The opening night of the celebration known as "An Anthem to Black Artistry" at the Ensemble Studio Theatre came at a midpoint--between the end of the series of workshops that had kicked off the week Monday and the performances crowning it this weekend.
Thursday's "A Moment, A Life, A People," (a title borrowed from a song by Bernice Johnson Reagon) was, in effect, a dramatic sampler.
It offered scenes from the full-fledged programs scheduled for Friday, tonight and Sunday, along with some solo sax, songs, dance, poetry and comedy topped by a Kwanzaa feast on stage, with the audience invited to partake of the groaning board. (Kwanzaa, as co-producer Rosie-Lee Hooks explained, is an Afro-American celebration that begins the day after Christmas and goes to the end of the year, designed to reflect the dual character of the identity and experience of Afro-Americans.)
Not only then, with audience and actors mingling on stage, but earlier too, the evening felt like a party.
Director Sati Jamal had the wisdom to move things along swiftly and simply, never lingering too long in any one segment. The material was well-selected, varied and, above all, it effortlessly displayed the work of some top-notch black talent in a manner too rarely seen these days.
We saw snippets of Fred Pinkard's sly and beautifully understated "Mr. Marshall--Justice," marveled at the a capella choral prowess of Hooks, Patricia McQueen and Veronica Redd, chuckled at Hooks' breathlessly sexy rendition of "Mens" and were more than a little impressed by teen-ager Kim Bailey's accomplished recital of "Toussaint," Ntozake Shange's humorous retelling of her childhood collision with a pair of heroes--one historical and one real.
Ben Guillory's much-acclaimed portrayal of Paul Robeson had its moments, but his performance as Malcom X with Redd playing his wife-to-be in "The Proposal" (the title tells all) was especially rewarding--a subtle and restrained exchange between wary participants afraid to rejoice too soon in their unexpected joy.
There was the evening's lighter side as well: Leslie Rivers encouraging her timid suitor to " 'spress" himself and not be too shy to put the burning question. Mixxed Nutts, a black comedy group, did some comical preaching on how to live right. (This mildly moralistic episode, featuring Charline Hairston, Cliff Armstrong, Ron Trice and Jeris Poindexter, felt like part of a program aimed at school kids, but that did nothing to impair one's awareness of the presence of strong comic talent. On the contrary. It's not easy to be judgmental and funny at the same time.)
If the program dipped briefly in a touch of mawkishness (Corlean Pitre's "Daisy Bates" needs strengthening and refining) and if the excerpt from "Woza Albert" felt more comfortably American than psychologically hungry and South African, it was of little consequence in the end.
Perhaps the evening's most memorable piece was "Rough Cut," a mixed-media tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. that incorporated film clips, text and dance along with the cavorting of some irresistible children--made considerably more irresistible by the fact that they were simply asked to be themselves.
This sort of naturalness characterized much of what went on and made the celebration of black talent all the more vibrant and warm for being so innately justified rather than the product of hype. Black artists, one is delighted to report, are alive and well and living in Los Angeles, though one wouldn't always know it; the town needs to create more opportunities to see more of them, much more often.
In the meantime, the Ensemble Studio this week is a good place to start.
"Anthem" performances continue at 1089 N. Oxford Ave. in Hollywood tonight at 8 with Charles Allen-Anderson and Bingwa in "Woza Albert" on the Sarah Cunningham Stage and a twin bill in the Downstage Theatre: "The Proposal" and Laurence Holder's "When the Chickens Come Home to Roost." Sunday's concluding performances, also at 8 p.m., will see Ben Guillory in Philip Hayes Dean's one-man "Paul Robeson" upstairs and another twin bill downstairs: Corlean Pitre in "Daisy Bates" and Fred Pinkard in his one-man "Mr. Marshall--Justice." (213-466-2226)