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THE BIG MIX : Stage : A Theater of Cultural Diversity? : Southland's 'minority' theaters reflect--somewhat--a changing population

February 05, 1989|VICTOR VALLE

The idea of "minority" theater in Los Angeles sounds like an oxymoron.

How can such a beast as "minority" theater exist in a city where Asians, African-Americans and Latinos constitute its new majority? How can these individually diverse communities persist outside the mainstream, when each lays claim to its own universal theater traditions?

Los Angeles, after all, is the Pacific Rim city, civic boosters and cultural attaches proclaim; the combinatorial where the peoples of Asia and the far-flung Pacific converge with descendants of European, African and Latin American immigrants.

A quick glance of hometown theater marquees seems to reflect this diversity.

Cuban-born Eduardo Machado's "A Burning Beach," a drama which revolves around Cuba's hero-poet Jose Marti, has just opened at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. And Machado's translation of "The Day You'll Love Me," by Venezuela's Jose Ignacio Cabrujas, recently closed at the Taper, Too, the Mark Taper Forum's second stage.

Machado's sojourn at LATC is no fluke. "A Burning Beach" represents the fifth LATC co-directing stint for Jose Luis Valenzuela of the theater's 7-year-old Latino Writer's Lab, which develops and showcases the works of Latino playwrights.

Last spring, playwright George Wolfe's "The Colored Museum" earned praise from critics and laughs from theatergoers for its irreverent look at black cultural icons. Taper staffers are gearing up for the March debut of "Sansei," the culmination of a three-year project built around the lives of the Japanese-American rock-fusion group, Hiroshima.

The city's multicultural vitality also manifests itself in a wild theater patchwork ranging from the bawdy burlesque of East L.A.'s Teatro Blanquita, overseas Kabuki at the Japan America Theater, to black experimental drama at The Corner Theater.

Looking southward, San Diego's Old Globe Theater has begun to thrust Latinos to center stage with its Teatro Meta project, which is charged with developing playwrights and actors. And the South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa is looking toward a fourth season of its Hispanic Playwrights Project in August. So far, the project has developed a pair of full-blown productions--"Birds" by Lisa Loomer and "Charley Bacon and His Friends" by Arthur Giron. Several other plays have jumped from the project to other mainstream stages.

"My whole push is to put (Latinos) on the American stage, and we are seeing that happen," said project director Jose Cruz Gonzalez. "You can feel it on a national level. Other theaters are constantly calling us about the playwrights we work with."

All of this diversity would seem to reinforce the image of Southern California as a center of a thriving, pluralistic theater, right? Wrong.

For many former "minorities," Los Angeles' promise of multicultural communion, of a new cultural synthesis, remains unfulfilled.

While minorities have made great strides on the neighborhood and mainstream stages, ethnic theater leaders claim these feats are in no way proportionate to their numbers or impact upon other media such as TV and film. Instead, they say, local theater's dependence on upper class Euro-American patrons sustains an older, more provincial image of Los Angeles where class and cultural barriers as high as freeways still relegate the city's new, multiethnic majority to cultural marginality.

"The people who control the purse strings are the mainstream people," said Jorge Huerta, a University of California, San Diego drama professor who recently directed "Burning Patience," a fictional account of Chilean poet laureate Pablo Neruda's last years, at the San Diego Repertory. "There are very few theaters controlled by this new majority."

"The principal function of mainstream theater," adds C. Bernard Jackson, director/founder of the Inner City Cultural Center, a nonprofit theater that straddles the Pico-Union district's Latino, Asian and black communities, "is to serve a white, middle-class audience, and anything else they do is a secondary to that function."

Stephen Albert, managing director of the Mark Taper Forum, the mother ship of Los Angeles theater, rejects all such contentions. The forum has not only been responsive to the city's ethnic diversity, Albert argued, but opened the door for minorities by commissioning works such as Luis Valdez' "Zoot Suit" in 1978, its longest-running hit.

"We are all aware of the (ethnic) richness, and we are all attempting to mine it. But you can't go out every time and duplicate an experience like 'Zoot Suit.' It's like hitting a home run." The forum's obligation is to create world-class theater, instead of attempting to appeal to any one audience segment, he said.

"Our experience has been, when we have done things well, and had plays that speak to a particular audience, whether it's the disabled, gays, ethnic or religious groups, the audience will find the work."

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