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Big Mix : Theater : Not an 'Ethnic Theater' : Bilingual Foundation of the Arts sets the stage for now-trendy Latino productions

February 05, 1989|JANICE ARKATOV

Ethnic theater. It's a term Carmen Zapata isn't wild about. "I don't think Hispanic theater is ethnic theater," the actress-producer said quietly, "any more than Eugene O'Neill or George Bernard Shaw or Oscar Wilde were considered ethnic theater--and they're all Irishmen. Hispanic theater is world drama: just as O'Neill, Shaw and Wilde, just as Chekhov and Moliere."

Zapata, who has served as producing director of the Los Angeles-based Bilingual Foundation of the Arts since its inception in 1973, is being neither militant nor chauvinistic. "I consider myself an American first," she said firmly. Yet the identities didn't always coexist so peaceably. Born in New York to a Mexican father and Argentine mother, Zapata grew up speaking Spanish. Her first day of school--the introduction to an English-speaking environment--was traumatic.

But Zapata (who has a recurring role on the daytime soap "Santa Barbara") caught on fast. Not only did she learn to speak English, but without a trace of an accent. And when she began to perform professionally, it was as Marge Cameron. "At the time," she recalled dryly, "it was not in to be Hispanic. I had a hard time getting club owners to hire me, unless I shook my fanny and played the maracas ."

Yet when culturally non-specific Marge Cameron came to Los Angeles in 1966, producers said, "You don't look like the All-American woman; you look ethnic."

"I'd never heard that before," she marveled. "I thought, 'Well, if I look ethnic, I might as well use my own name.' I'd never denied my roots--it was just something I wasn't dwelling on. But when I went back to using my own name, they'd hire me for specific roles that were very stereotypical: the mother of some gang member or crack addict, or somebody's maid."

That was not what Zapata had come to California to do. And so, busy though she was in episodic television--her credits include more than 300 appearances--she began nosing out theater work.

"I missed the theater when I moved out here," said the actress, who'd trained as an opera singer, yet made her Broadway debut at 18 in the chorus of "Oklahoma." "There wasn't a great deal of theater to speak of anyway--and whatever there was certainly wasn't ethnic. They were not hiring Carmen Zapata to play Lady Macbeth. But while I was here, I began to delve into my culture, my own roots and background. I became very involved in the Hispanic community, doing all kinds of volunteer work, community work."

She has received a mind-boggling number of citations for her work for every group from the YMCA to the Los Angeles City Council (who named a day for her in 1983) and the Latin American Civic Assn. Her affiliations include the National Advisory Council on Drug Abuse, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Institute for Hispanic Media and Culture, the Screen Actors Guild, Ayudate , the Valley Symphony and the Boy Scouts. Zapata's public service spots on TV now address prenatal care and adoption.

When she isn't flexing her high-profile community muscles, she can most often be found in her administrative mode at the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts, which she co-founded with Margarita Galban and Estela Scarlata.

"When I met Margarita, she had a company, Seis Actores , and she was doing a Spanish-language play in what is now Theatre/Theater" Zapata said. "She invited me to do a piece in Spanish. I'd never acted in Spanish before; I was petrified. She said, 'We'll help you.' And after I did it, I became very interested in Spanish-language theater. Why? It's beautiful . There are some glorious pieces that non-Spanish speaking people are not aware of. When I realized that, I started doing my translations."

In the last eight years, Zapata and her partner, Michael Dewell, have produced a series of translations; their first collection, three of Federico Garcia-Lorca's plays, was recently published by Bantam Books. And one of the plays, "Blood Wedding" has begun popping up in regional productions.

"There's a definite trend toward Hispanic theater right now," she said with a smile. "Of course, we've been doing it for 15 years. But that was always the idea: to have everyone learn about, share and become part of our literature, our tradition."

The tradition is made even more accessible at BFA, where on different nights, performances alternate between English-speaking and Spanish-speaking versions.

"We decided 10 years ago that we would do everything bilingual, because that would make us unique as a theater," Zapata said. "We'd started to do it only in Spanish and found we were losing a great many young people from our community who didn't speak the language well enough to appreciate the literature. We also thought it would be nice if we reached into the non-Hispanic community, and had them enjoy the beauty of our literature."

On Wednesday, Emmy winner Luis Santeiro's "Our Lady of the Tortilla" opens at the theater.

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