Poet-activist Jerry Quickley gives voice to the voiceless Photo by Hal Banfield

Poet-activist Jerry Quickley gives voice to the voiceless
Photo by Hal Banfield

“Through the Looking Glass” encourages self-discovery among underrepresented communities

By Christina Campodonico

The saying goes that you can’t know a man until you walk a mile in his shoes. For multidisciplinary artist and journalist Jerry Quickley, writing about someone may be the best way to get to know a stranger’s footsteps.

That’s the thought behind his community-based play and writing workshop project “Through the Looking Glass,” which will culminate with a free performance of the work at the Kirk Douglas Theatre on Monday.

For “Through the Looking Glass,” Quickley puts two seemingly disparate L.A. neighborhoods — the predominantly African-American community of Leimert Park in South L.A. and the primarily Latino community of Montebello in East L.A. — into conversation with each other.

For six months, Quickley and director reg e gaines worked with 14 representatives of each neighborhood to explore these communities’ perspectives on each other and illuminate their own stories.

Leimert Park and Montebello discovered that they had more in common than they had initially anticipated, Quickley observes.

“These communities, while being very different, really do have a tremendous amount in common,” Quickley says. “It’s interesting that they both were striving in silence and largely in ignorance of each other.”

Jeannette Franco, a company member with the theatrical group Circle Squared Collective, served as the artistic anchor for Montebello’s workshops. In response to one prompt she wrote a haiku about eating turkey carnitas from Superior, a grocery store chain with a location in Montebello. When a couple from Leimert Park told her that they ate turkey carnitas from Superior too, she was surprised that their experiences, even seemingly trivial ones, could be so similar.

“This woman is having this same experience and it’s so simple,” says Franco.

For others, like V. Kali of Leimert Park and Maxwell Martinez of Montebello, the writing workshops were a vehicle for overcoming personal obstacles and tragedies.

V. Kali, the artistic anchor for the Leimert Park group and a writer with the Anansi Writer’s Workshop at The World Stage Art, Education & Performance Gallery in Leimert Park, wrote about her daughter’s unsolved murder. She was shot and killed in a drive-by-shooting in 2006. Kali wasn’t expecting to write about her daughter’s death, but one writing prompt changed her mind.

“[Jerry] asked us to write 30 bullet points about our lives,” explains Kali. “The first time I wrote the 30 bullet points, I was just writing stuff that didn’t make sense. When I heard everyone else’s I had to review this. When I heard 30 bullet points [again], I thought of shots. I didn’t think after that. I just put it down. I’m willing to talk about it. It’s one of the things that saved me these past 10 years.”

She continues: “I’m grateful. I’m coming into thaw. I’ve been in cold storage.”

Martinez also found renewed strength through the project. He suffered a stroke about five years ago, losing his ability to speak and walk. The recovery process was slow and he ended up becoming a shut-in at his mother’s retirement community for four years, until a representative with the Circle Squared Collective reached out to Martinez over social media to join “Through the Looking Glass.”

“It helped me in my struggles with depression. I was getting therapy as I was going through the process with them,” says Martinez. “I learned that I was stronger than I thought I was. I learned that I was a writer. I learned that words are very powerful. I learned that you can express yourself in words [more so] than you can from speaking. If you put it on paper it’s more powerful. Words are magical.”

Martinez, who has recovered his ability to speak and hopes to walk again, is now working with a support group that aids people with disabilities in securing part-time work and independent housing.

“All this independence that I have, I’ve gotten through my writing group with Jerry. The writing has opened up something in me that made me realize that I’m bigger than the problems that I think I have and I can overcome them,” says Martinez.

Martinez’s story is one of many from “Through the Looking Glass” that deeply moves Quickley. Over the phone, his voice shakes as he reads an email from Martinez, thanking Quickley for shepherding him through this process and bringing out his inner writer.

“It may sound crazily, overly dramatic, but it’s not. We are doing community work to save lives,” says Quickley.

“Every person who went through this process, every person in this workshop, is deeply heroic. I’ve covered conflicts. I’ve seen more heroes in that workshop than I’ve sometimes seen in conflict zones,” he says. “If we did this program right it will give people a very clear sense of what can happen when communities who are unspoken about, unheralded — who have no public voice — are given the chance to dream together and to feel together and to work together. They can build something of such staggering beauty they didn’t know they had in them.”

See “Through the Looking Glass” at 8 p.m. Monday, Feb. 8, at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. Free. RSVP at centertheatregroup.org.