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Tough Act to Follow

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.

"We wanted a place where African-American actors really had a forum," explains Ron in the brothers' Georgia drawl. "Marla and Richard Fulton and Earl Underwood served their communities quite well. We're looking to do the same." (Fulton and Underwood, who died in the last few years, were proprietors of a jazz coffeehouse and art gallery, respectively.)

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?"

Though Richardson says the Taper's descent from Bunker Hill to Culver City is a step in the right direction, he's agitating for leaps and bounds rather than steps, and not just from big theaters but from theaters of all sizes. He's hopeful that the Watts experiment will pay off. "If only the people in Watts come to [our] shows, not a mainstream audience, I'll be happy," he says. "I'll feel very good about that as someone who's spent 25 years of his life in theater."

 

Richardson raises a question that's removed from the sheer presence of theater of color and yet intimately connected to it: If new audiences must be found, so must theater find them. There are only so many revivals of Ain't Misbehavin' and Zoot Suit that theaters can support and that people want to see, no matter how great the costumes or bright the music. But beyond the short list of the familiar marquee titles is a growing scene with verve, if not visibility. And occasionally things do break through from out of nowhere: Michael Edwards' ruminative one-man show Runt went to Edinburgh last year and snagged an award and a film deal to boot. More importantly, Runt was a small show with primary themes of family and self-discovery juxtaposed with questions about race and culture: In the end, Runt resonated with the kind of synergy that everybody wants.

Lynn Manning hopes his Private Battle (first presented by the Taper at the Actors' Gang several years ago), which recasts Georg Büchner's proto-existentialist Woyzeck as the story of a black soldier beset by demons of various dimensions, will build on that synergy with the Watts Village Theater. Thanks to its blue-collar and almost exclusively black and Latino demographics, Watts is both an unlikely and entirely logical place for theater. But as C. Bernard Jackson always said, when in doubt, get bigger.

"What we hope to do is be what the Inner City Cultural Center used to be, a place where all people interested in theater can come and participate," says Manning. "Multiculturalism is problematic to me only if your intent is not to offend anybody. If the work doesn't make some people uneasy, then it's not getting the job done."


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