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Tough Act to Follow 

The rise and fall, and rise, of theater of color

Thursday, Apr 24 2003
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Photo by Ted Soqui

Once upon a time, in a civic galaxy that now seems very far away, there was a theater called the Inner City Cultural Center, housed in a complex on the edge of L.A.'s unglamorous Pico/Union neighborhood that nonetheless proved a rare nexus of the city's mobile black, Latino and Asian populations. Inner City was a multicultural arts force long before the '80s, when the M word came into vogue. The center opened in 1967, in the smoldering wake of the Watts Riots, with the lofty misson of incubating and institutionalizing theater of color — creating a permanent space for actors, playwrights, directors and producers. And for nearly 30 years it did just that, inspiring like-minded endeavors such as East West Players. But in the '90s, circumstances swiftly conspired to bring about Inner City's demise — not the least of which was the death of its originator and guiding light, C. Bernard Jackson. After that, in the ashes of the 1992 L.A. riots (reaching even farther than the Watts explosion 27 years prior) emerged what might be called the city's first neo-multicultural movement.

Though the decade since the latter riots promised to be the second coming of Inner City and all the opportunity that implies, the results have been decidedly mixed. Local government did give out a flurry of "arts recovery" grants, but like many post-riot commitments, they proved to be less than the sum of their parts. The private money and public interest that flowered in the '60s around the arts as instruments of social change were proportionately much less the second time around. The fortunes of ethnic theater suffered accordingly, and in some ways simply followed demographic and political shifts in the neighborhoods they represented: Black theater atomized and plateaued, Latino theater burgeoned. And though, after all these years, no one group has fully arrived, and though the grassroots, cross-pollination model of Inner City was never replicated, its founding principle of people of color telling their stories onstage is nonetheless very much alive.

 

Because the civil rights movement prompted parallel movements within the arts to assert cultural independence for all, the state of black theater reveals much about the complex legacy of ethnic theater in general. After Inner City, big attempts to raise up black theater fell back to earth and sometimes died right away, other times withered slowly — the Ebony Showcase, Crossroads Theater in Leimert Park, and the short-lived Los Angeles Theater Center's Black Actors Lab, for example. Black theaters were usually driven almost exclusively by the personalities who founded them, and when any such personality left the scene, the theater entity followed suit. This was the painful lesson of Inner City: As encompassing and long-lasting as it was, it lasted only as long as Jackson (who happened to be African-American). Crossroads and the adjacent Vision Theater were the singular — some say too singular — vision of Marla Gibbs, as the Ebony Showcase was of Nick Stewart.

The evolution of personality-driven black theater into enduring institutions of a certain size and ambition has been, in a word, problematic. But the landscape today is full of encouraging signs: the 4305 Village Theater in Leimert Park (directly across the street from the shuttered Crossroads), the Watts Village Theater at 103rd Street and Wilmington Avenue, and several smaller efforts with grand names such as the African American Theater Ensemble in Inglewood, the Unity Players Ensemble in Hollywood and the newly inaugurated Los Angeles African American Repertory Company in North Hollywood (which scores points for even attempting regular black theater north of Ventura Boulevard). The 10-year-old Towne Street Theater, one of few surviving post-riot artistic projects in the inner city, is the granddaddy of the bunch by far. And that it's gotten so much company lately is good news.


Towne Street's Davis-Bellamy
(Photo by Anne Fishbein)

"The goal of our theater is that it won't die when we die, that we'll leave a legacy," says Nancy Cheryll Davis-Bellamy, artistic producing director of Towne Street. "And the fact that theater like this is growing is a good sign. We can't be the only ones out there."

Known for its quality shows, Towne Street boasts a repertory company, children's program, staged reading series, filmed readings and other elements that echo Inner City's holistic approach to theater.

Brothers Ron and Richard Harris say they had similar inclinations when they added not only a youth program and a dance troupe to their 4305 Village Theater but also launched a restaurant, coffeehouse and art gallery on the same block. The idea is to create not merely a theater but an entire scene — an atmosphere in which theater can flourish culturally and financially. With its reputation as a local center of black arts and commerce, Leimert made perfect sense to the Harrises as a place to set up shop — and to take up where Marla Gibbs and others had left off.

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