SAN DIEGO — Where can you go these days to see gifted black San Diego actors perform?
Los Angeles. New York. Minneapolis.
Increasingly, the answer is anywhere but San Diego.
That is distressing for both aspiring black actors who need a stage to practice on and for the black director in town, Floyd Gaffney, who has been trying to put together a professional black theater company in San Diego for 18 years.
"Maybe we can catch people on the way up," Gaffney said. "You go out and, if you're lucky, you'll get someone talented who's moving through, like Hassan El-Amin, but soon he'll be gone again."
It is a Catch-22 in which nobody wins. Without professional black theater artists, there can be no resident black theater company. Without a black theater company, there is no source of income that will allow professional black artists to make a living here.
In the absence of theater about the black experience, black audiences--who are still not in the theatergoing habit--don't show up. Without black audiences coming to mainstream theaters, theater companies will not see such programming as in their interest when planning a season schedule.
Although leading theaters such as the Old Globe Theatre and the La Jolla Playhouse may feature black actors in August Wilson plays (at the Globe) or original works like "Shout Up a Morning" (at the Playhouse), their shows are usually cast from New York or Los Angeles.
In the case of the Wilson plays, the casts come intact from the Yale Repertory Theatre. As one observer who sympathized with the practice of casting elsewhere confided, "I couldn't find the quality of black actors I would need to cast in town."
The closest thing San Diego has to a black theater troupe is the Southeast Community Theatre, which produced "Williams and Walker," which just closed at the Lyceum Space on Sunday, and plans to present "Black Nativity," a gospel Christmas play at the Educational Cultural Complex in November.
The Southeast Community Theatre is the place where Cleavon Little, a Southeast San Diego native, and Whoopi Goldberg performed in their years here. But the status of the Southeast Community Theater, which, after 25 years, has yet to find a home or scrape together enough money for more than two plays a season, symbolizes the precarious nature of black theater in San Diego as a whole.
The homelessness of the Southeast Community Theatre is a sore spot for the black theater community.
Another painful subject is the collapse of the Southern California Black Repertory Theatre, which flourished in the late 1970s under a variety of names including the Wing and a Prayer Repertory Company and the Rainbow Repertory Company. The short-lived company collapsed not long after two of its founders, actors James Avery and John Wesley, left to pursue their careers in San Francisco and then Los Angeles, where they continue to work in television and film.
When that organization went, black actors had to again leave San Diego if they wanted to find work as professionals.
El-Amin, born and raised in Southeast San Diego, remembers looking up to Avery and Wesley as role models. El-Amin just finished playing the legendary Bert Williams in the poignant Southeast Community Theatre production of "Williams and Walker," which Avery and Wesley returned home to see.
It was a part that hit close to home for El-Amin, Avery, Wesley and the scores of black artists who attended, but never managed to fill, the 200-seat space. Opening night brought fewer than 10 people into the theater; by the end of the four-week run, about 100-150 were in attendance.
Williams was a turn-of-the-century black vaudevillian who managed to break the color barrier at the Ziegfeld Follies, but only by agreeing to put black greasepaint on his face and chalk up his eyes and lips a glaring white. That is how the audiences expected blacks to look, whether they were being played by white or black performers.
Williams longed to play Hamlet but was limited to the stereotypical roles epitomized by the blackface make-up.
El-Amin, who will leave San Diego in September to pursue his master's degree in classical acting at the University of Delaware, would also like to play Hamlet someday, but he realizes that it is unlikely that a black actor in America would be offered such a part.
"As far as the limitations of the parts you can do as black actors, things haven't changed a lot," El-Amin said.
"The situations are similar. I'm going to
school to become a classically trained actor, even though I know my ability to do these classical parts is limited. I understand the obstacles before me, but I want to be trained, I want to be prepared. And hopefully, a change will come about." Most of those who stick around San Diego waiting for the changes are those anchored here by other jobs or their family.
Equity actress Sylvia M'Lafi Thompson is cultural affairs director for the Education Cultural Center (ECC) and vice chairwoman of the San Diego Commission of Art and Culture.