"Usually blacks have to be wooed, attracted into the theater," actor Hal Williams said. "In order to get them into the theater, you've got to do 'black' things--you've got to have a hook."
And Williams does. This weekend, he's taking part in the Los Angeles Theatre Center's tribute to Black History Month, a Friday-Sunday series of events including:
--LATC's Black Ensemble Theatre production of "And Put On Plays About Me" (a montage of solo/group vignettes and music, assembled by Veronica Reed).
--A storytelling session for children and adults by Zeebedee, performed by Vel O. Syed and puppeteer Gary Jones (plus "songs and games" by Rosie Lee Hooks).
--The Media Forum Players' "Voices of Our People/A Tribute to Martin" (black poetry and prose).
--A "black musical experience" featuring the Brookinaires of the First A.M.E. Church, H. B. Barnum's Life Choir and the Figueroa Church of Christ's Angelic Choir.
Williams (familiar to television viewers from his stints in "Private Benjamin" and the current "227") described the Ensemble work as "a piece about us, excerpts from a lot of different plays that deal with historical black figures."
His own repertoire: "I do a piece of poetry by Langston Hughes called 'The Man,' about how man comes to grips with police brutality, and another--for comic relief--about a couple of vaudeville characters named Miller and Lyles.
"All the scenes are connected by what we call the legacy--signified by a scarf--which is our history, and passes from one point to the next, showing different aspects of black history: some of it familiar, some not so familiar."
Proud as he is of this association with black culture, Williams pointed out that color is rarely a factor in his theater choices.
"In 1975, when the Ensemble first started at LAAT (the Los Angeles Actors' Theatre, LATC's predecessor), we were just a lab group, coming together to search, experiment, delve into areas that a lot of artists--who make their living in TV--aren't permitted to do: the classics. So we did 'Taming of the Shrew,' 'Lysistrata.' . . ."
The public response?
"Audiences got so involved that it didn't make any difference what color the actors were," Williams maintained. "And that was the point we wanted to make. Part of LAAT's existence had already been directed toward that. They did 'Macbeth' with Danny Glover ("The Color Purple") as Macbeth, a white woman as Lady Macbeth. It was marvelous."
It was also--unfortunately--rare. Yet, Williams remains optimistic about integration in the arts.
"Here, our audience will be heavily mixed, entertained--and educated, I hope--about things they may not have known. I don't think that (a mono-racial theme) necessarily puts off a mixed audience, as long as they know what to expect. After all, some of the greatest successes at LAAT were black shows: 'Eden,' 'Dame Lorraine' and 'Nevis Mountain Dew.' "
Nevertheless, he acknowledged that those "black" successes came largely at the hands of white audiences.
"A lot of black people have never seen a live production, and the best way to get them in there is to do something with faces they know, want to see." To that end, he participated in a 1984 production of "The Song of the Lusitania Bogey" at the First A.M.E. Church with Esther Rolle, Roxie Roker, Richard Roundtree and Marilyn McCoo.
"As we walked in," he recalled, "there was a murmur, a ripple of applause, then a crescendo that lasted three full minutes. It was because, for most of them, it was the first time they'd seen their black stars up close, in person.
"I think when you advertise that way, you can get them in. Once in, you can educate them. Then they will support anything."