Theater Project Gives Unemployed New Tools to Tell Their Story

Times Staff Writer

Susan Franklin Tanner's 1982 Nissan has become a fixture in the parking lot of the steelworkers local union in Huntington Park. Gray and dull, the car blends in well with the automobiles of the union men. It's set apart only by its bumper sticker:

If you think the system is working, ask someone who isn't.

Susan Tanner is asking.

Her mission in Southeast Los Angeles over the last year and a half has been to give voice to men and women "whose voices are usually the last to be heard." Tanner's TheaterWorker's Project--funded by the California Arts Council, the National Endowment for the Arts and the local Liberty Hill Foundation--provides unemployed and working people with tools to tell their stories through poetry, prose, song and, finally, theater pieces.

Tanner originally worked with six former steelworkers whose worlds crumbled when the Bethlehem Steel plant in Vernon closed. With the guidance of Tanner and poet/playwright Rob Sullivan, the men wrote a play called "Lady Beth" (the affectionate name given the mill by steelworkers). The men are currently starring in a production of "Lady Beth" at the Ensemble Studio Theatre in Los Angeles (through Wednesday ).

Tanner recently has turned her attention to unemployed single mothers from communities near the plant. The women, she finds, have different ways than the men for coping with poverty and preserving self-esteem.

"I knew there was a distinct female voice coming from this community that still needed to be heard," said Tanner, a 38-year-old television and stage actress who in the past has taught acting in settings such as public schools and correctional facilities. "The three women I'm working with now have stories that

intertwine around each other about how they have survived in a society that has not been helpful.

"The men (steelworkers laid off when the plant closed) had fought a battle and lost. These women are still engaged in fighting a battle. We (workshop members) are in the unknown." Tanner sees dramatic possibilities in the fact that the fate of the fledgling playwrights continues to unfold between each week's session.

During their initial meetings, Tanner remembered, the steelworkers held fiercely to a way of life established in the plant. It was understood that they did not talk freely about personal disappointment with outsiders, particularly a female outsider.

With the women it was different from the start. Meeting in a storeroom at the union hall, Tanner and the group chat with a sisterly ease. One day someone brought in brownies she'd baked; another day the women discussed ailments and Tanner passed on the name of her chiropractor to a workshop participant. One afternoon Tanner and Carolyn Williams discussed men and sex just like two old friends, with Williams drawing on experiences from her days on the street.

New Kind of Creativity

"Draw me a picture of your street life," Tanner asked Williams. During the course of the continuing workshop Tanner will use drawing, singing, improvisational exercises and other methods to help the women plumb a kind of creativity they haven't explored in the past. Tanner placed a full spectrum of crayons and a sheet of paper in front of Williams, 35.

Although she protested that she was not an artist, Williams reached for an orange crayon and drew a large star.

"That's how I felt at the time (when she was engaged in illicit activities)," Williams said. The Watts resident said she felt like a star because of the fast cars, attention and penthouse suites the life could buy. "I don't knock it today because there was so much I learned out of it. I feel like I'm still a star," she said, "but I was one of the few that was lucky to come out of it like I'm looking now and not all beat up."

Among the questions raised by the workshop, Tanner said, is "how do these women maintain their dignity and sense of self?" while using survival techniques that tend to erode dignity--such as prostitution or petty theft (which workshop member Michele Meindl said she has resorted to in the past).

While she was dealing drugs and working as a prostitute, Williams said, she sometimes made $5,000 to $10,000 a week. It's a period her mother--workshop member Janice Smith of Compton--remembers with mixed emotions. On the one hand there was money everywhere, she said; but there also was the fear that Carolyn would be caught.

". . . Then you got busted," Tanner said. She was acting as narrator to Williams's life story, which was being taped on an old paint-splattered Panasonic recorder. After several sessions like this one, Tanner and the workshop members would search the tapes for common themes that could serve as "a metaphor for the female underclass in this country."

The prosperity that had briefly enfolded Williams' two small children and her mother vanished in 1981 when Williams was incarcerated for possession for sale of a controlled substance. Her children, then 4 and 5, came to visit her periodically for the next two years at the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco.

The times Carolyn Williams felt most successful as a mother had been when she was able to buy her kids new clothes and offer such extravagances as expensive restaurant meals and trips to the Ice Capades. One time while the money was still coming in, she said, she rented a room at the Bonaventure for a week so her son, now 10, and daughter, 9, would have a chance to work on their table manners in elegant surroundings.

