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Staged Comebacks

Photo by Anne Fishbein

Director L. Kenneth Richardson is holding court. It matters little that his throne of the moment is the concrete stoop of a modest Southwest L.A. church, where he has taken a rehearsal break, or that his assembled audience numbers only one reporter, or that Richardson himself is dressed rather haphazardly in a threadbare T-shirt, jeans and sneakers. It is likely because of all these things that Richardson is holding forth in his sonorous bass, stomping a foot for emphasis and sweeping the air with long arms, with the passion and performance sense that have become his hallmark — if it is possible for a gifted director who never quite reached the career heights predicted for him can have a hallmark. Whatever he may lack in real fame Richardson makes up for with an inimitable, uncompromising style that makes him famous in the eyes of those who know him — while leaving, at the very least, a distinct impression on those who don’t.

“This comes at the absolutely right time,” Richardson is saying of his latest directorial effort, a revival of Oliver Mayer’s Joe Louis Blues that opened last weekend at the Tiffany Theater (see Theater Pick in Calendar). “This is not a new play, but I’m an ego. I want a new thing. I really look at this [revival] as a world premiere. My take on this is a first.”

Also a first is the collaboration between Richardson and playwright Mayer, a longtime friend and fellow former theater wunderkind who shares Richardson’s unabridged self-confidence and grand sense of scale. Joe Louis Blues, a quasi-historical meditation on the life and larger meaning of boxing great Joe Louis that also examines that meaning through jazz, was first mounted at the Los Angeles Theater Center in 1992 and most recently played in San Francisco, last year, to good reviews. But, says Mayer, having Richardson direct this time out was nothing less than inspirational. Mayer’s a fan; he still ranks Richardson’s ambitious version of Heiner Muller’s The Task, staged at the Taper, Too in 1991, as the best theater he’s ever seen in L.A.

“His vision was so big, so exciting — he used nudity, violence, strobe lights. He knocked people out,” says the playwright, who is as relaxed and boyish as the 51-year-old Richardson is intense and authoritative. “There’s something about the desire that Lee [as Richardson is known to friends] has that other people don’t. He has a certain kind of talent. The whole gamble is that after all these years of knowing Lee, Paula [Holt, who’s producing the play at the Tiffany Theater] and I said that for this show, let’s go with the most talented person we know.”

Richardson and Mayer have lived somewhat parallel lives as rising stars whose ascents stalled at various points, though Richardson’s stall was more dramatic. They first met in New York in 1989, when Mayer was completing a master’s degree in playwriting at Columbia and Richardson was in the thick of the theater scene. Ever concerned with fostering innovative black theater, Richardson had co-founded the Crossroads Theater Company in 1978 in his native New Brunswick, New Jersey; as artistic director he directed and produced more than 60 plays, including Phillip Hayes Dean’s one-man show Paul Robeson and the 1986 world premiere of The Colored Museum, by a then little-known playwright named George C. Wolfe; Richardson later directed the show for New York’s Shakespeare Festival, and again for its acclaimed L.A. run at the Taper, in 1988.

Mayer, meanwhile, was getting noticed by the Taper’s New Work Festival for Blade to the Heat, another boxing-themed play that explored the taboo of homosexuality in the sport; it was staged at New York’s Public Theater in ’94 — by Wolfe, who was by then a bona-fide celebrity — before returning for a main-stage production at the Taper two years later. (The film rights to the play were later acquired by Madonna.) Both Mayer and Richardson worked for the Taper in the ’90s, Mayer as a literary manager and Richardson as an associate artist.

These were alleged boom years for multicultural theater, and the Taper’s artistic director, Gordon Davidson, appeared to be taking the lead with projects like the multimillion-dollar Latino Theater Initiative and Blacksmyths, the Taper’s black playwrights workshop, founded by Richardson and attended by such artists as actor Don Cheadle and writer-performer Lynn Manning. But as the civic memory of the ’92 riots receded, the multicultural commitments all sort of plateaued, according to Mayer and Richardson, who are no longer associated with the Taper (Richardson left the Blacksmyths last year), and they found themselves casting about for the next step. Major directing projects grew few and far between primarily because, Richardson believes, “I’m a rabble rouser. I’m loud. I say what I think. I’m intimidating to some people.”

Muses Mayer, “You know, Lee did a play at the Taper, Too in ’92 and never did another production. Why? The Taper used to be very interested in finding young writers of color. That’s the reason I was there. Lee was there for black plays and black writers. We felt someone was giving us a chance.” Mayer, who is Mexican-American, believes that Richardson, with his universally acknowledged potential, would have gone further had he not been black, and so single-minded — a bad combination. “When Lee was deprived of his stage, my sense of injustice was inflamed,” he says. “In my little way, I’m making things right now.”

The gesture is not quite as impetuous as it seems; Richardson acted in the first staging of Joe Louis Blues, playing the pivotal role of beleaguered real-life jazzman Sidney Bechet. It’s a role that Richardson still takes to heart. “No one sounded like him then or has sounded like him since,” he says enthusiastically. “He brought his total self to the music — on pure instinct. As a director I try to work that way. I love to get in a room and see what happens. Improvisation! The only thing you have is trust. The more I fall, the more I’ll be okay.” He laughs. “I’m actually better equipped to play Bechet now than [in ’92]. He was a consummate artist who played in dives.”

Earlier this year, Mayer had difficulty running down Richardson, who had fallen on hard times and for a period was virtually impossible to reach. But the agreement between Mayer, Richardson and Tiffany producer Holt to mount Joe Louis Blues was reached auspiciously enough. Rehearsals were another matter. They were scheduled to begin September 11.

“I live in Jersey City,” says Richardson. “It took the wind right out of my sails. I saw the plane go into the building, and it was like a punch to the kidney, like Joe Louis said, ‘You hit me there and you got me.’ For me, it took two weeks to start directing. Finally we said, ‘We’ve got to say our piece.’”

Mayer agrees that the experience of trying to focus on the show in the aftermath of September 11 was a harsh but valuable lesson, artistically. His collaboration with Richardson has yielded not only a closer bond in the wake of the terrorist attacks, but a willingness to change a work that he considered finished years ago: This Joe Louis Blues features a new character that he added with Richardson’s input. Richardson himself, in typical experimental fashion, has incorporated dance into the play. “This is a big canvas, a big play, and it’s got all the issues of now in it,” he says.

“Lee’s really kept his eyes on the prize,” Mayer says. “Paula and I could have gone with a safer director, a more stable one. Or we could put it all on the line with a guy like Lee.”

Richardson admits there were certainly easier but less rewarding ways to mount the show. “Joe Louis Blues will give L.A. a chance to see what L. Kenneth Richardson is up to,” he says, his big voice edged with a bit of mischief. “I think it’ll make a stink.”

JOE LOUIS BLUES | By OLIVER MAYER At the TIFFANY THEATER, 8532 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood | Through December 23