by Tracey Paleo, Gia On The Move

What happens after Troy? When it falls? When it fails its populace against the rising tide? When the army of gentrification marches through the city? Laying waste to communities, remapping grids, upgrading rents, and destroying all architectural evidence of cherished history? When the culture and the very lives of the lingering inhabitants are aggressively dispersed for dollars?

Gia On The Move, Tracey Paleo, Troy, Hero Theatre, reviews, editorial, poverty in Los Angeles

It suddenly struck me, walking out of the courtyard at Inner-City Arts from Hero Theatre‘s world premiere production of Troy by Amina Henry, I was someplace familiar. I had been here before.

Well, yes. Of course, I’ve been here before. I’ve made the trek downtown to see plays at this location. Parked on the street. Traversed the path to the door. Stood in the lobby. Breathed the space while seated in the theater. Written my subsequent review. Dot. Dot. Dot.

This time, though, contemplating what I had just witnessed on stage, a momentary thought pulled me to a hard pause.

Maybe it was the impending sunset. Perhaps it was the warm air gathering a noticeable chill or the smell of the urban grit that lined the pavements and gutters. Maybe it was the colorful graffiti on the brick outside. Or the heavy iron gates that enclosed the place like a fortress in the heart of DTLA, where a regular parade of often deranged and desperate homeless, street-walkers, drug-dealers, and busy industrial shops juxtapose life-as-usual. Where ordinary kids play, working families live, and local proprietors go about their everyday business. The grind of a district submerged into a universe as broad as a super-sized box of Crayolas and as specific as a memory stuck behind my heart. Because here, wasn’t just here. Here, impossibly, was the ‘me’ I had left behind years ago, smack in the present, right in my face.

You wouldn’t know that looking at me now of course. A seemingly privileged woman with a college education, decent car, adventurous wardrobe, dollars in my pocket, a bit of moxie and a talent for reinvention whenever the occasion arises. Which, over the years, has been quite a lot by necessity.

A long time ago though, growing up in Boston’s downtown, believe it or not, I was an underprivileged, inner-city, ethic kid (categorically, I might add, by my city, state and federal government). The daughter of working-class, lower-income parents, residing in the wrong zip code with the wrong last name…which meant it had a vowel at the end of it…and often treated as inferior merely for what was unfashionably served at my dinner table (calamari and pasta Fagioli was definitively NOT a thing back then). I spoke funny. I was loud. My clothes were always bought on the last sale price in Filene’s basement. I wanted things that I couldn’t almost ever – if ever, afford.

I remember having very little to eat sometimes, living in an apartment where the pipes went out in the dead of winter for weeks in below-freezing temperatures without the landlord fixing them. My dad out of work as a laborer for a long time, struggling to pay the rent, and my mom working on her feet long hours at side jobs for grocery money and other essentials. They tried to keep it from us in lots of cheery ways, but we knew. We just didn’t have much and that was the way it was. My brothers and I even got our Christmas gifts a couple of times from the Boston Globe newspaper’s Globe Santa. But I knew. I knew I didn’t have much. And I wasn’t sure I ever would.

Big money, big ideas, and big city life were happening all around me and I wasn’t allowed to truly participate in it…because of what I wasn’t. Except for a few altering factors like decent schooling, a few miraculous city services like free Summer lunches, a volunteer-operated neighborhood kids club, a lot of collective hard work, and a very determined mother I was frustratingly disadvantaged compared to anyone even lower middle class. Until one Spring day, by some incredible, accidental fortune, and a National Endowment scholarship, I got access to the Performing Arts.

That one tiny, momentous thing changed my life.

From where I stand now (or rather sit while writing this), putting that all down on paper makes me comically feel like the old-timey Virginia Slims slogan, “You’ve come a long way baby!” But the absolute deja vu of walking through the courtyard didn’t escape me. Nor witnessing the stories of others not half as fortunate as myself even back then. Or realizing just how much the audience saw themselves inside the material. Acknowledging the lives of not so fictional people attempting to create miracles for themselves.

For every second I spent taking it all in, I fully realized that I was extraordinarily lucky. Lucky to have had the arts find me. To have literally been touched by angels of Dance and Theater and Music and Literature. To have been lifted out of my small world and transported into my ‘impossible dream.’ To have been given a roadmap and an express-way ‘E-Z Pass’ to another destination that became my life.

Gia On The Move, Tracey Paleo, Troy, Hero Theatre, reviews, editorial, poverty in Los Angeles
Photos by Giovanni Solis

This is why Hero Theatre, unlike Troy, cannot be allowed to fall. Because the palpable story in Troy the play doesn’t merely reflect the Hero Theatre mission or the people they are attempting to embrace and elevate. It’s about creating accessibility for kids and adults who would otherwise never have a shot at evolving much less contributing, especially in a city becoming its own version of Gotham. A Los Angeles that is high-rising upon itself, obliterating all other categorical non-essentials underneath it. Offering fewer and fewer opportunities for ordinary citizens to thrive.

In Henry’s play, directed by Elisa Bocanegra, a widowed mother (brilliantly played by Olivier Award Nominee April Nixon) and the many residents living in a Troy apartment complex must fight to survive in an ever-changing city. All the odds are against them. The challenges are most often completely insurmountable. And although the lengthy presentation reaches deep into the melodramatic and hyperbolic depths of grit, despair, and detrimental no-way-out thinking, the point of view is very real.

That said, Troy is a heroic effort to portray life-as-is by Henry and it absolutely narrates the raison d’etre of Hero Theatre.

Troy‘s leading character, Holly doesn’t survive in this story. Nor do any of her children. There’s just nothing for them. Not even hope. But she never gives up until the absolute bitter end. Couldn’t there have been another way? Shouldn’t there have been something more? Holly thought so. And she knew, that if a miracle had happened, or if the neighborhood hadn’t been so bad – more work, fewer drugs, more choices – at least one of them could have been saved.

My personal grace was derived from passionate people like Bocanegra and socially conscientious organizations like Hero Theatre. So I guess it was more than just the chill in the air that traveled up my spine on the way out that night. The punch-in-the-gut feeling was that I was the kid who made it.

I wondered, either way, who would be next.

Photos by Giovanni Solis

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