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A People’s Theater on Skid Row

John Malpede

John Malpede. Photo credit: Durfee Foundation.

Walda Katz-Fishman is a professor of sociology at Howard University. She has worked for many years with the nonprofit organization Project South, the Institute for Elimination of Poverty and Genocide, and formerly served as its chair.
James McEnteer, Acting Like It Matters: John Malpede and the Los Angeles Poverty Department (Los Angeles: Streetwise Press, 2015), 253 pages, $12.00.

In Acting Like It Matters, James McEnteer gives a compassionate account of John Malpede—actor, activist, and co-creator of the political theatre troupe the Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD)—and of the Skid Row community that is the organization’s heart and soul. The story of Malpede and the LAPD is one of life as art and art as life, and its protagonists are the dehumanized homeless citizens of Los Angeles and their compatriots in cities across the United States and the world, who represent a growing part of today’s global working class pushed out of the formal economy.

Acting Like It Matters follows the intertwined lives and struggles of Malpede and other Skid Row residents, for whom the LAPD became and continues to be a vital channel through which to tell their stories, and to reclaim their humanity and history. LAPD amplifies the voices of homeless writers and actors, helping to break their social isolation, and shows the value of political theater as a means of personal redemption, political engagement, and social transformation. With their searing performances, the LAPD’s actors force the liberal community of advocates, politicians, art patrons, and theater critics to confront a different reality—to rethink their understanding of the homeless as human beings, and address the causes and solutions for homelessness.

McEnteer places Skid Row and the LAPD in the context of the shifting social policies of the 1980s and 1990s, which saw deep cuts to welfare and housing programs and a “war on drugs,” fueling the prison-industrial complex. In the most recent crisis precipitated by Wall Street and the Great Recession of 2008–09, the fight to save Skid Row from gentrification and dispossession has intensified.

The story begins in 1984, with Malpede’s journey from activist–performance artist in New York to political theater director in Los Angeles, the “homeless capital” of the United States. Malpede was drawn to Skid Row to research homelessness for a theater piece, and arrived just as mayor Tom Bradley sought to cleanse downtown of homeless people ahead of the 1984 Olympics. Malpede expected to spend only a brief time there studying, volunteering at a soup kitchen, and working as a paralegal at Inner City Law, part of the Catholic Worker Movement. But Malpede bonded with the area’s homeless and near-homeless residents, recognizing their complicated humanity, and their untapped potential as artists, poets, and performers.

Malpede received a small grant to teach theater classes in his law office after-hours. There he envisioned a living project of theater and social justice centered on the homeless—building their political agency and helping save their Skid Row community. Malpede walked the walk: he was patient, present, a good listener, and a forgiving theater coach. He reached out to arts, advocacy, and service organizations to engage them in the project. He became an organic part of Skid Row, and never looked back.

In late 1985, the Skid Row collective, with wonderful irony, named itself the Los Angeles Poverty Department so its acronym would be LAPD, the same as the Los Angeles Police Department, the primary enforcer of harassment and criminalization of the homeless. Despite the skeptics, Malpede and LAPD soon won the enthusiastic participation and support of the Skid Row community, organizations, and eventually theater critics. Through relations with non-profit and arts organizations, government agencies, and businesses, they landed a home for LAPD on Skid Row.

Malpede’s purpose deepened. He used political theater to organize, agitate, and educate the homeless and the larger arts and political community, and to create a space and process for the rehumanization of the homeless—capitalism’s discarded humanity—as the protagonists of their lives. The LAPD is rooted in cooperative sharing of self and stories, of performance and change. With Malpede’s commitment, skill, and leadership, LAPD went from an all-volunteer labor of love to an award-winning travelling political theater company throughout the United States and the world. LAPD partnered with similar theater projects and nurtured new ones.

