Heather Gordon, Cat Brooks, Livia Demarchi in Low Hanging Fruit. Photo credit: Mario Parnell Photography
Intro: A Compelling Play
One of the things that I miss the most during the restrictions from the COVID-19 pandemic is seeing live performances including theater. So, I’ve been looking back at some of my old reviews of events like that, reminiscing. Here’s a post from July 2016 about a compelling play that really moved me, enough so that I still remember the power of it four years later (although it’s so hard to believe it’s been that long since I saw it!)
That is the word that keeps coming to mind as I think of Low Hanging Fruit, the play I saw last night at Z Below that tells the stories of so many people through the characters of just a few.
I first described Low Hanging Fruit in a preview post, based upon a press release I’d received and what I could read about it online.
Original Preview Post of Low Hanging Fruit
3Girls Theatre Company (3GT) presents the San Francisco premiere of Bay Area-based playwright, Robin Bradford’s Low Hanging Fruit, which tells the compelling story of four homeless women struggling to survive on Los Angeles’ Skid Row. All military veterans, the women face nightmares brought on by their combat experiences and cluster together for quasi-safety in a small tent encampment they’ve nicknamed “The Taj Mahal.”
Low Hanging Fruit is a response to the dramatic rise in homelessness among women who have served in the military in Iraq and Afghanistan. The play focuses on the aftermath of war as seen through the lives of four homeless women veterans struggling to survive on the streets of LA. The term “Low Hanging Fruit” refers to a person that can be persuaded or manipulated with little effort, suggesting that the individual is on the bottom, the easiest to reach.
Interspersing traditional dialogue with slam poetry and music, Bradford’s compelling play catapults the audience from the present lives of the homeless characters into the devastating memories of their lives as soldiers. The play draws our attention to the shameful treatment of our returning vets and more specifically to the returning women, who are not often the subject of post war dramas. Living in a tent encampment under a freeway in LA are: Cory (Heather Gordon), a lesbian with physical as well as emotional battle scars; Maya (Livia DiMarchi), a Latina poet who dreams of a better life; Yolanda (Cat Brooks), an African American prostitute, drug addict, always looking for her next “hit’;” and Alice (Cheri Lynne VandenHeuvel, reprising her role from the LA production), an African American mother hen who watches carefully over her brood.
These women have created their own encampment under the freeway with a handmade cardboard sign that reads “Taj Mahal.” Shared military experiences equals trust in their world, and they respect one another enough to exist semi-peacefully. That is, until Cory befriends a 14 year old runaway named Canyon (Jessica Waldman) and invites the girl to stay with them at the Taj Mahal. This immediately tests relationships, pushes boundaries, and raises painful memories. Cory, in particular, who is desperate to make a lasting connection with Canyon, relates a story of war that is truly horrifying, involving not only foreign enemies, but also a commanding officer, thus shedding a light on the vile treatment that some women have faced in the military.
The play doesn’t try to explain why these veterans are homeless: it’s simply a fact given our society’s acceptance of homelessness in America. There isn’t outrage, no character rallies against the poor treatment of the returning women soldiers, but rather they accept it. It is this acceptance that makes the biggest statement. Watching these women struggle, fight, and cling to some kind of hope for themselves, we are watching the reality that perhaps no one cares, or cares enough. In the absence of societal action, these women draw strength, love, and empathy from each other.
As the play moves forward, and each character is faced with possible life changes, whether it’s Cory’s budding relationship with Canyon or Maya’s hope for getting off the streets and taking her friends with her, “Low Hanging Fruit” never relents from its central message: there is always hope, even when it seems the world doesn’t care. After serving in combat, too many of our veterans return home with varying degrees of trauma and literally fall through society’s cracks. This compelling play seeks to open up conversations about what happens after we say “thank you for your service.”
The play premiered in LA in 2014 and went on to present month-long runs in North Carolina in 2015 and Michigan in 2016. It played at Z Below in San Francisco from 7/6/16 – 7/30/16.
Low Hanging Fruit Review
Julian Green (Tito) and Jessica Waldman (Canyon). Photo Credit: Mario Parnell Photography
As I look back on that post, I see that it was surprisingly accurate. Typically, when I see something in person, it differs considerably from the press release but in this case, a lot of what I felt during the play was already captured in that initial writing. This speaks to something I loved about the play – that care was truly given to each detail of the work, all the way down to the press release description. Everything worked perfectly together – from the characters to the space to the makeup to the music selections. It seems no detail went unnoticed in the making of this play.
