Seventeen-year-old Kenneth Landon was once a skinhead, a member of the white supremacist group Aryan Nation. James Goodwin, whose face is still scarred from the time a rival broke a bottle against his cheek, was a leader of a black gang in Brooklyn.
That was before.
Thursday, they embraced. With other teen-agers and young adults from across Los Angeles, they sang, danced and "testified" before a cheering crowd--whose members included former First Lady Nancy Reagan--at Pride House, a drug rehabilitation center in Van Nuys.
"Just because I used to be one way, doesn't mean I can't change!" shouted Kenneth as part of the group's performance, while the others moved in a choreographed circle, beating their hands on their chests in the rhythm of a beating heart.
James and Kenneth are part of an organization called CityKids, a nonprofit arts and education foundation that aims to bring together inner-city youths with teen-agers and young adults from the suburbs to get to know one another and work together on theatrical productions and socially useful projects.
Founded in New York by former prison social worker Laurie Meadoff, the organization officially expanded its operations to Southern California on Thursday. The occasion was marked by the performance at Pride House and facilitated by a $50,000 grant from the Nancy Reagan Foundation. Reagan presented the check after Thursday's performance.
James, who came to Los Angeles to try his hand at acting, said he tried CityKids in Brooklyn on the advice of an adult mentor. At the time, he said, "I was just hanging out, not going to school," and had just attended the funeral of the seventh of his friends to die in less than one year.
At CityKids, he learned to talk about his feelings--about his family, about life on the streets, about the gang. And one day shortly thereafter, during a career expo, Meadoff handed the young street tough an expensive, portable two-way radio and dubbed him the leader of a group of 300 youngsters.
He was floored.
"I started doing something positive, instead of being this nuisance society labeled me as," said James, who left his gang by pretending to have been sent to jail. "I began to try to solve problems."
Meadoff said she had long considered expanding to Los Angeles and was finally prompted to act by the April riots.
She called Reagan, who had seen a performance by a CityKids repertory group in New York and pledged to help.
The biggest challenge in the move, Meadoff said, will be the city's size. To create a mix of youth from various areas, she is considering monthly meetings in rotating locations. Since June, youngsters have met once a month in a borrowed storefront gym in West Los Angeles, discussing their feelings about the riots and preparing Thursday's program.
They plan to spend most of the winter and spring refurbishing an inner-city playground or park, and working on a presentation to mark the anniversary of the riots.
New members will be recruited through schools, community youth programs and theatrical performances like the one at Pride House.
Thursday's event ended with a song, the youngsters pulling even reticent halfway-house residents up to the front. "I want to heal the rainbow," they sang, joined by the audience and the First Lady.
Even the famously stiff Secret Service agents accompanying Mrs. Reagan appeared to be moved.
"It's beautiful what you're doing," one agent declared to Meadoff. "It's just great. And when you've got them through college, you have them call me for a job in the Secret Service."