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STAGE : A Trailblazer for Diversity : Long before it became popular, C. Bernard Jackson and the Inner City Cultural Center were preaching the gospel of multiculturalism

March 31, 1991|JAN BRESLAUER | Jan Breslauer is a frequent contributor to Calendar. and

Singing and dancing figures cavort in the mural on the outside of the converted Masonic temple. Signs in Korean and Spanish dot the Pico Boulevard neighborhood. Inside, in a second-story meeting room, the faces around the table are Asian, African-American, Latino and white.

Uptown in Hollywood, at the recently reopened Ivar Theater, similar meetings are taking place and a variety of plays and events are being planned.

These may sound like scenes from a documentary about that latest of buzz topics--multiculturalism--but what's happening here isn't new. It's business as usual at the Inner City Cultural Center, now 25 years old and growing.

With the first production recently mounted in its Ivar Theater (the Celtic Arts Center's "Shadow of a Gunman"), Inner City not only survives but thrives. This isn't just the tale of the little theater that could, it is the story of a groundbreaking model--perhaps the urgently needed blueprint--for arts institutions of the coming century.

Inner City, built on the dreams of executive director C. Bernard (Jack) Jackson, was the first arts institution in the United States exclusively devoted to a concept only now gaining wider attention.

"It's a tribute to Jack's vision that the multicultural idea has been seen, and that future is on us," El Teatro Campesino founder Luis Valdez says of the man who gave his organization its "first break and our introduction to the professional theater."

"He's been a pioneer, a revolutionary force in humanizing the American arts scene," continues Valdez. "Jack was the first individual who was stressing multiculturalism, a whole new perspective on what America was becoming. Truth was on his side and he had the quiet persistence to keep on representing that."

"Jack said, 'This is not a black theater, this is not a Latino theater, this is not an Asian theater. This is a theater that will reflect the total population,' " says Victor Leo Walker II, a UC Santa Barbara scholar whose book "The Autobiography of the ICCC: the Life and Times of America's First Multicultural Arts Institution," is due to be published in 1993. "Now everybody's giving lip service to (multiculturalism). Jack didn't give it lip service, he practiced it."

Inner City has also expanded in a period when many nonprofit arts organizations have either struggled or gone under. With the purchase of the Ivar in May of 1989, and with the mortgage on its Pico headquarters paid off, Inner City is in a uniquely secure fiscal position, poised and planning for even more extensive expansion in the near future.

"They're brave," says Al Nodal, general manager of the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department. "They're moving forward and have made a major expansion, when everybody else is in a holding pattern. The Ivar means a lot to the arts community."

"When in trouble, expand," Jackson says in a moment of joviality that has currents of seriousness and fearlessness. "It works. That's all I can say."

Born out of the spirit of the Watts riots, Inner City has played a leadership role in its home in Central Los Angeles and lent a hand to numerous organizations, such as Teatro Campesino, the East-West Players and Carmen Zapata's Bilingual Foundation of the Arts (founded in 1973). "The Inner City Cultural Center was the umbrella organization for our first National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1974 and we performed there before we had our own theater," says Zapata.

As Inner City built bridges between communities, it also spawned and nurtured myriad individual careers, including those of such celebrity alums as Beah Richards, Paul Winfield, Lou Gossett Jr., George Takei, Nobu McCarthy, Mako, Sab Shimono, August Wilson, George C. Wolfe, Edward James Olmos, Ted Lange, Danny Glover, Samm Art Williams and many more.

Countless others have found motivation or gotten that all-important first break through such programs as Inner City's annual short play competition, which brings together fledgling writers and established film/TV industry professionals who are in a position to--and often do--employ them. (They also sponsor an annual acting competition--the ninth annual currently taking place through May 5--and a competition for musicians and composers.)

Most important, Inner City has been and continues to be a beacon for those who believe in the power of the arts to effect social change. With an annual operating budget of only half a million, it is both cultural center and social service organization, creating productions that move on to commercial success, even as it picks up a bit of the slack left by a government woefully unable to cope with the problems facing the inner city.

"It's one of the few organizations that came out of the War on Poverty that have survived," says Walker. "What Jack had was a vision of the future."

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