Watts Village Theater Company Takes “Meet Me @ Metro IV” “Home” to Watts

The grandchildren of vendors at the 103rd St. Station in Watts watch the Watts Village Theater Company's performance of "Scattered Joy" as part of Meet Me @ Metro IV. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Projecting as best he could above the intense ambient noise that surrounds a heavily-trafficked freeway and metro station, curator Gamal Palmer, introduced the Watts Village Theater Company’s (WVTC) performance of “Under the 105” by invoking this year’s theme of “Home.”

Previously, he said, the WVTC had worked to take Watts to L.A., “so there were theater pieces that would happen at Union Station and Pasadena.”

Now, they were launching a new approach — more of a festival model — that will ultimately see performances at several stations around the area, “inviting Los Angeles and the wider community to come to Watts.”

By “reclaiming” Watts, he concluded, they would be “honoring the vast history here, and the people here, and really making Los Angeles a community — one community.”

It’s a lofty goal.

And an admirable one.

But, bridging that divide is still tough.

People wandering through the performance space — sited directly under the 105 freeway and across the street from the transfer point between the Blue and Green lines — didn’t always seem that interested in stopping to check it out. Even when WVTC staff and volunteers handed out programs and explained what was going on, only a handful stuck around. Others would move on again after a few minutes.

Most interesting to me were three young men standing in front of their house across the street. Clearly they were aware there was a performance going on, and they were curious to see who all was in their neighborhood, but it wasn’t enough to get them to cross the street.

I grabbed three programs and headed over to see what their story was.

A performer cultivates flowers in her "home" prior to the start of the performance. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

They had seen the performers rehearsing for the past week or two, they said.

“And that wasn’t enough to get you to go over there to see what was up?” I asked.

“Nah,” said a heavyset man in his late teens who towered over me. “See, now, you’re the first person from there to come over here and talk to us.”

“I’m not even part of the group,” I said. “I’m a reporter. And I was wondering if you could help me understand why it was so hard to get the community to check out what was going on.”

As I gave them a little background on the theater group and their larger purpose, one of the guys cut me off.

“I don’t see anybody who look like they from Watts over there!”

The other guys laughed in agreement.

I suggested that that was partly because guys like themselves had decided to watch from across the street instead of joining the group.

“Maybe if they had put a banner up and let the people know,” said the heavyset youth. “Then everybody would be over there.”

He offered a few more ideas and then nodded, proud of himself, “See? I could be a community organizer!”

“You need to go to church more!” said a lady coming out of her house. “That’s that group from church. If you went to church more often you would know what’s going on!”

No, I explained, it wasn’t a church group.

“It’s not?”

“No.”

“Oh,” she tapped the heavyset youth with the program as she walked away. “Well, you should still go to church.”

* * * *

The performance of "Under the 105." Artistic Director Lynn Manning (center left, in the hat) of the WVTC listens attently. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

After some cajoling, I managed to get the guys to join me at what I thought might be a comfortable distance from the edge of the audience.

They watched for a few minutes and then wandered over to the backside of the performance, but without heading back across the street yet, to stand at what was apparently a more comfortable distance for them.

They assured me they were interested now, and willing to check it out, but they still didn’t think it was a very “Watts” kind of thing.

At that moment, a friend of theirs walked up to see what was going on.

As soon as he heard it was a performance and involved spoken word, he whipped out his phone.

A girlfriend of his was a poet, he said. She was amazing. She had a way with words.

“She even wrote a poem about me!” he said.

He pulled up some of her poetry for me and handed me the phone.

“Click on any one of those and read it,” he said. “You’ll see.”

He was serious. He even walked away and left me with the phone so I could take in her work.

“She is a powerful writer,” I agreed, when he came back for my opinion.

He took the phone and tried calling her so he could give me her real name so I could find more of her work.

This is the value of having the performances here,” I thought.

Even if the youths didn’t pay more than two seconds’ worth of attention to the actual show, the act of creating a performance venue in a usually dead space opened up some unique possibilities for dialogue, for people to connect, and for excitement about the arts in an area that desperately needs more of it.

And, the willingness of the young men — usually the hardest group to draw in to any kind of community event — to let me engage them seemed to be a sign of just how hungry they are for programs that are welcoming to them and their life experiences.

It was so heartening to watch some of the usual boundaries being crossed, in fact, that I was kind of sad to see the performance come to an end, the audience disperse, and the young men run off to catch a train.

But, I am glad to know that the WVTC will be using that space for the next Meet Me @ Metro extravaganza. Now that neighbors are familiar with the troupe and what they are about, the next iteration will likely draw more of them in. And, if they’re lucky, perhaps even a performer or two.

Want to know more about the Watts Village Theater Company and their upcoming production, Riot/Rebellion, on the 1965 Watts Uprising? Click here.

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