol since arriving from Chicago 13 years ago. She found LAPD through word of mouth and began working in the group consistently since 2009.

“We work like a family,” Campbell said of the group. “The LAPD has a saying: the only way to get kicked out of the LAPD is by kicking yourself out.”

This feeling of family is something numerous cast members acknowledge and treasure. Anthony Taylor, who was adopted, admits he grew up in a loving home with attentive parents but still was drawn to a self-destructive drug habit. First, it was cannabis and alcohol; then, harder drugs.

In 1991, Taylor waved goodbye to his home in Norfolk, Va. and trekked to Los Angeles to meet his biological parents. He found his father but continued to suffer from his habit, also falling in and out of jail because of petty theft charges.

Four years ago, Taylor joined LAPD. Now, he happily declares that he has been clean for two years.

“I’m living proof,” said Taylor, who recently joined Los Angeles City College’s audition-only Theatre Academy. “Some people get tired — they just don’t know what to do anymore. And we can bring them in the fold and at least help give them direction, a support system.”

Part of that support system comes from the communal way in which Malpede and associate director Henriëtte Brouwers develops LAPD’s projects. With The Biggest Recovery, each of the cast members wrote about both their past and present to help mold the show’s characters and stories.

“There was lots of exploring through improv, though playing games, to see how to make each moment ring true,” Malpede noted.

But naturally, performing material so close to real-world experience can be straining. Though the show’s genuine tone is one of its biggest strengths, it doesn’t come without challenges.

“In a sense, it is difficult — I find myself getting in and out of character, sometimes wondering who I’m speaking as,” said Linda Harris, a consistent LAPD contributor since 2009 who appeared in The Soloist.  “And it doesn’t always feel good to revisit some bad parts of your past. But there’s a message, an important one.”

For Brouwers, the message serves as a multifaceted tool, eliciting different emotions and reactions depending on a viewer’s background.

“We always try to mix our audiences up, and I think everyone gets something different from it. Someone in recovery sees they’re not alone. Others can understand what it’s like to deal with these issues,” she said. “Skid Row is a community, and exposing these stories to others helps people realize that this area isn’t just about what’s often depicted by media.”

Near the end of the show, Campbell addresses the audience with a telling line. “In Skid Row, you see people come back from everything,” she says. “Things you call tragedies.”

The Biggest Recovery shows those tragedies in stark light, leaving blood on the stage with a brutal look at how bad things can get. But the LAPD also knows firsthand the existence of a silver lining.

Prolific community activist and 10-year LAPD member Kevin Michael Key works every day to show others the upside when none seems to exist. The biggest thrill for him is knowing that LAPD’s work could give someone a reason to get up, both literally and figuratively.

“There’s a lot of exhilaration and empowerment to know that these are my words, my thoughts I’m sharing with people to hopefully give them something positive,” Key said. “And it’s not how you perform, it’s about how you better yourself. We have a saying: We love you until you learn to love yourself.”


The Biggest Recovery Community Anywhere will be performed as a part of REEL Recovery on May 3-5 in Inner City Arts, located downtown.