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Steve Carter's 'Eden': Intimate Portrait of Family Racism

June 02, 1989|JANICE ARKATOV

Steve Carter knew black-on-black racism well, growing up in New York City.

His West Indian-born maternal grandfather had little use for American blacks--particularly the one his daughter had married. He was a follower of Marcus Garvey's "Back to Africa" movement of the 1920s. He believed passionately that blacks were superior to whites. When young Steve would come home from school with bad grades, his grandfather blamed his American blood.

Carter, 59, remembers that time in "Eden," currently at Los Angeles Theatre Center.

"It's basically about my father, my mother and my grandfather," said the New York-based writer, who was in town recently when rehearsals were under way. "At the time, they had signs on buildings like, 'For Decent Colored Folk Only.' Caribbeans were accepted, but American blacks weren't. People from the West Indies were considered more exotic, and by and large had the benefit of a better education." And vocabulary. "I never knew people chewed their food," he said, chuckling. "I thought they masticated ."

His grandfather was successful not only in eventually breaking up his parents' marriage, but also in wielding a large influence on young Steve. "He used to preach on street corners--and I had to beat the drum to get people to come listen," Carter recalled. "And he'd stress to me the importance of an education. He wanted me to grow up and be a postmaster--because that's what he'd been on his little island. I guess there it was a big position. He didn't know that here the postmaster was the guy who delivers mail."

The impetus to write about his childhood came much later, when he was a member of New York's Negro Ensemble Company.

"I'd been telling them for years about my grandfather, and they always said, 'When are you going to write this play?' The truth is, I kind of told them I already had. Then one day, the artistic director said, 'Listen, I want to see that play.' So I had to go home and write it." The resulting work was promptly scheduled for the theater's next season--and went on to win several writing awards for Carter.

The 1980 staging of "Eden" at the Los Angeles Actors Theatre (LATC's predecessor) won five Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle awards. This is the first time LATC has revived any of its productions. "Doing something I've done before is not my favorite thing," producer Diane White admitted. "And Bush (Bill Bushnell, LATC's producing artistic director) is not at all fond of repetition. I did kind of have to talk him into this."

So why do it? Mounted alongside the controversial "Minamata" (now closed), "Eden" was considered a sure thing by White: "I think it pleased more people than any show I've been involved in since the beginning of LAAT. They'd come out saying, 'This is the most wonderful play I've ever seen.' Whites and blacks. Probably no one in the black community can't relate to it. For a lot of whites, it's something they don't know anything about. But basically, it's just a wonderful Romeo and Juliet story."

The playwright remembers his own introduction to theater at age 9, when his mother took him to see "Amphitryon 38" on Broadway.

"What did I know from acting?" he mused. "But I loved the sets. When I went home I tried to duplicate them." Next came 3-D talking figurines. When he was 11, he saw the film "The Great Ziegfeld" and was captivated by the big birthday-cake number--created, he learned, by a turntable. "The only turntable I knew was on our record player. So I went home and dismantled the brand-new Magnavox, put my set on it--and of course, it went spinning around at 78 r.p.m."

Although Carter continued to be drawn to the visual aspects of theater (at New York's High School of Music and Art he was an art major), he also was attracted to novels and plays. "I thought: 'I want to do something like this'--but I still wasn't sure what. And I kept it to myself. But when I was 18 and I saw 'The Glass Menagerie,' I was just blown away. I went home and wrote my first play. It was called 'The Ballad of Hugo Jones' and it was an opera. Every once in a while I look at it and shudder."

After high school, lacking the money for college, Carter enrolled in the just-desegregated armed forces.

"I think I've written a good play--which I don't want discovered till I'm gone--about my experiences," he said solemnly. "Things that happened to me in the service, a relationship I had with a woman overseas, death. . . . I think in time people will find it a relevant period piece, a documentation of that time. I just had to get it out. There were things I couldn't face, so I finally put them down on paper. Now that I'm going to be 60, I worry about what I'm leaving here. This is one of the things I want to leave."

Suddenly, he is cheery again.

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