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Skid row, the musical

An original production about homeless life debuts at a downtown benefit tonight.

June 17, 2004|Steven Barrie-Anthony | Times Staff Writer

"Fits & Misfits" needed another stagehand. And so Mollie Lowery, founding executive director of Lamp Community -- a nonprofit that provides housing, healthcare and job training for Los Angeles' homeless mentally ill -- hit skid row.

The new stagehand, his hand bandaged from a recent stabbing, was literally sleeping in the streets until yesterday when, wooed by Lowery, he agreed to work on Lamp's 19th anniversary awards show and musical, "Fits & Misfits, 2004." Most of the performers in tonight's "evening of celebration, song and hope," held at 7:30 p.m. at the Aratani/Japan America Theatre (244 S. San Pedro St., L.A.), are current or prior Lamp members. They will be joined in the second hour by a cast of professional actors, and together will perform "Blessings," an original musical by playwright Michael Kearns and composer Darien Martus.

Lamp Community includes a shelter, a residential program and more than 100 units of permanent low-cost housing. More than 75% of the people living in permanent housing have been there a number of years, says Lowery, and "most people who live here consider this their home and their family."

In its early years Lamp began celebrating its June birthday by publicly honoring members' victories -- staying off the street, halting drug use, gaining employment.

Somewhere along the line they started including theatrics in the celebration, said Lowery, such as a spoof on "The Wizard of Oz." The theatrical element grew exponentially, and "we began to outgrow ourselves," Lowery said. "People from the community started coming to see our show. We were becoming quite professional."

And so in 2003 Lowery commissioned Kearns to write a play based on the lives of several Lamp members. The result, "Barriers," centered on a resident's tragic suicide. Commissioned again this year, Kearns said that he "wanted to find a bit more light amidst the bleakness." Hence, he and Martus came up with "Blessings," a musical that follows nine people whose lives have been transformed by their association with Lamp.

Most of the principal characters -- "four men, three women, and two transgendered people" -- have moved off the streets, and are now employed at Lamp, Kearns said.

Nine professional actors tell the stories, but the "real people" who inspired the stories are onstage as well, Kearns said.

"What I'm attempting to do," he said, "is to challenge the audience to play along -- in other words, you can put yourself into their shoes if you really want a deeper understanding of their condition."

The first segment of "Fits & Misfits" is the traditional awards ceremony with theatrics throughout. Lamp member Robert Byrd sings a rendition of "Mr. Cellophane" from the musical "Chicago" because, Lowery said, it's a brilliant piece about being invisible, and "that's what it feels like to be homeless."

Lamp members are touched that actors are volunteering their time to come to skid row to rehearse and perform, said Lowery, who has seen Lamp residents and actors "dancing together during breaks." Even if the performance never went on, transformations are already occurring, she said.

Nonetheless, the performance will go on. Only one cast member has dropped out, to serve jail time. Tax-deductible tickets go for $50. RSVP online at or by phone, (213) 488-9559.

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