Five years ago, the Bounty Hunters street gang gained national notoriety by repeatedly shooting up a Watts neighborhood grocery to avenge the killing of a fellow gang member.
These days, a group of current and former members of the Bounty Hunters are vying for public acclaim in a different way: by producing a play explaining the genesis of Los Angeles' gang problem and urging an end to the bloodshed that claims more than 300 lives a year.
"It's a vicious cycle and it's been going on for too long," said longtime Bounty Hunter Brian (Loaf) McLucas, 22, co-author of the largely autobiographical "Crossfire." "We want to send out a message to redirect things, to save lives."
The play, which is still being polished, appears to represent the first large-scale effort by a hard-core Los Angeles street gang to redirect its antisocial energy into a positive force. "Crossfire" will make a private debut to a group of potential financial backers at a Hollywood church Friday night.
Based on the lives of McLucas and co-author Robert (Dog) Crawford, 23, "Crossfire" attempts to trace the pattern of poverty, violence and despair that plagues young residents of the ghetto.
The play depicts Loaf, at age 8, witnessing the drive-by shooting of an older Bounty Hunter. It depicts Loaf, at age 14, killing a member of a rival gang in a knife fight stemming from the theft of his bicycle. And it concludes with Loaf, at age 22, uttering the following lines: "Now you know our story. The story of children born to die young. It could be over for any one of us, when we leave here tonight. . . . But until we all get together to bring an end to this violence, this story will never end."
McLucas and Crawford, neither of whom has previous theatrical experience, decided to take a shot at the stage after participating in a closed-door encounter between the Bounty Hunters and the Rev. Jesse Jackson just before the California primary in June.
At the session, in which Jackson urged gang members to turn their lives around, the pair met a Hollywood ad man, Harry Webber, who suggested that one way to do so would be to tell their story to the world.
For the last two months, McLucas and fellow cast members, under the tutelage of director Annette Wolf, an associate of Webber's, have rehearsed regularly at the church. Twenty-four of the 26 cast members (ages 11 to 33) are residents of the weed-strewn Nickerson Gardens housing project, home turf of the Bounty Hunters. Most of the youths have been associated with the gang at one time or another, and some are still members. (The two remaining cast members are professional actors Patty Attair and Weldon Glenn.)
It's a long way from Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland putting on a show, says Webber, who had been invited to attend the Jackson session by a friend from the City Attorney's office.
"It's the same kind of energy but they are no longer in the country and it's no longer 'Dad's got a barn,' " continued Webber, who is serving as the play's producer. "It's more like, 'Let's put on a show, but wear your bullet-proof vest (when you return home).' "
Indeed, just last week, a 21-year-old cast member, Jacie (Iceman) Clemons, was wounded in the left leg by drive-by shotgun blasts as he was walking home after an evening rehearsal.
"What we talk about on stage is real, you know what I'm saying?" said Clemons, who returned to rehearsals five days later.
"It's very real," echoed McLucas, an unmarried father of three who served four years behind bars for the homicide he committed while a teen. "It's so real it's not funny at all."
"It's so real, it's pathetic," concluded Crawford, who was sentenced to two years in state prison for conspiracy in the 1983 siege of the grocery store and home of Watts businessman James Hawkins Sr. James Hawkins Jr. was also eventually incarcerated for killing Bounty Hunter Anttwon Thomas, 19.
When Jackson staged his campaign appearance at Nickerson Gardens, he reportedly told the gang members: "Nobody can save you but you."
That, say McLucas and Crawford, has become painfully apparent in the months since.
Once the glare of the media spotlight faded, McLucas said, so did the interest of virtually all the politicians and businessmen who had talked of expanded job opportunities, recreation and social welfare programs. Even Jackson, McLucas said, has seemed somewhat less than eager to provide further assistance to the gang members he helped inspire.
"Harry (Webber) is the only guy we've seen since," McLucas (whose nickname Loaf stems from his thick hair) said last week. "The day after Jackson was here, we went to have lunch with Harry, and he came up with the idea that perhaps we could put something on the stage, you know, to show how to stop the violence and probably save some lives."
For the next three weeks, the pair met daily with Webber, piecing together a stage-worthy script from the drama of their lives. A cast was put together, and rehearsals began two months ago.
The youths, some of whom had never even been to Hollywood, are learning that there is a life beyond the ghetto, according to cast member Gary Barner, a former gang member and anti-gang counselor.
"It gives these kids an opportunity to see past Central Avenue, to see other life styles. . . . A lot of kids talk about not wearing their colors anymore because they want to live."
Until now, McLucas said, the production has met with mild skepticism and resistance from some longtime gang members and some other residents of Nickerson Gardens, who will be invited to see a dress rehearsal of the show.
On the other hand, the cast also has received expressions of encouragement and hope from neighbors and others, according to McLucas.
"This is the only thing I know of where hard-core gang members are doing something positive," said B.R. (Sonny) Walker, director of Project Build, a state-funded job preparedness program based at Nickerson Gardens.
Director Wolf, meanwhile, said the participants, most of whom are in their teens, have exhibited "an incredible tenacity, a belief this can happen.
"They've come here to become actors, and I've never had so young a cast that is so respectful and hard-working," said Wolf, a veteran documentary film maker and stage director. Webber said the cast hopes to raise $100,000 from the prospective backers to mount the show in Los Angeles for six to eight weeks and then take it on the road.
Powerful Hollywood publicist Pat Kingsley, an associate of Wolf's who has encouraged the project, said, "Whether or not it will turn out to be a major production, it is still helping to motivate some important members of the (gang) to positive actions."
Ideally, the cast also hopes to earn a salary and to parlay their experience into further job opportunities.
"From a hustling point of view, we need the money," said Crawford. "All of us have family members up to the curb."
But McLucas said the cast members remain realistic. Even if they don't turn into overnight successes, he said, they will still feel fulfilled if they save, or turn around, even one youngster's life--including any of their own.
"I haven't always been a nice guy," McLucas said. "But now a lot of people who see me say that if Loaf will go to rehearsals every day there must be something to it. They say if he can do it, they can do it. . . .
"We still may be gang members, but we want to be drama gang members, a positive gang. . . . The main reason to do the play is because people don't think we are capable of it. We will do this play and do it right. We will show we shouldn't be written off."