I come back to this again because it is the one thing that couldn’t be conveyed in a press release. And although I’ll try to capture it here, it’s the thing that you really have to go see the play to understand. I see a lot of local events – theatre and comedy and burlesque and circus and music – and I generally find most of them enjoyable. I laugh and I think and I get inspiration … but it is rare that I find something truly compelling, see something so gripping that I am taken out of the whirling that is my mind, pause my thinking to experience the intensity of the moment – only to be filled with thoughts hours later of moments in the play. Low Hanging Fruit did that for me.
You already learned the plot of the story from my earlier review, so I won’t repeat that here, but do want to note that a surprising number of themes and issues and metaphors and experiences were conveyed in the short amount of time that these characters took the stage. Four of the characters are female veterans, and we learn about different experiences that happen in wartime, in Iraq and Afghanistan, in the return to life afterwards. Some of these experiences cross generations, as hinted at but the Joni Mitchell music and folk songs early in the play that harken back to the struggles of Vietnam War. Some of these are unique to this generation of soldier, and more unique still to the experience of women in the military. As Cory tells her story of sexual assault at the hands of her superior, I immediately think of a recently Viceland Woman episode about the epidemic of rape among women in the US military. Her story is one story and many stories.
In addition to (and within) the multi-faceted layers of the compelling military story, the play conveys stories of homelessness – stories of addiction, of the red tape of trying to get help from the VA, of prostitution, of childhood abuse and abuse in adulthood, of runaways, of women who are mothers and daughters, of PTSD and generalized trauma and flashbacks and wanting to remember and wanting to forget. Each of these women have their own ways of dreaming about a better future while fighting for their immediate survival.
The women live together in an encampment they’ve created for themselves, for women only, veterans only, to stick together because there is “safety in numbers”. They are a family of sorts, a family caught in the kind of high stress environment that leads to dysfunction. Through various scenes we see the utmost tenderness and care between them, and we also see terrifying violence amongst them. You can see that they hate to have to need each other and hate what they see in one another that is a reflection of the self but they love that they have one another and share a compassion for one another born out of similar experiences and needs.
I can’t say enough about the talents and skills of each of the individual women who play the four veterans. They embodied their characters so well it is difficult to believe they were ever anyone else off that stage. Each unique, each sharing her story in her own way, each so powerful.
The character of Canyon, the teenage runaway who comes to stay and causes some friction amongst the group, is an interesting one. In the first half of the play, she is adorable and you can’t help but feel for her. As time went on, I began to find her character saccharine and got almost annoyed with her naiveté, a story that didn’t ring true for me as I mused upon the young teenage girls I’d known in similar situations. Then her character takes a turn and the whole thing makes sense again. Well done. And I have to note here something I should have said at the beginning – actress Jessica Waldman has a stunning crystal clear voice that opens the show with song.
The lone male character in the play, a young pimp, brings another dimension to the compelling narrative. The play is about the women and their lives and relationships; but women’s relationships rarely exist outside of the stories they have intertwined with men and so this character’s small role is a critical one. And although his own story is never addressed, one has to wonder how he came to be where he is as well, a man among women who could easily be his mothers and sisters.
The play is captivating. But it’s not always easy to watch. My heart raced many times. The characters yell with passion, the sound effects get loud (appropriately, rightly, like in a movie theater where it has to be this way and it makes it impossible for you to think of anything else). A police shooting scene caused a change to my heartbeat and breathing, too poignant amongst the news of today, too real. This is what makes the play compelling.
And thankfully, this is broken up with occasional humor, with music, with dancing. Interludes of slam poetry create pauses in the story. The poetry has its own gripping depth but it changes the pace of the play and makes the intensity more bearable. In these moments I could catch my breath, as one imagines a homeless woman must catch her own breath throughout the day in those pockets of safety and necessary laughter. I could look around the theater and notice that the space for the play (an underground theater) worked perfectly and the characters worked the whole space, moving off of the main stage and towards the audience without ever breaking the fourth wall. I could notice the details in the makeup, scars important to the story that looked real even from a few rows away. And then I could be drawn back into the intensity of the story, having had a little relief, well calculated by the playwright in bringing the story to the stage.