The woman onstage is in mourning, rising unsteadily from the floor in fishnets and a dangerously short skirt, still in disbelief that another friend has died on the streets. "She was so young," cries Carrie Gazzaruso, a curtain of blond hair over her face. She quickly pulls off a thong and wraps it tightly around her arm, collapsing back to her knees to prepare a needle loaded with heroin.
After plunging the hypodermic into her arm, a moment of calm is interrupted by panic, as she gasps, "Oh my God, too high, too high." She struggles to crawl forward before falling again, laying motionless, another OD to drugs. A pair of actors help Gazzaruso to her feet, and she recites a poem about the life of a prostitute:
"It's four in the morning, I'm still on the floor / I can't find the courage to walk out the door / Too tired to run with nowhere to hide / I can no longer afford the price of this ride . . ."
The scene unfolding during a rehearsal at the Sidewalk Studio Theatre in Burbank is more truth than fiction. "Hustlin" is a play performed almost entirely by residents of a Skid Row rehab facility in downtown Los Angeles, telling stories rooted in their own experiences with drugs, homelessness, prostitution, crime and incarceration.
Taking notes from one of the theater's 33 seats is Meri Pakarinen, co-director of the play with her husband, Michael Bierman. Together, they lead the nonprofit Strindberg Laboratory, bringing street-level theater to the homeless, and others in recovery or prison.
"Theater is great because you learn to communicate, you get self-confidence and most of all you learn about yourself," says Pakarinen, who participated in a similar program in her native Finland for six years. "It's really empowering when they see that people are responding and the play is working. Then they can touch other people."
In recent weeks, two cast members abruptly dropped out of the rehearsals, while others in the cast stepped in to take additional roles. One of them is Marshall May, a naturally vivid performer who has several parts in the "Hustlin," including an enraged pimp demanding money from Gazzaruso's drug-addicted prostitute. In another scene, May wears a wig over his shaved head as a mother figure who storms onto the stage demanding drugs, knocking her family's dinner to the floor, shouting crazily.
"I've been in situations that are like that," says May, 46. "I've been like that at my own house. I tell everybody, 'Don't [mess] with me, I'm smoking cocaine and it's too expensive to lie about it.' I got to the point where I'm not hiding it anymore."
May grew up in Baldwin Hills and once had dreams of becoming a movie actor, especially after a friend appeared in a small role alongside Bruce Willis in 1988's "Die Hard." May made some early progress, securing an agent, appearing in a national TV commercial, but it was all derailed by cocaine. He ended up on streets hustling for drug money and spent a total of 12 years in prison for various offenses.
For him, the chance to perform is a step toward recovery. "The door of active addiction is closed and new doors are opening up," says May, noting his four months sober within the program. "I have to be present, and I have to be clean, in order to get through those doors. And if I'm not, then I stay stuck."
Another cast member is Ulysus Hardy, 49, onstage for much of the play as a lone figure playing solitaire in the corner, echoing his years in prison. "Right now I'm doing it for me, maybe learn how to do something, express myself a little bit more without using my negativity," says Hardy of the show, his hair braided, a small plastic cross over his chest. "I've lived on the street for a long time."
It was at a Skid Row facility that Bierman recruited the cast for "Hustlin." Gazzaruso, 46, was intrigued with the theater project, encouraged to create scenes based on "something disturbing or really close to your heart that hurts to deal with," she recalls. "I was homeless and I was a drug addict out there. The OD scene where my friend died, all that happened. I've had it really rough. I've been rough on myself."
For Pakarinen and Bierman, the rewards are not financial. It's essentially a self-supported volunteer effort, dependent on the cooperation of jails and rehab facilities, and the donation of space from Sidewalk Studio Theatre. "We don't get funding, so why are we doing this? Because we learn a hell of a lot," says Bierman. "They teach us. My life changed by working in the jails. I didn't know a lot of the things I know now."
Amid the grim stories of "Hustlin," there are moments of street comedy. In one scene, an addict unconscious on his back is approached by a local preacher in a red fedora (played by Levandis "L.L." Landy) hungry for a hit of crack, ultimately trading most of his clothes for the drug. Also in the cast are two young rappers recruited to rhyme commentary between scenes.
During the week, rehearsals are at the rehab center downtown or a small gated park nearby. As the actors run through their scenes at the park, homeless men stop to watch from behind the wall decorated with hand-painted tile shining with words of hope: "Peace," "Follow all your dreams," "Be brilliant."
If he wasn't at rehearsal, Garvin Matthews, 54, would likely be upstairs in therapy. "It gives me some type of relief mentally. It's definitely an outlet," says Matthews, a professional musician wounded from years of drug use and incarceration back home in Pennsylvania and Santa Barbara County Jail. "I play a cop, I play a drug dealer, and I play a preacher. That's a trip, huh?"
Only days later in Burbank, the debut of "Hustlin" unfolds for two Sunday performances. Hung around the theater are paintings that May created in prison, showing a fascination with Picasso and cubism, others that depict life "from behind the walls." Admission is free and the room is nearly full until the closing scene: the entire cast lined up as May recites an emotional farewell to addiction, set to the music of A Great Big World's hit "Say Something."
After the crowd exits, cast members gather to raise a toast of apple cider in celebration of the their performances. Landy talks about plans to discuss "keeping this core group together" for other stage productions. They will be back at the Sidewalk Studio Theatre for an encore on Sunday, Aug. 24.
"It was wild. It was awesome," says May. "I love that I had an opportunity to do this. In the past I never would. I'd be acting out in real life some of the stuff that you saw in the play. Today I don't have to do that. It's goodbye to drugs and moving forward in my life."