La Llorona: Weeping Women on Skid Row is more than a play. It’s an emotional bomb that explodes at close range. The actors — homeless without a roof or living in subsidized hotels — of the Los Angeles Poverty Department theater company unload powerful testimonies about how they landed on Skid Row, and their search for a way out. The Mexican legend of the play’s title is also that of a search: After she kills her family and herself, the eponymous woman is condemned to seek her children eternally. In a moment of the play, as if they were her children, the entire cast implores, “Mama, please take us home!”
The play was performed during August in a 12-step rehab hall. From the moment the actors entered the stage, it was clear that the transmission of feelings was going to be intense. The play ended with actors and audience hugging each other and with questions embedded under the skin: Why are these people living such painful lives? What are the chances of me becoming homeless?
Chas, one of the actors, is a cheerful person. And that’s not easy, considering he’s been looking for a job for six months while living off his General Relief (G.R.). Chas used to live by MacArthur Park in a rented apartment. But he got laid off when Kmart “downsized.” Now he lives in a single-room-occupancy (SRO) building. His rent is $190 a month, but six months of his nine-month G.R. allocation have already passed. His life right now consists of job interview after job interview. He’s done more than 50 already.
“Because I’ve gotten older, I’m able to understand more about life situations,” he says. “You can’t always be up. You can’t always have a nice place anymore. Because of a changing world, you have to sort of swallow your pride and say, I’ll go this far in order to survive. I’ll work my way back up again.”
Onstage, Chas’ eyes captivate. His relationship to a chair is remarkable. The chair is at times a car, at times the window of a cold employment office, a roof, something to hit somebody with, and also a place to hide.
Walking east on Fifth Street, he points out the different SRO hotels on Wall Street. We turn right on San Julian, and we have to change sidewalks to avoid a drug deal going down in front of the James Wood Center. “You don’t want to get in somebody’s turf,” he warns. Drugs are the biggest problem on Skid Row, Chas says. “I would estimate that many selling the drugs have their nice homes on the Westside.”
In the blink of an eye, we see April, another actor from the play. As she passes, she looks at me for a second of recognition but doesn’t say hello or goodbye. She just floats by. On the stage, her movements and gestures are equally mystical, providing some of the play’s most lyrical moments.
Henriette Brouwers, the play’s director, says that April’s movements are connected with her personal story “in a totally abstract way.” Not even Brouwers knows exactly how April, or any of the other actors, came to be on Skid Row. In the play, they disclose their lives only within their comfort zone. Anything more, the spectators must imagine. Now Chas and I are making a left on San Julian and Sixth toward the Church of the Nazarene. We pass by the Weingart Center, home to one of the most cherished rehabilitation programs. We head north as the little retail stores begin to close. Their empty cardboard boxes will be appreciated by the homeless, who will use them as sheets and mattresses.
I ask Chas if he can show me his apartment, but he declines: “The place where I am is not the place where I want to be, it’s where I have to be to get to where I want to be.” Later, Chas calls to tell me he’s “very depressed.” The MTA strike has forced him to miss two job interviews.
“No vacancies?” laments actor Rickey in the play, giving voice to those individuals and families who are forced to migrate every month to another of Skid Row’s “28-day shuffle” hotels.
“Once upon a time, all you needed was money to get a place to live,” Rickey explains. “Now they do credit checks, criminal-record checks on you. A lot of people who live here would never be able to get an apartment.”
Rickey, who lives in a subsidized Section 8 building, where rooms are paid for by the month, is the editor of the street paper Community Connection. “The short period of time that I did experience homelessness made me know that psychologically I couldn’t cope with not having a place to live. A thin line separates me from being on the streets, but believe me, I’m going to do anything necessary to keep a roof over my head,” he says.
Along with more than 50 other people, Rickey engaged in a peaceful protest last month against the gentrification of the area, denouncing what they believe is the displacement of the impoverished by the new loft conversions downtown. At the Flower Street Lofts on 11th Street and Flower, they learned that the homeowners’ association monthly fee in those apartments is on average $445 — more than double what people like Chas pay in rent. And the prices: from $505,000 to $929,000.
The Skid Row activists are requesting that the city introduce an ordinance that would require a higher percentage of new units be dedicated to the poor. According to the Central City Association, over the next three years 9,000 new housing units will be placed on the market. Less than 350 of them will be available to low-income residents. United Way figures show that more than 84,000 people are homeless each night in L.A. County. There are only 13,632 beds available at shelters.
At the Union Rescue Mission on San Julian Street, looking for Sashae (the play’s lead singer) and blond actress Andrea, who is also a homeless mother — another living “Llorona” — I meet Diane, a woman in a wheelchair who lost a leg to diabetes. She tells me that she lived in all of downtown’s 28-day hotels, until she ran out of money.
Inside the mission are dozens of mothers with children. Many of them work, but they sleep here because they can’t afford a place to rent. Some look physically and mentally impaired and very lonely.
Diane lights a cigarette. Four kids come out from behind us with plastic guns and start spraying each other in the middle of the street. Diane has stayed at the Union Rescue Mission about five times in the last six months. There are dozens of mothers with children, some at the tables located outside, some in front of the check-in window, and some behind the huge dark glass — mothers of all ages and their babies.
“When you live on Skid Row, sometimes dignity is all you’ve got,” says Alexander the Poet in the play. You can see exactly what he’s talking about in the eyes of the people lying down in front of the Midnight Mission on Fourth Street and Wall, a few yards from a refurbished building of expensive lofts.
The lament of La Llorona echoes in the twilight: “Where have my children gone?”
La Llorona: Weeping Women on Skid Row is being staged for one performance on Thursday, November 13, at 7 p.m. at downtown’s Church of the Nazarene (Sixth Street and San Pedro), before traveling to Scripps College in Claremont for a show on Friday, November 14, at 7:30 p.m. For information about the Skid Row performance, call (213) 413-1077; for the Claremont performance, call (909) 607-3541.