By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
The Harris brothers moved to the Crenshaw District in 1999 from the Hudson Backstage on Santa Monica Boulevard. Their experience in Hollywood, where they spent years honing play production skills, proved invaluable. "At the Hudson," says Richard, "we adopted a
template of theater that we're just filling in now with our color."
Allegiance to color and to racially specific storytelling has not diminished because of multiculturalism; in some ways multiculturalism, with its inherent threat to blur lines of difference in the name of progress, has strengthened the racial argument. And that feared, indiscriminate blurring simply hasn't come to pass.
Thanks in part to the vigorous implementation of multiculturalism by Inner City, colorblind casting — mounting an immigrant Latino version of Our Town, for instance — doesn't even raise eyebrows these days. But the most burning question for theaters of color is still how to represent onstage the stories and experiences that are unique to a people — the more contemporary the better.
The Mark Taper Forum is the highest-profile purveyor of such representation with the ethnic theater labs it launched after '92 — Blacksmyths Play Development, the Latino Theater Initiative, and the Asian Theater Workshop. The trajectories of each have not been uniform: The Latino Theater Initiative remains the busiest and best funded of the three (it was initially headed by Jose Luis Valenzuela, who now runs the Latino Theater Company, an outgrowth of Los Angeles Theater Center's former Latino Theater Lab). Begun with a $1.4 million grant in 1993, LTI has produced some 260 plays and commissioned 54 in the 10 years since. LTI co-director Luis Alfaro, an Inner City alum like so many other L.A. theater artists of color over age 40, believes that mainstream theater is finally beginning to achieve the integration Bernard Jackson idealized. And the annual New Works Festivals affords everyone in the labs the chance to read material by writers of all colors. "We're literally in the house — on the artistic staff talking about plays," says Alfaro. "We're at the table. We get to shape the parameters, to create the images. We have a place at the table."
But, adds co-director Diane Rodriguez, "We still don't really have organizations that are headed by people of color. That's where we lack."
Taper artistic director Gordon Davidson, the local dean of theater diversity, believes the paradoxes and unfinished business of modern multiculturalism are themselves potentially liberating.
"You don't avert your eyes from the differences of cultures, and you have a mix of cultures — both things should exist," he says. "We're ready as a society to go to the next level of understanding and to other possibilities. The healthier the mix and the more inclusive, the better. Theater is about experience that's both shared and individualistic."
True, but the reality of filling seats is slightly less romantic than Davidson's vision of experiences that are both common and singular. Cultivating audiences is already a challenge, but add to that the open-ended question of whether traditionally white theatergoers will consistently patronize nonwhite shows, and whether nonwhites attending their first or second play will make a habit of it. Though the future of diversity in theater is obviously here, many of its aspects are still unknown. South Coast Repertory has run its Hispanic Playwrights Project aggressively for years, but just 10 percent of its regular subscribers are Latino, black and Asian. Part of the problem is geographic, particularly in L.A., where traveling from Mid-City or South-Central to the Valley or Orange County, or even downtown, feels too daunting to make a habit of.
But if communities of color can't make it to the Music Center, the Music Center is hoping to export its wares from downtown via two satellite venues in Culver City, both of which the Taper has refurbished: the Ivy Substation (new home of the Taper, Too original plays series) and the Kirk Douglas Theater, slated to open in fall, 2004, as another staging ground for new works in addition to educational activities for young people. The Ivy in particular is being primed as a launching pad for works generated by the LTI, the Blacksmyths and the Asian Theater Project that get lots of plaudits but rarely make it to the Taper mainstage.
L. Kenneth Richardson, an actor-director and former Taper staffer who headed Blacksmyths for many years, says such efforts are noble and needed, but hardly the definitive answer to the problem. He's more concerned with the aesthetics and sociopolitical relevance of black theater today than with location, which often has a sociopolitical relevance of its own.
"At the Taper you can get a commission, you can be on salary, and that's a great thing," says Richardson, who's currently directing Lynn Manning's Private Battle at the Watts Village Theater. "But I'm a revolutionary and always have been. And the issue is always, can you be a theater with a budget and still be revolutionary?"
"I don't think black communities go [to the Taper]," he adds. "And in these days of war, with people of color fighting for so many things, like a public education, it becomes more and more important to bring theater to the streets. What are we as artists doing if we're not speaking directly to what's going on?"