Homeless Veterans Star in Los Angeles-Area Production

NPR's Cory Turner visits a new Los Angeles-area play about and starring homeless veterans called "Dirty White Tuxedo Pants..."

Copyright © 2006 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon and this is NEWS & NOTES.

NPR's Farai Chideya recently brought us a story about homeless, addicted veterans turning their lives around. Today we revisit New Directions, a Los Angeles shelter that helps these vets trade bad habits for good. It also gives them job skills and lifelong network support.

One other thing that happens at New Directions, you sing. And if you can't, you're sung to by the New Directions Choir, a handful of wizened vets with half a century of homelessness between them. Several members are currently lending their voices to a new play at the Globe Theatre in West Hollywood, California.

NPR's Corey Turner has the story.

(Soundbite of singing)

COREY TURNER reporting:

To most ears, these are the flowing tones of a well trained a cappella group. But to the group itself, the music's more than just great harmony, it's great therapy.

(Soundbite of singing)

For two more weekends, the New Directions Choir will bring its lush sound to Dirty White Tuxedo Pants and a Brown Plastic Bag.

The play follows Theolonius McGee, a homeless veteran, as he struggles to survive life in L.A.'s mean streets, clad in white tuxedo pants. McGee is a hulk of a man, well north of six feet tall. His eyes dart from behind a curtain of matted dreadlocks.

In just under an hour and a half, he's run over, harassed by police, and neglected by his social worker, all while fighting an addiction to drugs and alcohol.

(Soundbite of play Dirty White Tuxedo Pants and a Brown Plastic Bag)

Mr. THEOLONIUS MCGEE (Homeless Veteran Character, Dirty White Tuxedo Pants and a Brown Plastic Bag): I have a bottle, I drink 'til I pass out. If I'm lucky, I'll wake up in the morning. After you've been a soldier, sometimes you don't care no more what's gonna happen to you. Cause we took so many lives, we just be sitting around waiting to die.

TURNER: For members of the choir, it's a painfully familiar story.

Mr. GEORGE HILL (New Directions Founding Director): I spent eight years in the Marine Corps and I spent 12 years on the street, immediately thereafter.

TURNER: George Hill wears a neatly pressed black jeans and a T-shirt from California State University, Los Angeles, where he's currently a student. He's also the choir's founding director.

When he returned from Vietnam, George wouldn't realize he'd also returned with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Neither did his doctors. Unable to cope with painful memories of combat, he landed on the street, where he stayed and he sang.

(Soundbite of singing)

Mr. HILL (Singing): Tell me where will you be going when old man winter gets his horn and starts blowing?

TURNER: George isn't the only troubled vet who found comfort in music.

Mr. GARY BERGNER: The sound of the choir didn't just travel over me, it went through me. It woke that part of me up that still had hope.

TURNER: Gary Bergner spent 10 years on the streets himself. When he arrived at New Directions, he heard George and his a cappella choir singing We Are Made As One, a song later incorporated into the play.

(Soundbite of singing)

Mr. HILL: And even though it's hard with the help of God, we know our day will come, cause are we are made as one.

TURNER: Gary joined the choir and is still a member, even though he graduated from New Directions more than seven years ago.

Gary, George and the rest of the New Directions choir breathe life into Dirty White Tuxedo Pants. The choir acts as a Greek chorus reflecting Theolonius McGee's tortured thoughts. When he wants a drink, they encourage and tantalize him, then mock him as he spends another fitful night in the asphalt jungle.

(Soundbite of play)

CHOIR MEMBER: What happening to that crazy bum that used to beg out here?

CHOIR: Sir, he's boost so high, he's a druggie, man, he's drowned himself in beer.

TURNER: The show's writer and lead actor, Michael McFall, is one of the few non-veterans in the cast. He too finds comfort in the music. His uncle, Christopher, wound up on the streets after he returned from Vietnam. As a boy living in San Francisco, McFall would occasionally find his uncle panhandling for change in the BART station.

Mr. MICHAEL MCFALL (Writer, Lead Actor, Dirty White Tuxedo Pants and a Brown Plastic Bag): They found him dead in someone's house that he had broken into and partied with, you know, other people. And his naked body was found overlooking the San Francisco Bay. And the people came home from vacation.

TURNER: McFall hopes his play would get people thinking about veterans and the issues they face when they come home, especially today.

Mr. MCFALL: It's so timely because we do have a lot of guys, you know, overseas. And they are coming back, and on the streets - where their only real skill is as killing machines.

TURNER: Dirty White Tuxedo Pants is a moving tribute to homeless veterans not for what it says but how it says it. Who better to describe the trauma of combat, and the despair of homelessness than the man and women who've survived both. The years of pain and regret tinged with hope, melt in the choirs collective voice and create an emotional texture that can neither be taught nor learned, just earned.

Corey Turner, NPR News, Los Angeles.

(Soundbite of choir)

You know that we are made as one.

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