McEnteer recounts the many workshops, performances, political dialogues, and collaborations with homeless communities, theater companies, arts and social justice organizations, university-based student and scholar activists, government agencies, and businesses. LAPD’s work took them from Los Angeles to San Francisco, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Raleigh, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Whitesburg, Kentucky and Appalachia, New York, Montreal, Amsterdam, London, Vienna, Mexico, the Bolivian cities of Cochabamba, Oruro, La Paz, El Alto, Sucre, and Santa Cruz, and more.

Malpede, while teaching at Das Arts in Amsterdam in 1996, worked with Henriette Brouwers, Dutch theater artist. Brouwers had studied and performed with Brazilian Augusto Boal, founder and author of Theater of the Oppressed. She returned to Los Angeles with Malpede as LAPD’s co-creator, bringing this current of theater, known as a “weapon for liberation,” into their work.

In his reprise of the edgy and powerful plays and performances—too many to mention—McEnteer captures their energy and passion, highlighting the cacophony of artistic creation that is painful, cathartic, and exhilarating. Malpede and LAPD give voice to the discarded and the fucked up. Their political theater expresses the dialectics of madness as sanity, and sanity as madness in this moment of irresolvable capitalist crisis and the destruction of society and the planet.

Among LAPD’s quintessential plays are Agents & Assets, South of the Clouds, Is There History on Skid Row?, and Weeping Women. Agents & Assets is about the CIA, the Contras, cocaine, guns, and the devastation of Los Angeles’s predominantly black and brown working-class neighborhoods. As an expose of government and police violence, war becomes a metaphor for the intensifying war on the poor. The plot comes directly from the testimony of Representative Maxine Waters and U.S. government “agents and assets” during the 1998 House Intelligence Committee Hearings.

But LAPD flips the script. Agents & Assets is written and acted by the poor and homeless, many of whom were caught up in drug trafficking and addiction to crack cocaine brought to Los Angeles by the CIA and its operatives, and in the exploding war on drugs and mass incarceration. The people most oppressed and criminalized portray the politicians and law enforcement agents who were their antagonists and jailers.

Agents & Assets and the policy discussion following the performance reveal the lies and deception about the government’s role in the Contra drugs-for-guns scandal, and disrupt the official narrative about the government’s active role in the war on Los Angeles’s black, brown, and poor communities. Art unmasks the false reality proclaimed by the ruling class—from politicians to police, corporations to the media (except Gary Webb who was destroyed in the process). Community dialogue becomes an essential aspect of LAPD’s performances and political theater methodology.

South of the Clouds embodies another aspect of the core methodology. Plays and performances emerge out of intense encounters and workshops over several months, bringing together the homeless as creators and tellers of their stories. They articulate and act out their hopes and fears, highs and lows, life and death, and everything in between—in rehearsal, performance, and life.

Malpede reaches for the most demented and crazy to translate their lives of torment into theater that changes them and the audience. Reality intrudes; life interrupts art. Several homeless actors disappeared and a few died. Art is life; and improvisation becomes the practice of this dynamic. Malpede resolves this problem by constructing plays as a series of monologues, which allows for removing the stories of the missing—even as they search for them. He occasionally steps in to play the parts of missing actors. LAPD’s political theater embraces this current of experimental theater and theater of the absurd. Life and art become interchangeable in making sense of a surreal and preposterous world.

The traumatic story of Jim Beame, one of Skid Row’s most disturbed and troubled residents, serves as the basis for one of these monologues at the center of South of the Clouds; and Beame becomes an unlikely star, a master of improvisational performance. Beame, a white worker, lost his disability insurance for failure to recertify, and is plagued by delusions. He exists in the maelstrom of madness and homelessness, unable to get the treatment and support needed. Malpede found a lawyer to pursue Beame’s case for back payments. When Beame was told that he had won the case, he refused to sign the agreement because he had to consent to being schizophrenic. For him, this was signing a “death warrant.” He disappeared from the project. LAPD later learned that he committed suicide.