'Trying to Get Some Class'

Williams' personal battle parallels the struggle of many low-income or unemployed single mothers, a struggle Tanner defines as "trying to get some class for their kids." The catch is that the money-making ventures some unskilled women resort to can get them in more trouble than poverty alone, Tanner said.

These days Carolyn Williams takes the bus from Watts to Long Beach on weekdays to attend word-processing classes at Metropolitan Business College. She comes to Tanner's weekly workshop, Williams said, "to keep my head screwed on straight." If she doesn't stay busy, she said, friends come around with temptations to return to her old way of life.

"I know there is more to me than that," Williams said.

"For Carolyn, I think it's a daily struggle not to go back on the street," Tanner said. "She struggles daily against illusions and fantasies (of the high-flung life she temporarily knew).

"These women refuse to blame anyone," Tanner added. "They take the rap. They say, 'This is what I did.' " Williams, for instance, told her children about her illegal ventures and made it clear to them: "This is wrongdoing. There's always a possibility that I could go to jail."

In the same way, Janice Smith takes responsibility for her own excessive drinking. She sat and listened without a hint of defensiveness to daughter Carolyn's confession that the drinking was devastating to the rest of the family: "My mom used to get to the point where she wouldn't even know her name was Janice," Williams said. "She just used to get ossified. That was just so ugly to me. That was really ugly."

Alcoholic at Early Age

By age 18, Smith was divorced, with two infants. She was living in Watts with her own mother, who also raised a family for the most part single-handedly. Smith said she has been an alcoholic since she was 13 years old, and drank all during the years while she was raising her children alone, mostly on welfare.

A little over a year ago, Smith, now 51, was arrested for drunk driving. Rather than attend court-ordered Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, she elected to enroll in a live-in alcohol treatment program and put a halt to a lifetime of drinking.

Today, Smith is clear-eyed and sober, with an inner optimism which--along with her youthful appearance--makes her seem at times to be of the same generation as her daughter. On hot days, Smith admitted, she still longs for cold bottles of Champale, but settles for sparkling apple juice instead.

Currently volunteering with the food give-away program at the Steelworkers Union, Smith receives a subsistence allowance of about $400 a month through VISTA, a federally sponsored program that provides volunteers for local projects benefiting low-income people. But she envisions a time not long from now when she'll be "a successful businesswoman" in a legitimate business--of what sort she doesn't know yet.

The third workshop member, Michele Meindl, showed up at the union on a recent afternoon wearing white moccasins, silver bracelets, jeans and a sleeveless black T-shirt. Although she has been poor--raising her first baby in a cockroach-infested hotel room--Meindl sees the central tragedy of her life as the loss of her two children to a custody ruling. Weakened by sickness and financial straits eight years ago, Meindl said, she turned over her youngsters to her brother for what she assumed would be short-term care. When she was well again, Meindl could not get the children back.

A judge later awarded custody to her brother and sister-in-law, in part because of his finding that Meindl--who was never married--was too transient to provide a proper home, she said. The children have since been adopted by two different families; Meindl has no contact with either one.

Throughout the workshop, it was apparent that children represented for the women what employment had for the steelworkers Tanner previously coached. Losing her children was as devastating a blow to Meindl's identity as losing their plant was for the men at Bethlehem Steel. Feeling hopeless, Meindl quit working and sank into a lethargic existence.

Her dream is to have her kids back, the 36-year-old Cudahy resident said. If she had them to care for again, she'd be motivated to take any job she could get--cleaning houses, baby-sitting. . . .

'Looking for the Bonding'

"Michele is working to build a life that will give her back what she lost," Tanner said. "She might never get those kids back, but she's still looking for the bonding and tenderness she once had."

Four years ago, Meindl volunteered to help out at the steelworkers union. "I didn't care about people before. I didn't care what they thought of me or what they did," she said. "I didn't even care if they ate." Since distributing food to families through the union, Meindl has found herself caring for the first time since she lost her children.

It was while watching rehearsals of the "Lady Beth" play at the union hall that Meindl began to realize that if these men who had never acted in their lives could make a statement through theater, she also was capable of showing people what her life has been like. She thinks there may be some mothers in a future audience who could learn from her story.

On the first day of the steelworkers theater workshop back in 1984, Tanner found herself faced with a table full of working men who had never heard of this fellow Bertolt Brecht (a German playwright), and who were uncomfortable with discussions of art and emotion. Tanner remembers having doubts about whether her concept was going to work.

Today she says that first the steelworkers, and now the unemployed women, have validated her premise: "Everybody has the ability to give expression to their creativity."

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