A funny thing happened to South-Central Los Angeles on the way back from the riots.
Children there have started laughing at life--including some of the very things that make growing up the inner city so tough.
Fifty youngsters have spent the summer studying stand-up comedy. They have learned how to mine their neighborhood for material and to milk it for laughs by using exaggeration and good timing.
Take 10-year-old James Cummings. Please.
“I went to my friend’s house and I asked where his restroom was--I had to go real bad,” James said, using running and ducking motions for emphasis as he stood before a rollicking audience of youngsters at a Western Avenue community center.
“He said: ‘Down the hall and turn to the left.’ So I ran down there and opened the door. But a big cockroach was sitting on the toilet. The cockroach threw a tissue at me and said, ‘Wait your turn! Wait your turn!”
Cockroaches, parents, teachers and preachers, girlfriends and boyfriends, gang members, drug dealers and crack-addled street people all have been lampooned during the two-month series of classes, which end today.
Two groups have attended 11 two-hour comedy sessions as part of a $60,000 inner-city summer project funded by the California Arts Council. The 4,000 youngsters who signed up could also pick from programs in art, music, dance, creative writing, theater and video.
The project was launched last year by Sheila Scott-Wilkinson, an actress who recruited 40 artists to help run it.
“It took a crisis to show that kids really respond to art forms,” she said. “This is a way of building character and self-esteem . . . learning a positive way to vent anger and frustration.”
Professional comics Daryl and Dwayne Mooney kept the laughs coming during twice-weekly sessions with kids at the Al Wooten Jr. Heritage Center and at the Willowbrook Boys and Girls Club. Once they warmed up the crowd, that is.
“The kids at first were so shy we had to drag them on stage,” Dwayne Mooney said. “Now we can’t hold them back.”
The Mooneys are 35-year-old twins from Silver Lake whose father, Paul Mooney, has written for comedians Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy. The twins’ own brand of humor is clean.
“When we can laugh at the problems we face as a human race, it gives us hope,” Daryl Mooney said. “Our only rules here were no cussing and no ‘yo’ mama’ jokes.”
Many of the topics are tough, though. There was a bitterness to 15-year-old Edward Nelson’s banter about a drug user. There was sadness to the foster home routine done by Eugina Tillman, 11, and to the street person imitation by 9-year-old Quianna Jackson.
“One of the older kids, Darius McGowan, told about his friend being killed. It wasn’t funny,” Daryl Mooney said. “He was on the verge of tears.”
But the kids could laugh about most of the happenings in their lives.
Darius, a 16-year-old senior at Washington High School, brought material about chilling out on a trip to Disneyland.
“We stayed on the wet rides until it was like 1 in the morning and it was time for us to catch a bus home,” he said, all but shivering again on stage.
“We spent two hours sitting wet on that bus and then we got on another one and spent another two hours sitting on it. Then we had to walk from Broadway to Normandie.”
The young audience howled with laughter. They knew what it was like to spend hours on the bus to get somewhere.
Fifteen-year-old Marquis Rose drew laughs talking about parental problems.
“Me and my little sister asked our mama for some money to go to the movies. She said she didn’t have any money,” he said.
“My mama works at LAX. She makes $15 a day. She must have money because she takes the bus over there and back and buys lunch. So I said, ‘You go to work. You stand on your feet from 7 to 3 every day. And you say you have no money?’ ”
Marquis paused for dramatic effect.
“So I’m standing here talking to you people instead of sitting down somewhere with popcorn watching some old big-screen movie. You know, stuff like that makes me mad. Parents!”
During a class intermission, Daryl Mooney noted that “the energy is very heavy in the inner city. This group is at a whole other level, though. Their energy is very light.”
Dwayne Mooney interrupted to compliment several boys. “He’s the next Bill Cosby,” he said of a 15-year-old. One 8-year-old, he said, “could get up on stage and do an hour’s worth of material right now.”
The Mooneys, in fact, are trying to line up an engagement at the Santa Monica Improv to showcase some of their students’ work.
Eleventh-grader Devlan Boyd, 16, already works the room like a pro.
“I attend Washington Preparatory High School,” he started out. “Anybody from Washington out here?”
Other youngsters dutifully cheered and Devlan was on a roll. His routine centered on problems with girlfriends, particularly those who have boyfriends “in 13, 14 different area codes.”
“I met one. She told me everything I wanted to hear. She laid it on so thick that I had to lay sideways on the bed, my head was so big,” Devlan said. “Then I saw her with other males. She put a big old pin right through my big old head.”