Enter stage right: At-risk youth
Tameka Carter was 16 years old and living in a Watts homeless shelter when she joined The Unusual Suspects Theatre Company, an intensive theater arts mentoring workshop for at-risk youth living in high-crime and impoverished areas.
“Statistics say that someone with my background should be dead, uneducated, strung out on drugs,” the 33-year-old told a packed ballroom at the Skirball Cultural Center during the theater company’s seventh annual gala.
And yet, here she is, married to a devoted husband, mother of two, and soon-to-be-published author of a memoir titled “In My Mother’s Bathroom.” All of it, she said, is because of Unusual Suspects. “It saved my life,” she said, overcome by emotion.
Carter wasn’t alone in her praise of the theater company. The night was packed with testimonials from alumni, current participants and local supporters of the nonprofit.
“This is why we do this,” Executive Director Sally Fairman said through tears, after Carter spoke. “You are a hero, an absolute hero,” she told Carter. “We are building a bridge to the future, and we need your help,” she then told the packed audience.
During the course of the evening, Unusual Suspects raised well over $40,000, with many thanks to emcee and actress Melissa Peterman, from TV shows such as “Reba” and ABC Family’s “Baby Daddy.”
Peterson, a towering blonde, took the stage throughout the night. Mimicking Ellen DeGeneres at the Oscars, Peterson pulled out her phone and took a selfie while onstage, trying to capture the rest of the gala behind her, making sure to get everyone in clear view. “Are we hashtagging and Instagramming?” she asked the audience, hoping to build social-media momentum.
The room was unified by an overall sense of shared interest in The Unusual Suspects, founded by actress Laura Leigh Hughes in the wake of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. She came up with the idea after catching a floating speck of black ash wafting in the air, and holding the cinders of her beloved city in the palm of her hand.
“I watched my city burn around me,” she told the audience. “I knew I needed to do something and give our lovely youth a voice. And here we are, 22 years later!”
The theater company now serves more than 600 at-risk youths and their families annually and operates in areas such as San Fernando and South Los Angeles, including sites such as Camp David Gonzalez for juveniles in Calabasas. It offers an array of programs, including residencies, intensive workshops (such as improv, storytelling and musical theater) and community enrichment programs.
“We have, in this room tonight, our history!” Hughes said, referring to alumni, directors and volunteers who have been part of The Unusual Suspects (theunusualsuspects.org) since the very beginning.
Among those present were Meisha Rainman — the group’s new director of development and former board president of Silverlake Independent JCC — as well as two honorees: Russ Cashdan, a partner at Hogan Lovells, and Paul Hudson, former CEO of Broadway Federal Bank and founder of Paul C. Hudson Consulting.
As waiters began collecting salad plates and clearing tables, preparing for the next course, Hudson poked fun onstage: “I didn’t realize being honored, I wouldn’t be able to eat my salad.” Between the clattering of plates and silverware, Hudson shared the story of how he first came across Unusual Suspects after attending a performance at juvenile hall, years ago with his then-wife. Today, he’s an active supporter of Unusual Suspects and said he was thankful for the opportunity to give back.
The other honoree, Cashdan, Unusual Suspects’ board treasurer and member of Temple Beth Hillel in Valley Village, was presented the award by his three teenage kids, Nicholas, Claire and Margaret. Similar to Hudson, Cashdan first heard about Unusual Suspects by attending a performance at Camp David Gonzalez.
“When you think of summer camp, this isn’t Camp Gonzalez,” Cashdan said. Entering the facilities through security checks, vaulted doors and towering walls, he witnessed a theatrical experience unlike any he’d seen before. “Many of these kids were from rival gangs,” he explained.
Unusual Suspects alumnus Johnny Ortiz — now an actor on ABC’s “American Crime” — was exactly that sort of kid, and he spoke about his personal experiences with the theater group.
“Without you guys, I wouldn’t be here now,” he said.
The 18-year-old said he joined a gang at age 10, and by 15, he’d already been shot and stabbed. He was first introduced to the theater when he was at Camp David Gonzalez.
“When Unusual Suspects came, it brought back my hope,” he said.
A reformed gangbanger, Ortiz said he acted alongside rival gang-members in the theater group.
“I say this to you guys,” he said, looking at the two tables filled with current Unusual Suspects participants — who would perform two improv games and two songs over the course of the night — “the sky’s the limit.”
One of those participants was San Fernando High School junior Erick Perez. Representing a new generation of Unusual Suspects, Perez said it was nerve-racking when he first entered the gala room, facing the prospect of performing, but the nervousness melted away when he got onto that stage, doing the thing he loves the most.
“Unusual Suspects means everything to me,” he said.