By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
A little food for thought: Los Angeles, the capital city of American diversity, can count its black theater companies on one hand. And none of them — Robey, Unity Players Ensemble, Towne Street Theater or Watts Village Theater — has a place of its own; ironically, the itinerant-by-design Cornerstone Theater Company has the most serious digs, an office complex downtown in the loft district. Cornerstone is a truly multiethnic, multicultural theater that has grown and institutionalized itself in a way that its black counterparts have not; ensembles with a simple but singular mission of putting more black playwrights and actors to work often find themselves apart from L.A.’s decidedly white theater crowd. With self-empowerment goals that still drive much black art, Watts Village Theater’s Quentin Drew says he’s actually in the theater business for social change. “We survive because we really are connected to our community,” he says. “Being part of this theater allows me to be a part of Watts in other ways. It’s been a real education.” Drew’s peers, who may not be in Watts but are certainly in the struggle, agree.
Robey Theater Company, 5211 Kester Ave., Sherman Oaks; (818) 981-4141; www.robeytheatrecompany.com.Founded in 1994 by Danny Glover and his friend and fellow actor Bennet Guillory, Robey is named for the lion of black theater, Paul Robeson. “Black Hollywood has been very supportive, just with their participation,” says Guillory. “Overall, it’s been two steps forward, one step back.” Yet film-industry support doesn’t always equal money; Robey often operates on the same shoestring as companies with far more modest ambitions. So while the theater got much acclaim for the first two installments of a trilogy of plays about the Haitian Revolution — Toussaint and Dessalines boasted elaborate sets and casts of nearly 40 — Robey’s total output of six full-length plays over the last decade has been, well, erratic.
Also in this issue:
Company Town: How did sprawling Los Angeles become a mecca for small theater? Nearly 100 self-sustaining companies, many with distinguished reputations, are at work in the city. STEVEN LEIGH MORRIS addresses the question of why L.A. is such fertile ground for ensembles, and profiles some of the best, along with ERIN AUBRY KAPLAN and STEVEN MIKULAN. Plus, MORRIS on Gordon Davidson, who will be designated this year’s Queen of the Angels at the 25th annual L.A. Weekly Theater Awards.
This is partly because Robey is selective by design. “Look, there are about 200 theaters out there that run the gamut from spit-and-glue operations to the Ahmanson,” says Guillory in his rich, stage-ready baritone. “We have to be very discriminating about our stuff. Otherwise we’ll end up another, ‘Whatever happened to . . .?’” Robey relies on a combination of grants and fund-raisers, particularly its biennial “Discovered Voices” event, which features Hollywood names doing staged readings of new works developed through Robey. Membership about 70. New members by audition and referral. No dues.
Unity Players Ensemble at the Stella Adler Theater, 6773 Hollywood Blvd.; (323) 860-3208; www.unityplayers.com.Like Guillory, Spencer Scott started UPE with little more than a determination to mount quality black theater in the desert of Hollywood. But Scott was also determined to do a full season of three to four mainstage productions annually; in its seven years, Unity has indeed been busy — at least three shows per year of original plays and one-acts, 37 in all. And though show quality varies, and the company doesn’t have its own space, Unity has been in residence at the Stella Adler Theater for the last three years. All this despite big obstacles — especially last year, when half of the troupe’s already scant funding evaporated; show runs were cut from seven weeks to four. How does UPE manage? “Will,” says the 39-year-old Scott, laughing. “And I really believe that providence has had a hand.” Unity does charge its members dues. “Being African-American,” explains Scott, “we don’t want to price people out.” But dues go mostly toward morale-boosting — birthday parties, closing-night fetes — rather than production costs, which run at least $10,000 per show. Scott himself invests heavily in the ensemble, as does publicist and chief fund-raiser Yvette Culver. Other steady donors include Northrop Grumman, Disney, Hollywood Park, and television director Leonard Garner (Girlfriends). Membership over the years has ranged from 45 to six. “I’d rather have 10 committed folks than 50 fly-by-nights,” says Scott. “I act for the love of it. It’s not a means to a television pilot.” Membership currently 10. New members by referral/audition. Dues $240 annual.
Towne Street Theater, c/o 4101 Budlong Ave., No. 4, Los Angeles; (213) 624-4796; www.townestreet.org. Artistic director Nancy Cheryll-Davis Bellamy. Founded in 1992 and billed on its Web site as “L.A.’s premiere African-American theater company,” Towne Street Theater is the gray lady of the five ensembles profiled here. Bellamy has learned much in 14 years, namely how to have a theater ensemble survive, diversify and focus on those enterprises that generate income. “That’s our emphasis this year,” says Bellamy. “We’re working on developing other aspects — children’s theater programs, musical-theater camp, a fund-raiser in June.” Towne Street’s revival of Sheri Bailey’s Passing at the Stella Adler Theater last month, she adds, will likely be its only production this year.