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His spotlight illuminates lives of the homeless

John Malpede's skid row theater troupe addresses the growing presence of women and children on the streets.

August 27, 2003|Sasha Anawalt | Special to The Times

Eighteen years ago, when John Malpede established his theater company, Los Angeles Poverty Department, on skid row, the neighborhood belonged largely to homeless men. Now, 36% of the 6,000 to 8,000 people sleeping on the streets each night are women and children -- an increase, ironically, that mirrors the influx of high-end loft-buyers and redevelopers.

Malpede's goal with his theater for the homeless is to give people without a forum the chance to be heard, so it's not surprising that his troupe's latest effort, to premiere this week, reflects this new reality. Like most of the company's scripts, the one for "La Llorona: Weeping Women on Skid Row" was created by the actors. It was based on a Mexican legend, but its subtext is that on any given day, according to a recent study by the Los Angeles Community Action Network and the Downtown Women's Action Coalition, there are only 12 nonemergency beds, at two downtown shelters, available to mothers with children.

"I don't have a license as a minister or a social worker. As an artist, you license yourself," Malpede said the other day while sitting outside the James M. Wood Community Center on skid row. His mischievous eyes suggested at one moment a sweet, impish naif and at the next a resilient old owl.

"The important thing is to keep things as confused as possible," he said. "Art is about messing up the categories so you can catch people by surprise and expand their awareness."

But to be a catalyst for expression, Malpede, like many others in the 30-year-old community arts movement, must enter territory not his own and impose his expertise on a group. And this work raises complex issues. "La Llorona" addresses the fact that the presence of children on skid row has contributed to a traditional, nuclear-family feeling on the streets and that the homeless are responding, in part, by increasingly wanting to sink roots.

In the past, Los Angeles Poverty Department, known as LAPD, has helped skid row's inhabitants to organize. Now it's stepping into a crisis, and while Malpede has his own hope for these people -- permanent housing -- he has to be careful not to shape their views to match his.

This is the community artists' dilemma, and it raises the question: What's the distinction between community art practice and social or welfare work?

The question doesn't appear to trouble the 58-year-old Malpede, who is also a performance artist and got his start in New York after doing graduate work in philosophy at Columbia.

"People who ask that probably don't even know what social work or what art is," he said.

Although Malpede is internationally respected in the burgeoning community arts field as a pioneer whose ambitious projects have influenced cultural and social policy, he doesn't pretend to have all the answers.

"Everyone always wants to define community art and pat it on the back, flatten it to one dimension," he said. "But multidimensionality is our reality. We can't be easily pinned down."

For Malpede's company, that has meant a life on the edge and often in obscurity. In the not-too-distant past, the company had $1,000 in the bank for a solid year. Asked about the troupe's budgetary high, Malpede said he believed it was $100,000. Sometimes he pays himself a salary, sometimes not. Currently, he and his wife, Netherlands-born Henriette Brouwers, live in a friend's house.

Still, the company -- among the first of its kind in the nation, and one that has toured to Detroit, Seattle, Houston and elsewhere -- has never gone completely dark, and its actors have always been paid, making them technically professionals. Why does Malpede do it?

"The great equalizer is, we're all going to die," he said. "That normalizes us. If you live on skid row, skid row is a low-income neighborhood, and LAPD is deadly serious about participating in creating it as a normative neighborhood."

The group's social successes are measurable. Nearly half the 14-member "La Llorona" cast has been in its productions before, and several hold important positions in skid row's orderly, daytime village life, including Rickey Mantley and Chas Jackson. Mantley is editor in chief of the 5-year-old Community Connection, a free bimonthly street newspaper with a circulation of 5,000. Jackson is an ardent tenant advisory council representative for the nonprofit Single Room Occupancy Housing Corp. and among those responsible for more security guards having been hired to patrol the area. Both men have e-mail addresses, phones and places they call "home," and within LAPD they are not unusual.

Asked to explain how Malpede and the troupe have made a difference, Jackson responded: "People thank us after our shows, saying they relate to our stories and don't feel so alone. When so many things are telling you that you don't count and ought to be 'disappeared,' LAPD helps you take pride."

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