Black Magic 

An African-American stage troupe moves in from the 'burbs

Wednesday, Apr 28 1999
Photo by Robert HaleWHEN THE ORANGE COUNTY BLACK ACTORS THEATER (OCBAT) fizzled some seven years ago, it was not for the usual reasons that plague small-theater efforts in Southern California -- a dearth of capital or commitment. OCBAT founder/director Adleane Hunter had established something behind the Orange Curtain that no one would ever have dreamed possible, an ensemble of black talent that was steadily growing in artistic scope and reputation -- and launched during the Reagan years, no less. L.A., with its exponentially larger population of black actors seeking opportunities to perform, had nothing comparable. Before its demise, OCBAT was on the verge of securing a permanent home in Santa Ana. Then, in 1990, at the peak of the theater's fortunes, Hunter moved from Orange County to San Diego after her husband was offered a job there. The heart of the theater operation, as it turned out, went with her.

Now OCBAT is back in a second incarnation, in collaboration with the Harris brothers (Ron and Richard) at the Hudson Backstage Theater, and with a new acronym and a new focus: the Black Artists Network Development Inc., or BAND. Officially formed in 1995 and now based in Los Angeles, BAND includes Hunter and four associates who represent the various disciplines within theater: actor Robyn Hastings, playwright Eugene Lee, set designer Ed Haynes and stage manager Ed Deshae. The group seeks to produce new and classic works by black playwrights. Continuing the OCBAT tradition, it is also forming an acting company, but its focus is production. Maiden projects include Gus Edwards' Louie & Ophelia and Pearl Cleage's Blues for an Alabama Sky, a production mounted at Los Angeles Theater Center last year that, according to Equity's records, was the first show in L.A. to give a black ensemble company an Equity contract. Hunter just directed a fund-raiser/staged reading of Louie & Ophelia at the Lucy Florence Gallery, adjacent to the Hudson Backstage Theater. "[BAND] is really what used to be the development arm of the Orange County group," explains Hunter, a tall woman who speaks as briskly as she moves. "We want the black audience to broaden, to look beyond the chitlin-circuit, gospel plays that tend to be identified as black theater these days. Our initial idea, though, was that we were black people who could do anything -- Ibsen, Strindberg, Shakespeare, anything."

A unique characteristic of BAND is that it has been able to enlist the services of well-known black actors who have made their names in Hollywood, providing a valuable missing link between stage and screen in the black performing community, and boosting its own visibility in the process. The modest Louie & Ophelia initially featured Glynn Turman and Vanessa Bell-Calloway, who between them have a wealth of stage, screen and TV roles. Another BAND stalwart is Loretta Devine -- "our first lady," says Hunter fondly -- who starred in Blues for an Alabama Sky and co-starred in Louie & Ophelia.

"Theater is so important, but I'm continually shocked by actors in Hollywood who tell me they've never even been on a stage," says Devine, a stage veteran who first came to attention in Michael Bennett's Dreamgirls. "For me, theater is something I have to do. I make time for this because I love it, and because I believe in Adleane's vision."

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Part of Hunter's vision is cohering the city's black entertainment talent in the interest of forming a theater base that can nurture everybody. It's as grand and mildly quixotic a vision as, say, launching a viable black theater company in Orange County. For Hunter it's a done deal. "Now," she says airily but with dead seriousness, "I'm just waiting for Sam Jackson to get available."

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