Beame lived the reality of capitalist society’s disdain for the poor and the emotionally challenged, often made that way by the very society that makes them invisible. South of the Clouds screams out for affirming the life and the humanity of the homeless and the poor. Like all LAPD’s plays, it possesses an authenticity, offering a mirror to the world and an urgent invitation to create a truly human and humane society. Beame’s story also reminds us that homelessness and mental illness cross lines of color and gender, reflecting the multiracial and multi-gendered face of the poorest and dispossessed in Los Angeles and throughout the United States.

In Is There History on Skid Row? Malpede and LAPD debunk the stereotypes of the homeless—that they have no history, no culture, and no community. Through in-depth investigation, conversation, and reflection, the homeless conjure up from within their lived experiences moments of pain and suffering, of strength to challenge stigma and marginalization, and of courage and joy. LAPD assembles a rich collage of stories and images shining a light on the history and culture, the cooperative and collective power and pulse of Skid Row. Is There History on Skid Row? exemplifies the methodology of sharing personal catharsis as a bridge to social change.

For Weeping Women, Brouwers takes the lead as co-creator with immigrant women of Skid Row. They draw on the myth of the weeping woman of Mexico crying for her lost children whom she cannot find. This mythical metaphor expresses the universality of living in poverty on the streets across culture, space, and time—refugees, immigrants, and the homeless all over the world. It speaks to the commonality of homeless mothers crying for their children as they struggle to make a home for them. Weeping Women was written and first performed during the Clinton administration’s massive attack on welfare—”ending welfare as we know it”—and the devastating impact on poor women beginning in the 1990s. As with all LAPD’s political theater, art concentrates life. Weeping Women combines poetry and pathos, and soars with the resilience and hope of homeless immigrant mothers confronted with loss, but compelled and inspired to find a way for their families and children to survive and thrive.

McEnteer, in Acting Like It Matters, gives us a palpable rendition of Malpede and LAPD as political theater—a dramatic humanizing and liberating project. Yet, over thirty years after Malpede first journeyed to Los Angeles and formed LAPD, homelessness continues to rise on Skid Row and across the globe, as do poverty and housing costs. The struggles to end homelessness and neoliberal policies, generally, have confronted powerful forces of opposition and reaction. To resolve the human tragedy of homelessness and sustain personal and group dignity and empowerment, McEnteer’s narrative and Malpede and LAPD’s theater project need to be grounded within a systemic theory and transformative political practice.

In the current moment, systemic analysis of the root cause of homelessness means examining the structural crisis of twenty-first century global capitalism, its contradictions and intensifying antagonisms. Globalization and the technological revolution (electronics, robotics, artificial intelligence, etc.) are expelling millions from the livable wage and wage-labor economy altogether. Swathes of humanity in Los Angeles and globally are less and less necessary to capital in the production process and, thus, increasingly become precarious and often homeless.

Today’s destructive, oppressive, and often violent capitalism, especially in the aftermath of the 2016 election of President Donald Trump, moves increasingly toward fascism, war, and ecocide.

Malpede and the LAPD theater project lift up the human tragedy, the loss of the genius of so many, and the erosion of our shared humanity because we tolerate the daily injuries engendered among the homeless—society’s poorest and most dispossessed. At the same time, their collective story unleashes the emancipatory possibility of political theater, especially when connected to the political will to end homelessness and its systemic cause.

A transformative political practice must embrace a vision and a strategy. Embedded within McEnteer’s narrative are the seeds of a vision of a cooperative society where housing and other necessaries of life—which exist in abundance—are distributed based on human need, and, together, we have recovered our humanity.

In this conjuncture, what is the political path forward to making this vision a reality? The story of Malpede and LAPD offers a critical entry point for rehumanization and political agency. But much more is needed. All who are the protagonists of history have collectively to craft a political strategy for human emancipation and the systemic rupture that is required. We have to engage these essential questions. Where is today’s transformative movement in relation to the reform struggle and the revolutionary process? How do we develop political education for the movement that nurtures revolutionary consciousness? How do we sustain ourselves and survive in the short and medium term? What will be the political instrument to engage the electoral process and the street that encapsulates our multiracial, multinational, and multi-gendered realities and puts forward the interests of the working class and the dispossessed?

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