The Struggles of Homeless Women Vets, in Low Hanging Fruit

Homeless vets Cory (Heather Gordon)

A chopper hovers over Cory's encampment, in one of Low Hanging Fruit's most moving moments. The army vet who was awarded a Purple Heart following two tours of Iraq, a sliced throat and a suicide bombing that killed 19 of her fellow soldiers points her middle finger up at the sky and yells “Motherfuckers!' before ducking to the ground in utter terror. She rocks back and forth till the noise above subsides.

Cory is no longer on enemy soil and her foe is no longer an opposing army. Today she is living with three other traumatized vets of the War on Terror — aspiring poet Maya (Livia Demarchi), embittered knitter and alcoholic Alice (Cheri Lynne VandenHeuvel) and crack-addicted prostitute Yolanda (expertly played by standout actress Cat Brooks) — in a little tent city on Los Angeles' notorious Skid Row. Her opponents are poverty, pimps, drug addiction and PTSD. In other words, sometimes a helicopter is just a helicopter.

[jump] “It's like we're downrange with targets painted on our backs,” Cory says, deflated and defeated. “We're nothing but low hanging fruit. Women and homeless.”

In this sense, low hanging fruit are the easiest targets to hit because they're the most visible. They're also the easiest to ignore if your attention is fixed on the penthouses at the expense of the tent cities.

But after reading a Huffington Post article that illuminated the grave post-war realities faced by women vets, Bay Area playwright Robin Bradford felt compelled to spotlight their struggles in her provocative production, Low Hanging Fruit.

You may be able to avert your eyes when passing homeless people on Market Street, but you can't dismiss these four women, when they're at eye level, just feet away, onstage at the intimate Z Below Theater.

Before putting pen to paper, Bradford did her research, speaking with representatives at the Department of Veterans Affairs and with the homeless women vets of Skid Row, so she could do justice to their plight. That's why the staging is so lifelike, from the bright red curb to the gray concrete wall covered in graffiti under the long overpass that the women take shelter under. Between the filth, the stench, the sirens and the constant threat of danger, these ex-military women live as if perpetually under siege.

“It’s close as we can get to the sounds and smells of war, close as we can get to Iraq, to Afghanistan, close as we can get to what we’ve learned is normal,” Maya, who also acts as the play's one-woman chorus, says in one of her extended poems.

Stuck in traumas that for some go back over a decade, the quarantined quartet feel safer living together in this hauntingly familiar environment than in the outside world, full of people who just can't (or don't want to) relate. As if back in the army, the women remain regimented. Cory maintains the grounds, including the tiny flower garden of pink and yellow dahlias and white daisies with purple centers she's managed to grow in a patch of dirt. Maya patrols the perimeters five times a day and night. Alice assembles bologna sandwiches. Yolanda brings in money for food, alcohol, drugs and cigarettes — but not in that order.

So that you don't just typecast them as “bums,” Bradford puts words in Maya's mouth to humanize them. “Not everybody on the street’s depressed, insane or trash,” Maya explains. “We’re used to it here.”

The characters' backstories help explain their current circumstances. After serving her country, Cory returns to an empty home, and after falling behind on rent is evicted. Maya, whose father returned from Vietnam with PTSD and suicidal tendencies, comes back to the U.S., only to be abandoned by her “neglected” husband and unable to care for her child. Alice “went through it” when she returned and then “had the rug pulled out from under her.” Yolanda, who ran away from home as a teenager, after being pursued by too many of her mother's lovers, says that in Iraq she “got shot with bullets ain’t nobody can see.” One can only assume that her scars are both physical and emotional. 

No matter what these women have endured, they aren't lost causes. They continue to soldier on, with varying degrees of  hope of a better future. Maya dreams of advocating for other vets. Alice wants to save enough so she can move near her daughter. Cory yearns for pet birds and a girlfriend. Yolanda hopes to stop prostituting and snorting crack.

But in their positions, these goals are lofty and take more than a village or, in the case of Low Hanging Fruit, an encampment to fulfill. Women like Cory, Maya, Alice and Yolanda have served their country, and with the play Bradford reminds us that it's now our turn to reciprocate.  

Low Hanging Fruit, Through July 30, at Z Below, $35-$50, 470 Florida St,

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