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Watts Writers Workshop: A Blueprint to Fit Today's Needs?

ROBERT EPSTEIN

May 05, 1992|ROBERT EPSTEIN

It was the Hollywood cause of its time, years before whales, ecology, oceans or animal rights became the crusades of the day.

It might be worth a retooling.

The Watts Writers Workshop was something different for the Hollywood of that time--it had a strong emphasis on creativity and humanity, not on objects.

After the burning terror days of the 1965 hot-summer Los Angeles riots, it attracted its share of name writers, directors, actors and even celebrated well-wishers to get over to 102nd Street and share what they knew. Novelist and screenwriter Budd Schulberg started the workshop, working with the Westminster Neighborhood Assn. to set up instruction and guidance for untested writers and later theater people who were looking for self-expression and careers.

But did it make a difference?

Jimmy Sherman and Otis O'Solomon think it did, influencing them even now as they continue to write and as they continue to deliver their personal messages long after the workshop "dispersed," as O'Solomon says. "It's inactive again," says O'Solomon, a poet and a member of the pioneering L.A. rap group the Watts Prophets. "We've had some reunions, some attempts to start up again because some people did find careers in writing movies and novels. But what the workshop really did was something else. It tuned us in to our creativity."

Sherman, one of the first of the Watts Writers and now an author of educational material, sees it from a different angle. "People need to be educated and have educational opportunities. The workshop did that then. It could do it again."

To talk with these two writers today is not to take another tired tour through history but to learn something about our adrenalized present.

Both men had their heady Hollywood experiences as a result of their writings and the contacts they made through the workshop. Sherman worked as a writer at Universal. O'Solomon had a major television deal along with two movies. Both of their Hollywood careers could be called brief, but the urge to write continued.

And continues.

O'Solomon's poetry and the writings of Anthony Hamilton and Richard Dedeaux, also two workshop alumni and members of the Watts Prophets, form the lyrics of their rap presentations. Some believe the group helped start the Los Angeles rap movement, going back to their 1971 album, "Rappin' Black in a White World." In 1971, the Prophets numbered four, then including DeeDee McNeil, another member of the workshop and a Motown songwriter who had done work with the Supremes.

They find themselves still in demand, especially before college audiences. They were scheduled for a public concert in Los Angeles last weekend, but that event fell victim to the times, canceled. On March 30, they attracted a full house at a Getty Foundation-sponsored seminar and concert on rap music.

"In Europe they call our concerts opera," says O'Solomon, referring to the dramatic, musical style of the group. "We don't do readings. We never do our songs with a piece of paper in our hand. It comes from the heart and the head. Originally, we did our raps to jazz music but then changed it closer to what you hear now.

"For 20 years, my poetry and our presentations have been about the things we've just been going through, like living conditions in the neighborhoods. Police practices. Frustrations. Joblessness. The poetry may be 20 years old, but it anticipated Rodney King and gangs and even the concerns about the ecology.

"You see things all around you and you express yourself in your writing.

"We had insight in our works because we were dealing with universal truths. Truth doesn't spoil, so what we felt then you can feel now.

"But it looks like no one has been listening."

O'Solomon continues to write his poetry and plans for future concerts. He does not discourage easily. "Survival is in my blood," he says. He speaks warmly of the volumes of poetry he has written, but sadly does an accounting. "We all have volumes of our own unpublished works. It is part of a larger frustration."

Last year, he and Sherman tried to get USC interested in restarting the workshop. It was the fourth or fifth time someone connected with the workshop tried to gasp new life into Schulberg's creation. Occasionally, the group would meet for a few months. There were a few reunions. But nothing seemed to generate the program again after Schulberg moved east, the workshop building was torn down in the '70s for a renewal project and new causes came up as old causes aged.

"We never had enough funding, then we had no funding," says Sherman.

A member of the Watts Star Review, a community newspaper, at the time of the 1965 riots, Sherman was an early member of the workshop, attracted there by the chance to learn playwriting.

Today he spends most of his time on various educational projects, his "Think Write" series of books on writing, a board game for the teaching of vocabulary and a project for teachers facing student discipline problems.

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