Dense and diverse as it is, Los Angeles is still considered by some theater intelligentsia as a bit of a rube, a city that may contain the world but not one that the world necessarily comes to when it presents new ideas on the stage. In a modest but significant way, the Los Angeles Women’s Theater Festival is working to change that with its annual five-day program; for the first time in its eight-year history, the festival will feature performers from outside the United States, flying in especially for the occasion.

Festival founder Adilah Barnes credits the Internet for the global turn of events. “We had submissions this year from everywhere, includ-ing South Africa and Egypt,” she says. The wel-come foreign elements in LAWTF‘s 2001 festival — appropriately titled “Breaking New Ground” — include the Kamchatka Theater of Russia, performance artist Juliana Jardim of Brazil and poet Tim Gibbard of England. Kamchatka is a women’s ensemble that will perform a closing-night piece titled Amazonia, or Guard #8 Project, which imagines a world and a military culture without men; Jardim and Gibbard will add their rap-flavored, spoken-word musings to the mix. Kamchatka will perform entirely in Russian, Jardim partly in Portuguese. Another artist, Michelle Banks, is deaf and will perform her entry in sign language. Audience members will be given written synopses in English of all these pieces, but that‘s it. “It’s a little bit scary,” admits Barnes, “but based on what we know can be communicated nonverbally, it should be fine.”

Kamchatka discovered LAWTF‘s Web site last year, and after getting accepted to the festi-val, the group shared information about an arts-funding source that had agreed to underwrite its visit to Los Angeles. The source, Trust for Mutual Understanding, in New York, fosters cultural exchanges between the United States and Russia; Barnes is hoping that performers in LAWTF will be able to secure enough moneys from the foundation and other private sources for a reciprocal visit in July. In the meantime, the festival has more new riches to boast about at home: In addition to international artists, it will be featuring men for the first time (in a lineup cheekily titled “One Night Stand”), as well as dance and theater performances by youth. Headlining opening night is Yolanda King, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter, who will offer her reflections on the civil rights movement — and not strictly on Jr. — in Achieving the Dream.

Not bad growth for a festival originally conceived as a local outlet for women with solo theater pieces they were burning to perform — beginning with Barnes herself and her signa-ture traveling show, I Am That I Am: Woman, Black, a paean to American historical figures ranging from Sojourner Truth to Angela Davis. Barnes teamed up with partner Miriam Reed to stage the first LAWTF festival, which occurred in 1993 at the Los Angeles Theater Center, and in that way this year‘s event is a homecoming, despite its new dimensions. It is also a personal homecoming for Barnes, who landed in L.A. in 1989 with a touring production of August Wil-son’s Joe Turner‘s Come and Gone. The show left; Barnes stayed, heeding the call of Hollywood but anchoring herself in the cause of theater. “The festival is a labor of love,” she says. “I don’t gain money, but something else that translates into good fortune for my television and film work. I call it a tithing of talent.”

“Festival 2001: Breaking New Ground,” Los Angeles Women‘s Theater Festival at LATC, 514 N. Spring St.; March 22–24 & 30–31. Tickets and info, (818) 760-0408.

LA Weekly