When I met with actor/activist Quentin Drew last spring to interview him for theWeeklys
annual theater issue, I was struck anew by two things: his height (he was 6-foot-8) and his youth. Nearly all the black people in L.A. who can rightly be called community leaders are warhorses from the 1960s and 70s; Drew didnt fit the description. At 40, he was a tail-end baby boomer whose generational sensibilities were less aligned with civil rights than with hip-hop. Born and raised in Watts after its first apocalypse in 1965, he had the casual self-possession of the ace basketball player he once was and the performer he became; he also had a frank affinity for rappers like Notorious B.I.G., whose music he preferred to play well, blast while driving.
Drew, who died April 21 after a long battle with kidney cancer, was a leader in the most old-fashioned and complete sense of the word, a man whose myriad and tireless efforts at community improvement included youth leadership training, gang mentoring, high school program coordinating and chairing the local neighborhood council. And, of course, theater. The Watts Village Theater Company that Drew co-founded in 1996 with poet/performance artist Lynn Manning was the highest expression of many dreams Drew had for the place he called home. Shows likePrivate Battle
and the upcomingUp From the Downs,
a free-wheeling adaptation of ShakespearesOthello
that examines black/Latino relationships, brought back to 103rd and Central the kind of artistic ambition the neighborhood hadnt seen since the heyday of the Watts Writers Workshop and the Watts Prophets in the late 60s.
But times had changed. There were no political or social epiphanies on which to build an artistic movement, so Drew, with characteristic single-mindedness, built it himself. In the mid-90s he sought out Manning, an African-American writer of increasing renown in downtown and Hollywood circles, and convinced him that starting a serious theater in one of the poorest and least-theater-inclined communities in L.A. made perfect sense. Manning said yes. The company debuted with Juneteenth, a festival of original short plays, poetry and monologues staged at the Watts Towers that year. After that initial rush, things got uncertain and more or less stayed that way; money was always an issue. But Manning says Drews high hopes for the company and for its role in instigating social and aesthetic change never flagged.
For the next couple of years it was just me and him making things happen, says Manning, who, like most of Drews friends, simply called him Q. A native of South-Central himself, Manning admits Drews endless enthusiasm for Watts forced a question he had never quite asked himself: Was he going to bring his work to the people? Did he want to? Saying yes hardly meant he stopped having moments of doubt about the whole enterprise. Had it not been for Q, my interest would have fallen off like everybody elses, admits Manning. But he would come to me when he got whipped up into a fervor over something hed say, We got this African heritage thing at the Mafundi Institute, or at Jordan Downs, or a small grant to do something, acting workshops at the community center. And Id say, Yeah, yeah, yeah, Ill come out and do a poetry workshop or something. Q would coax me into it, hed hypnotize me. He really had the commitment. Drew took especial pride in Yo Watts!, the youth poetry and performance program run by the Watts Village Theater Company at schools like Jordan High, Drews alma mater.
Its not surprising that Drew was eventually drawn to theater; his own life was a drama in its own right. After being an All-American basketball player at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, he returned home and decided on a whim to visit a friend in the Philippines, though he had no idea where he lived. The friend turned out to be a high-ranking official in the crumbling Marcos government, and Drew had to flee the country. He later went south to Argentina to play baskeball professionally; though he played well enough to become a star, he soon grew homesick, and heartsick his mother, whom he had always been close to, had died and he wanted to return home once again. But the Argentines were loath to break his contract, and Drew found himself under virtual house arrest; he escaped this time with the aid of a woman he was dating. Like a lot of inner-city kids who still lacked a career path, he next did a stint in the Army. It was only when he started studying at the Los Angeles City College theater academy that the pieces of Drews ambition finally fell into place.
That changed Qs life, says Leo Briones, Drews best friend of the last 24 years. He always wanted to be an actor. He got hooked into that whole bohemian world. But it was a world that wasnt quite right it was a bit too Hollywood, too self-indulgent for Drews grassroots taste. He was always pulled toward social change, says Briones. He was doing well as an actor, but one day he said, I got to help the community. I cant do this no more.
Fortunately for Drew, the Cornerstone Theater Company came through Watts in the early 90s; Cornerstone is a roving operation that builds innovative, well-received shows around pressing community issues and stages them at community spaces. Through his involvement with Cornerstone, Drew got inspired to start a similar theater company in Watts, but one that would stay. Though his duties as company administrator and activist limited his time as an actor, Drew never stopped wanting to be onstage. He was slated to star as the Othello character in ManningsUp
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the latest WVTC production that opens this weekend. The role that he had looked forward to doing for nearly 10 years was not to be; after being diagnosed early last year, Drew and Manning agreed to double-cast the part in case he couldnt go on. In early March, after making the first rehearsal, he knew he wasnt coming back. But he did make his last stage-related appearance memorable. We always bring food to a first rehearsal, and Quentin baked pies, recalls Manning. I know it wasnt easy for him, but he spent two days making 10 pecan pies. When he really puts the love in them, he crumbles up the pecans instead of throwing them in whole. This was a crumble. They were the best pies Id ever had.