The clip above is from the most recent live performance piece from the Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD), an arts organization based in Skid Row that, as they say on their website, “tells the rest of the story, what you don’t hear elsewhere.” I am featuring them in what I hope to be an ongoing series of profiles of groups doing work related to cultural organizing. The information in this post was drawn largely from a profile by Javiera Benavente at the Arts and Democracy Project, and from a report put out by LAPD and the Urban Institute on the cultural assets of Skid Row, as well as from the group’s website.
Founded in 1984 by artist and activist John Malpede as the first theater company in the country to be comprised mainly of homeless and formerly homeless community members. Over the years, LAPD has created highly unique performances covering a range of issues, from incarceration to gentrification. These performances and multidisciplinary art projects have multiple goals. For one, they are often created to challenge dominant narratives about people in Skid Row (or other similar communities), and uncover stories that highlight strengths and assets. Secondly, they are sometimes used as a process of healing, through the connection of personal issues to structural oppression, as with their piece on government involvement in drug trafficking. Third, they are used to spark dialogue among community members, leaders, organizers, etc., about what people want for the neighborhood and how to get it, as in their UTOPIA/dystopia project.
What makes LAPD different from many politically-minded performance troops is its interconnection with both the social services community and the organizing community. From the very beginning participants were involved in LAPD and organizing campaigns, and the group aligned their performance work with these efforts. They continue to be part of ongoing dialogue and activism around improving the lives of community members through collective work. To me, this type of partnership is a potentially excellent model for the work of cultural organizing. While groups like Project HIP-HOP in Boston are building models that combine organizing and art, in many places it may be much more realistic to conduct cultural organizing through partnerships, allowing organizations to focus on what they do best while engaging the full spectrum of strategies to create change.
I had the chance to see one of their projects when LAPD was running a residency in Detroit, MI. The piece was entitled, Agents and Assets, and used (word for word) the transcript of a congressional hearing on allegations that the US government facilitated drug trafficking into inner cities as part of funding their illegal war in Nicaragua. The performance, which I saw in a church, is followed by dialogue with the audience (and apparently a panel discussion, though I don’t remember that at the performance I went to.) While I found the performance a bit dry (it is, after all, a complete congressional transcript) there were very powerful moments. And more importantly, the very concept of the performance is a lesson in itself—to have people of color, largely, who have struggled with drugs and homelessness in inner-city LA speaking the words of the largely white politicians whose actions or inactions created the conditions that the performers faced, draws stark contrasts for the viewer. I also would imagine it would be an incredibly powerful and healing experience for the performers who studied the topic and each word of the transcript so closely.