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THEATER

Actors Who Live the Part

Present and former skid row residents find an escape-- and, sometimes, reason to hope--with a unique troupe.

October 22, 2000|ELAINE DUTKA | Elaine Dutka is a Times staff writer

One by one, the actors make their way through a deserted marble lobby to a rehearsal room at the Los Angeles Theater Center.

First to arrive is Kendrick Jefferson. The gangly Chris Rock look-alike, who also goes by the name Ian Loren, totes an appointment book stuffed with business cards and a copy of Back Stage West. Theater is his life--and his home. Jefferson lives in an air-conditioning duct behind a Hollywood theater.

As a member of the Los Angeles Poverty Department, a theater group formed in 1985 for the homeless and formerly homeless, Jefferson makes the trek to downtown L.A. twice a week for five hours of rehearsal. After it's all over--the months of practice, the brief moment in the spotlight playing to scant audiences, the $150 payment--he'll return to his life on the streets. Still, the 27-year-old dutifully joins the unlikely troupe as it wends its way toward a precarious two-night run in which its members will attempt to connect with the skid row population--and themselves.

Just before 5 p.m., Tony Parker and Steve Chaney amble into the rehearsal hall, sharing an inside joke. A few minutes later, Rickey Mantley shows up, eyes peering out from under his Nike cap. In the hall, Linda Blaisdale gobbles pasta from a plastic dish before heading inside.

Near the stage stands writer-director Emmanuel Deleage, a 26-year-old UCLA graduate. It's his play, "Selma Worth"--a story of the intricacies of skid row life and the challenge of breaking away--that is the focus tonight.

The actors mill around. Waiting. Jefferson kicks back on a couch. Parker and Chaney put on a CD by their band, Defiance. "Hey girl," they call out as Blaisdale enters.

Eventually, Deleage steps forward. "Let's get going," he says, motioning to Parker and Jefferson to begin their scene.

They're well into the rehearsal when the stragglers arrive. One of them, Joe Nobile, arrives without his script--but he's forgotten his reading glasses anyway. Marcy, a recovering drug user, is a no-show, as she's been for several weeks.

"You can't hold it against them," Blaisdale says. "If you're looking for food all day, you're tired. And if you're in a program trying to keep away from whatever form of compulsive behavior you've got, this is the icing--not the cake."

*

"Selma Worth" shifts among different visions of coping with homelessness. In the play, a skid row veteran named Blue leads a newcomer, Rick, on a tour of downtown L.A.:

Over here is Olvera Street, and there's the Cinco de Mayo celebration. And this is the L.A. Mission, where you can get "three hots and a cot."

Food lines, bed checks, seven-minute showers--everything's here, Blue says. No need for a "cardboard condo"--unless you so choose.

A character named Selma, who'll be played by Blaisdale, offers an alternative perspective to Rick, a down-on-his-luck musician. The social worker is fed up with Blue's banter:

Blue's a nice fella but he's gonna keep you from getting back on your feet. Of course, he's happy--he's got no responsibility. He found a way to live off society without having to give back.

Deleage wrote "Selma Worth" during his senior year at UCLA based on conversations with a former member of the theater group, Ron King. To get a feel for life on the streets, Deleage hung out on skid row with King, who later died in a hit-and-run accident.

"I was astounded by the wit and intelligence of so many I ran into, which didn't correspond to my stereotypes," Deleage recalls. "These people had so much potential, so much to say, but were hampered by addictions or a series of misfortunes."

Yet Deleage's perceptions of skid row are precisely what irk Mantley. A self-described "stickler for verisimilitude," he'd appreciate more authenticity.

"Happy-go-lucky Blue points out the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, which isn't even in sight of skid row. It may as well be in Brentwood, like the Getty, it's that far out of mind," he says. "Our world is so focused and circumscribed, we're just trying to keep body and soul together.

"This isn't a garden of earthly delights," he continues. "Walking down the street, you're assaulted by smells, misery, the depths of despair. The story needs to be told in a way that doesn't slight these realities."

Reality for Mantley is a sober-living residence a few blocks from LATC. At 47, he's struggled with drug problems his entire adult life. Until 1997, he drew supplemental security income for people with disabilities. ("I had a double disability--depression and drug addiction.") Though he's been on skid row for the past three years, he is proud that he's "never been homeless for more than a day or two."

"I'm just on the cusp of sheer destitution," he says. "I don't want to fall into a bottomless pit. Skid row is a black hole. Life gets sucked in and doesn't escape, the gravitational pull is so great."

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