By: Joseph R. Castel
Photos by Christopher Jay

Thaddeus Nagey’s award-winning script dealing with homeless Los Angelino’s premiered at Hollywood’s Hudson Theatre this past June. Nagey’s script won Best Play Award in the Kennedy Center’s National Playwriting Program’s competition in 2020. The Air Force veteran, turned actor/writer, drew from his own personal experiences of being homeless when writing this engaging and provocative play which he believes can help change peoples’ negative attitudes towards the escalating homeless crisis. The play also featured several cast members that have also experienced homelessness at some time in their lives.

The story takes place in downtown’s Skid Row, on the corner of 5th and San Pedro, where one of the main characters, Costella (Lorinda Hawkins Smith), lives in a large tent called the “White House.” Nagey based Costella’s character on the life of Stephanie “Styles” Williams, a well-known homeless activist who’s lived on Skid Row for more than ten years in a large white tent. Styles, a social media darling who often goes live on Facebook, coordinates the feeding and clothing of hundreds of people every week by working with various nonprofits and Good Samaritans that drop off food and other items at her community center. Because of Nagey’s friendship with Styles, the playwright is able to meticulously capture the essence of the real-life activist’s rebellious swag and street-wise humor.

In February, Styles made national headlines when her White House Community Center was destroyed by the City’s sanitation department during a routine cleanup of “encampments” and “bulky items.” Sanitation even threw away her clothing, bedding, and personal photos of her family. The City sanitation did this without providing alternate housing for Styles at the time of her home’s destruction.

The play opens up with a few brief backstories on how these Skid Row residents lived prior to becoming homeless. Costella’s backstory is fictitious compared to Styles’ real life. Costella starts off as a student who cares for her grandmother, attends school and also works fulltime. Then she loses her job and her ability to stay afloat. Actress Hawkins Smith uses her vocal talent in the catchy solo number “Sleep” to emphasize that there just aren’t enough hours in the day for Costella to make ends meet financially, emotionally and physically.

Hawkins Smith is a member of the Urban Voices Project, a choir sponsored by the Wesley Health Center, which is made up of individuals that have experienced homelessness and come together to lift each other’s spirits through music. The choir is nationally recognized and has appeared on PBS, the Today Show, and many other programs. Another singer with Urban Voices is cast member Iron Donato, who plays a gay man who laments his story of how his partner died, causing him to be despondent and leading him to an uncertain future on the streets.

Several original songs composed by Nagey and Tim Poulin are peppered throughout the show and the playwright, who portrays a homeless veteran, sings one of the more heartfelt numbers while playing the guitar.

The other characters include Abbott (Alikhan Lochin) a raucous rapper/artist, Carmen (emelle), the callous real estate agent, and Vannessa (Veve Melendez), the homeless daughter to the estranged displaced veteran, James (Nagey). Melendez, a bay area native, made her LA acting debut in “Because It’s Sunny in LA.” Though her role is small, Melendez clearly stands out as a young, gifted actress who shifts effortlessly between drama, comedy and singing. Melendez has the triple “It” factor, and I suspect we will soon be seeing her in television and films.

The playwright incorporates bits of factual, disturbing information about the homeless crisis into the performance by having audience members stand up and read aloud these news flashes. It’s a clever way to get audience participation by breaking down that fourth wall, and putting the spotlight back onto the viewer. Possibly, the most unsettling fact is that more than 50,000 students in the California State University system experience homelessness at some point during their academic career. This disheartening news bite actually served as one of the inspirational catalysts for the play’s inception.

The actor/playwright wants the audience to know that homeless people are students, veterans, people who work, and even entire families that can all fall prey to being unhoused – not everyone homeless is on drugs and suffer from mental illness. Whether or not his play changes hearts and/or minds remains to be seen, but the one thing that his script does accomplish is that it makes people think about what is happening in their own community.

Although, “Because It’s Sunny in LA,” has finished its three-week performance, the playwright plans to stage his production in Chicago, San Francisco and hopefully, off-Broadway.

For more info on “Because It’s Sunny in LA”, visit: https://www.becauseitssunny.com