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Actress Laura Leigh Hughes recalls the 1992 Los Angeles Riots, a moment in LA’s history when the city was “burning to the ground.”
“To see the racial tensions in our city and the divide [and people be] like, ‘Let them burn the city down.’ I’m like, ‘No, we’re all connected and whatever affects one affects all of us,” Hughes told The Hollywood Reporter. “And so, I thought what can I do? I don’t want to forget about this. Then one day Edward James Olmos came out and said ‘get a broom, come to South Central and help clean up.’”
The uprisings struck such a chord with Hughes that she used her prior experience working with foster children, assembled fellow movers and shakers in the entertainment industry and founded the Unusual Suspects Theatre Company “out of the closet in my house,” she told THR.
The nonprofit organization brings a 20-week after-school theatre workshop series to at-risk middle schoolers and high schoolers whether at educational facilities or juvenile detention centers.
26 years later, Unusual Suspects has established programming in 45 locations to over 8,500 at-risk youth in Los Angeles.
The organization held their 11th annual gala at Avalon Hollywood Tuesday night in a theatre full of actresses, industry executives and some of the kids participating in the theatre company. Board member, actress and comedian, Melissa Peterman hosted the gala with the same vivacious spirit she has put behind her roles as Barbara Jean in Reba and Bonnie Wheeler in Baby Daddy, making a grand entrance onto the stage with a freestyle dance and joking about attendees “writing a big check” during the live auction.”
The students are given the opportunity to work with acclaimed actors and actresses during these workshops to create original scripts and produce and perform an original play. Through these productions, participants sharpen their language and writing skills, but further than that, actress Tiffany Haddish, who has personally worked with the teens during theatre workshops, said they also gain a voice.
“Communication is the key to everything, and a lot of times kids are told that you are supposed to be seen, not heard,” Haddish who could not make it to the gala last night, told THR in a phone interview. The actress and comedian speaks from personal experience, as a woman who has previously experienced homelessness, gone through foster care and found her voice through an improv class for at-risk kids. “When you’re saying to them, ‘Hey, we want to see you, and hear you, that can change somebody’s whole existence.”
The evening proceeded with honoring Hughes, actor and filmmaker Malcolm M. Mays; actor Jerry Levine, and producer and former Chairman of CBS Entertainment, Nina Tassler, for their ongoing involvement in Unusual Suspects.
“I’ve spent most of my life being an at-risk youth. So, one of my main callings in life was to give back, specifically as a member of a socially stratified community,” Mays, who has personally worked with the Unusual Suspects youth told THR. “It doesn’t even feel like service. It just feels like hanging out with a group of kids that used to be me.”
Markham Middle School performed a sneak peek from their original production, “Time is Ticking: The Adventures of So’Lana.” The crowd unanimously arose from their cabaret style seating to applaud the young performers. One of the actresses, Ciera Holloway, told THR that her favorite memory from Unusual Suspects was working with Mays. Upon hearing that, Mays told THR, “Youth are one of the few things on this planet that represent the physical manifestations of hope. Everybody makes it seem like you’re doing this good thing but really, I go to them as a resource. I’m actually more excited about receiving from them than I am giving.”
Mays also took a moment to discuss his role in FX’s Snowfall and the importance of portraying the genesis of the crack cocaine epidemic in LA ethically and accurately, especially since some of LA’s at-risk youth come from those same neighborhoods.
“There’s a famous quote from James Baldwin: ‘To be a negro in this country and relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.’ I think the show encapsulates that kind of vigor and that kind of responsibility, and to have a system that is endemic with problems that have clearly not benefited people of color. It’s a big deal. My rage is just transferred into art. That’s where I step in and get to rumble. That’s my fight. That’s my battlefield,” Mays told THR.
The event raised more than $200,000 with proceeds going toward the theatre programs for at-risk youth.
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