HERE’S LOOKING AT YOU, SKID
You want to hear some of the freshest, funniest dialogue in town? Head over to Cornerstone’s world premiere of Love on San Pedro. James McManus’s script was developed via personal interviews he had with Skid Row denizens, so the stories in the play take place in this one square mile community. Drunk or sober, desperate or hopeful, preachy or introspective, McManus’s characters bound from the page, aided by the fact that director Shishir Kurup cast all but 4 of this gigantic ensemble—many of whom are acting for the first time—from auditions held at the Los Angeles Mission, where the play is being presented. These actors, some of whom are currently homeless and some who live in shelters, don’t need to create a backstory, they come with it.
Even more remarkable is that many of these first-time thespians are just as good, if not better, than their Equity counterparts. When Alan Richer fumbles over his dialogue as the curlicue mustachioed Colonel, he still has more internal machinery going on than most classically trained actors in L.A. Olusheyi Banjo nails the unassuming and joyful Pastor, and in the small role of the Pastor’s Wife, Marla Howard produces a deadpan glare that gives Thelma Ritter a run for her money (and I honestly don’t think Ms. Howard is even trying). Lee Maupin may be the most amiable guy in real life, but his Hags, a sort of street barker with attitude and a snarl, definitely deserves to say, “Stubborn is my gift.”
There are central stories, from heartbreaking to inspirational, so even though McManus’s overlong stew of a script gets a bit bogged down with too many ingredients—including prose and didacticism—the vaudevillian banter is fantastic: You can’t argue with lines such as “That boy couldn’t get a date if he was in a chick prison” and “A smart thought just went through your head; don’t let it die by being lonely.”
One of the stories that occurs on Shannon Scrofano’s ingeniously simple cardboard set involves a trio of women who attend counseling with Father Mac (an astoundingly natural Peter Howard). Nisha Bordeaux may be sluggish picking up cues, but her quirky line delivery is fascinating; Cynthiaanne Cofell defies labels—whether you call her caricature, actress or real person, everyone will dig that crazy hairstyle; and EVet Thompson, a standout of the evening, sings a version of “Feelings” at a graduation ceremony that could melt a heart of stone. (Elzie Alexander also sings: As an ex-roadie named Cowboy, he offers a smooth and hysterical rendition of “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” at the Skid Row karaoke night).
Sure the acting is uneven, yet Alonzo Phoenix as Henderson, the PTSD-ridden Iraq Vet who social worker Becca (Lorinda Hawkins) has feelings for, overcomes his wooden, deer-in-the-headlights acting style by fearlessly baring a frustrated soul. Anthony Tate is somewhat stilted but very sympathetic as Sky Hook, a basketball player who falls in love with Marjorie (Bahni Turpin), a sickly alcoholic with a troubled past. Far and away, the best of the Equity actors is the joyful and authentic Marcenus “MC” Earl as Man With The Plan, an inner-city commentator and annotator.
Mr. Kurup utilizes the long narrow space well (this is traverse staging, a.k.a. “profile theater,” in which the audience is placed on risers to either side of the playing space), creating areas as disparate as an alley, a church, and a small room; the actors fluidly execute scene changes without a hitch. A few scenes are weighed down by being drenched in self-importance (instructional “This is how life is on Skid Row” scenes are not as effective as those in which characters simply try to relate to each other), but there is a rawness and vitality to the production rarely seen in L.A. theater.
I learned a good deal about the realities of Skid Row and that behemoth benevolent enterprise, the L.A. Mission, by attending this play. Witnessing the actors, as well as the generous parking lot attendants and ushers, it’s apparent that this production has instilled a sense of pride into a misunderstood community.
Love on San Pedro
Cornerstone Theater Company
Los Angeles Mission
enter building on 301 E. Winston St.
park nearby at Downtown Women’s Center
442 South San Pedro St.
scheduled to end on November 24, 2013
tickets are Pay-What-You-Can
for tickets, visit http://cornerstonetheater.org/