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STAGE WEEK

Ron Milner's 'Checkmates' At Inner City Center

May 31, 1987|JANICE ARKATOV

Two generations, three theater organizations and four actors come together for Ron Milner's new play, "Checkmates," starring Denzel Washington, Paul Winfield, Rhetta Greene and Gloria Edwards. It opens Thursday at the Inner City Cultural Center.

"It's one of the few plays written in the last year about black urban professionals and what they're going through," said director Woodie King, whose National Black Touring Circuit is co-producing with Inner City and Marla Gibbs' Crossroads Theatre.

"It also deals with marriage, the work ethic, trying to make it in modern-day America, and the generation gap: an older couple who's weathered the storms of the 1940s and '50s.

"I've known Ron Milner for years," said King, who runs New York's New Federal Theatre as well as a minority theater-training program, Mobilization for Youth. "We've done other plays together, sort of grew up together. We did a tryout of this play in Chicago last February; at the same time, Inner City and Crossroads had teamed up and were looking for things to do. And Ron had been a teacher at Inner City."

How did they recruit their high-profile cast? "Well, Denzel Washington had done a play ('When the Chickens Come Home to Roost') at our theater in New York. Rhetta Greene also starred there--in 'What the Wine Sellers Buy'--and so did Gloria Edwards. Paul Winfield came to this because for a long time he'd wanted to work with Inner City. He told them, 'Whenever you've got something, call me.' So we called him."

"I didn't know about Philip till his play arrived at our theater," confessed Jean Erdman. The play was "Dream of Kitamura" (opening Thursday at the Japan America Theatre), the playwright Philip Kan Gotanda. Erdman, the Obie-winning director who runs New York's Theatre of the Open Eye, was immediately smitten.

"It's open theater: a combination of Noh and Kabuki," she said. "And the musical/rhythmic structure is the form on which the whole thing takes place. That really appealed to me--having both the visual drama and the action drama, where you don't depend on dialogue to carry forth the drama. And all of the imagery is symbolic, below our consciousness level; the music also takes it beneath verbal consciousness. Yet it's completely contemporary, a vivid expression of the Japanese-American experience."

When the piece was mounted at the Open Eye two years ago, playwright Gotanda was on hand to voice his observations. This time around (the two-night local engagement concludes a seven-city tour), he's serving as co-director.

"When we first did it," Erdman noted, "I staged it in a way he hadn't imagined or seen done (in previous tryouts in San Francisco and Los Angeles). And he liked it! So the original staging, directing and choreography are still there. And we've been lucky enough to get all of the original cast back. But Philip has been helping the actors bring out a whole new, richer understanding. And working with him--even though you hear about how writers and directors never get along--has been wonderful."

Up the coast at Solvang and Santa Maria, the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts (PCPA) kicks off its annual summer repertory season with Larry Shue's "The Foreigner."

" 'The Foreigner' has had an incredible audience in regional theaters this past year," said artistic director Jack Shouse. "The glory of the play is that it talks about significant issues--like prejudice and the Ku Klux Klan--but it's fed to you as sugar. It uses that dream device of a man coming in and changing everyone's lives: allowing them to discover who they really are--and who he is, too."

The other advantage of this show (originally mounted in February), he added, is the flexibility it offers in casting. "We have a core of professional actors and students that we're able to showcase. That's what PCPA is about: bringing together professionals (acting alums include Robin Williams, Harry Hamlin, Kelly McGillis and Powers Boothe) with talented students. The level of production really defies you to tell who's the professional and who's the student."

The season continues with "Gershwin: An Evening of Music" (June 12, Solvang); Cole Porter's "Kiss Me, Kate" (July 3, Santa Maria); D. L. Coburn's "Gin Game" (July 3, Solvang); Frank Loesser's "Hans Christian Andersen" (July 17, Solvang); C. P. Taylor's "Good" (July 17, Santa Maria) and Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (July 31, Solvang). With the exceptions of "Foreigner" and "Midsummer," which will play Solvang only, the remaining shows will alternate between the two sites.

LATE CUES: The manic goings-on of "Steven Banks' Home Entertainment Center," which had a very successful run at the Chamber Theatre in 1986, are now in evidence at Theatre III in Hollywood, replete with Banks' gorilla suit, home-baked chocolate chip cookies and dead-on Dylan impersonation. . . . Michael Kearns encores his one-man show "The Truth Is Bad Enough" (from his autobiography of the same name) in a benefit performance, tonight only, at Barnsdall Park's Gallery Theatre.

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