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.
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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.
Bellamy says this isn’t a tragedy so much as a tradeoff; theater education in the hood has always been part of its mandate. Still, it sounds like a downsizing for Towne Street, which has been prolific in the past, with critical plaudits for shows such as company member Harriet Dickey’s Joleta (Best Play winner in the 2001 NAACP Theater Awards). Towne Street had its own quarters downtown until escalating downtown rents drove it out. Towne’s membership pays dues, which go toward office and production overhead. “We don’t really enforce the dues with a stern hand,” admits Bellamy. “It’s really a way of increasing cohesion.” Far more worrisome is the suspension of California Arts Council money, as well as the still-murky future of the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, on whose largess Towne Street has relied. “Our board is huddling now about what to do,” says Bellamy. Membership 40, by referral/audition. Dues $25 monthly.
Cornerstone Theater Company, 708 Traction Ave., downtown; (213) 613-1700; www.cornerstonetheater.org. Artistic director Bill Rauch. Cornerstone has evolved from a traveling troupe of Harvard University actors into a brand name of innovative multicultural, community-based theater; currently it is in the midst of its Faith-Based Theater Project, which has staged collaborative works — Order My Steps and Center of the Star, with the local black church and the Jewish community, respectively, among other populations. The company also has an extensive education department and is launching a theater training institute this summer in Lost Hills, located in California’s rural Central Valley. “Our growth has been incremental,” says Rauch. “That’s good for a mid-to-large theater like us. We’re a bit of an endangered species.”
Thanks to a roughly $1.3 million budget that includes an endowment secured five years ago, Cornerstone is able to partner with smaller L.A. companies such as East-West Players and the Watts Village Theater — which was inspired partly by Cornerstone’s own residency in Watts 10 years ago. “The challenge for us is staying connected to a place once the show’s over,” says managing director Shay Wafer. “We’re nomadic by intent. So we keep the connection going with reunion events, equipment loans to local theaters, co-productions.” Like other companies, Cornerstone has felt the financial pinch, but it still boasts cash reserves and is able to pay its members, as well as provide them with
Its relative stability has allowed Cornerstone to focus on its core artistic mission of illuminating L.A.’s many communities and bringing them together without sacrificing their individuality. “I actually don’t believe in ‘multicultural theater’ in the sense that everybody should strive toward somehow being the same,” says Wafer. Rauch agrees. “There’s a real need for culturally specific theater,” he says. “I have a problem with white institutions claiming to represent ethnic communities. Cultural palaces should belong to the people, from Watts to Pacoima.” Core membership 15. New members by referral, participation and audition. No dues.
Watts Village Theater c/o Mafundi Institute (Robert Pitts Center), 1827 E. 103rd St., Watts; (323) 692-3537; www.lynnmanning.com. Artistic director Quentin Drew says that running a theater company in Watts has been as rewarding as it’s been isolating. “Being in Watts helps with the grants for sure — everybody knows what Watts is about, the Writers Workshop from the ’60s and the whole arts scene,” says Drew, a 40-year-old actor and Watts native. “On the other hand, casting directors won’t even come over here. Our patrons don’t trip like that, but the institutions do.”
Funny, in L.A. it tends to be the other way around. But Drew says that theaters north of the 105 freeway have been more than supportive, especially Cornerstone; when WVT recently got its biggest grant ever of $100,000, Cornerstone acted as fiscal receiver.
Drew co-founded the theater in ’96 with actor/playwright Lynn Manning, a performance artist and writer who is also blind. “We were inspired by Cornerstone to keep a theatrical presence here in Watts,” says Manning. “Our vision was to be less a community theater and more of a professional theater in the community.”
WVT’s base of operations is the Mafundi Institute, a Watts cultural landmark, community center and sometime theater. WVT also runs Yo Watts!, a theater and production workshop for local high school students that Manning and Drew consider their biggest achievement. After years of wearing many hats as director and administrator, Drew is returning to the stage to play the protagonist in O, Manning’s modern take on Othello, which explores black/Latino racial and romantic tensions. Despite the difficulties of running a small theater in L.A., to say nothing of in the hood, Drew is confident of success. “If you work hard, you can make a life — this is my full-time job,” says Drew. “We’re in our eighth year, but we’re already planning for our 10th. If you do good work, they will find you.” Membership 15. New members by referral/audition. No dues.