Having played everyone from Jesus to the devil, 33-year-old actor Spencer Scott is now taking on a new role, one he officially assumed last year, as producing director of the Unity Players Ensemble, a black theater group based in Inglewood. As the only troupe of its kind in the L.A. area at the moment, Unity is gambling that audiences will embrace weighty issues; one of its unwritten directives is to counter the aggressively comic black stereotypes spawned not only in film but locally in gospel musicals — the raucous Mama Don’ts and I Need a Mans that play almost monthly at huge houses like the Wiltern and the Wilshire Ebell and are, for all intents and purposes, black popular theater.
The Unity ensemble is a collective of 25 people who share a variety of duties — acting, directing, publicity, site procurements — in the interest of mounting regular full-scale productions at the Inglewood Playhouse, a 99-seat venue located in the verdant sprawl of Edward Vincent Park. The players are currently in the midst of a run of three original one-acts, A Black Trilogy, the third production of its first full season.
If attendance is any measure of success, Unity is doing fine. A recent matinee of Trilogy brought out a nearly-full house on the worst possible afternoon for it, L.A. Marathon Sunday, which featured cold, windy weather to boot. The pieces were often inspired and occasionally insipid, shiny with comedic possibilities and overlaid in spots with morality-tale didacticism that ground the action to a halt. But the kaleidoscope was worth looking into — a Caribbean island suffering through a violent volcanic eruption; a segregation-era Southern hamlet whose white citizens have lost the ability to see skin color; a modern-day office where two black women compete, subtly and not, for the same job and, in the process, expose the horror and absurdities of interracial conflict.
Unity may not be the Negro Ensemble — yet — but Scott and company are busy putting out the word in a big way, through intensive street-level flier distribution and ads on black radio sponsored by Disney. (“You’re nowhere in black theater without radio,” asserts Scott, correctly.) Domino’s Pizza picks up post-rehearsal food tabs, and the city of Inglewood provides rehearsal and performance space. What else does Unity need? Apparently, time. The company’s first public casting notice for 12 actors drew 150 hopefuls, and now it is accumulating new scripts faster than it can peruse them. The once vibrant Inner City Cultural Center — launching pad for minority artists — may now be dead, but the Inglewood Playhouse is in the wings, again. “We can do it,” says Scott.
Unity opened its doors with The Trees Don’t Bleed in Tuskegee, Duane Chandler’s take on the infamous Tuskegee experiment that turned a group of syphilitic black men into guinea pigs; after debuting in Inglewood, it was picked up for a run at the Hudson Avenue Theater. Trees was followed by El Hajj Malik (El Shabazz), an impressionistic look at the life of Malcolm X that also played at more than one venue.
These maiden efforts garnered consistently favorable critical notices; if reviewers found performances a bit lugubrious, they lauded Unity for its heart, its “activism,” “poetry” and “passion.” Still, Scott has no illusions about competing with the breadth of the gospel-musical phenomenon, though he figures on being able to “buck the chitlin circuit” by simply increasing choices for black audiences. “I operate on the clean water/dirty water theory,” he says. “People drink dirty water because they don’t have the option of clean. They drink anything because they’re thirsty.” Think of Unity as the new Sparklett’s man on the block.
The black theater scene in Los Angeles has indeed been pretty parched of late, and while it’s had its moments, it has proved more dependent on singular events or personalities rather than an interest in growing and sustaining the art form for its own sake. Recent history is littered with worthy efforts at black theater that never quite found a base: Marla Gibbs’ Crossroads Theater in Leimert Park, the Chesley Playhouse in the Crenshaw district, the Black Actors Lab at the Los Angeles Theater Center, Jayne Kennedy and Bill Overton’s Inglewood Civic Theater, C. Bernard Jackson’s Inner City Cultural Center, last seen in Hollywood. Perhaps most distressing was the demise of Inner City, an institution started in the ’60s that served as a working model for cooperative multiculturalism long before the idea came into vogue, and was known for helping to launch the careers of such luminaries as Denzel Washington and George C. Wolfe; when Jackson died in 1996, the theater he founded and for which he became synonymous died with him. The Civic Theater had the star power of a Kennedy, but it couldn’t seem to build any lasting momentum off a long but sporadic history of Inglewood Playhouse productions headed by local theater impresario Cepheus Jaxon. Scott says he had not even heard of the Civic Theater, which folded in 1991, proving his point that black theater in L.A., once gone, rarely leaves any trace of itself. “Other major cities seem to have at least one classic black rep company,” he notes. “Here someone will produce something, it’ll go up, it’ll close, and that’s it.” Scott attributes this phenomenon partly to L.A. theater always laboring in Hollywood’s shadow. “Actors would rather be atmosphere in a music video than have a lead role in a play,” he sighs. “Everybody wants to be a star. But theater is the essence of the art, and there’s an audience for it.”
Scott speaks from personal experience in the Industry. Before founding Unity, he worked for several years in Hollywood’s periphery in what he calls a stop-and-start mode: doing small stints on television series such as Martin, game shows, and larger stints in theatrical productions, some of which, he admits, were not very good. He patterned the Unity Players after an East St. Louis troupe of the same name, the Unity Theater Ensemble, where he was a member. Seeing a reputable theater company thriving in such a small, impoverished community fueled Scott’s belief that the same thing could happen here, especially under comparatively easier conditions.
Los Angeles fairly crawls with black actors who have too little to do. Scott was once one of them, inspired one day to channel his own frustration and determination toward innovative productions that he hopes, at some point, will induce Hollywood to come calling, rather than the other way around. “There’s a ton [of black actors] out here,” Scott notes. He is now drawing on that weight, hoping to move mountains.