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Biographies Strike a Chord : Young audiences gain musical insight into three prominent Americans in Nyna Shannon-Andersen's 'Legends.'

June 18, 1993|JANICE ARKATOV | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Janice Arkatov writes about theater for The Times

What do Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez and Marian Anderson have in com mon?

Not much, until Nyna Shannon-Andersen decided to write musical biographies about them. Now, the trio of plays will be performed in a children's matinee series under the umbrella title "Legends," with each piece showing for two weekends at the West End Playhouse, beginning June 26. The tribute to King--with Peyce Byron in the title role--is first, followed by Danny Castillo as Chavez, and playwright and producer Andersen as the late famed soprano.

"Marian: Once in a Hundred Years" was the first piece Andersen wrote; it premiered in 1984 at Pasadena City College. In 1988, the King musical debuted at Barnsdall Art Park, and the Chavez piece first opened in 1991 at the L. A. County Educational Facility in Downey. Since then, Andersen's company of eight has toured regularly, performing the shows--in various forms and lengths--at area schools, and audiences ranging from elementary- to college-age. At the West End, each of the plays will run about one hour.

"I tried to make each person unique, have the music fit their character and reflect that," says the Texas native, who majored in voice at Howard University. "Marian was from a Baptist background, but we also see the classical music she studied. With King, because he was a Baptist minister, there's very much a Southern gospel sound--and also some classical orchestrations. With Chavez, it's classical Latin music, some Spanish polkas, a little bit of salsa."

Ironically, both Chavez and Anderson died in April--although Andersen earlier corresponded with the singer's representatives, and the actor originally playing Chavez got to meet his subject. Andersen, who's received National Endowment for the Arts and L. A. Cultural Affairs grants to develop her works, thinks the unifying thread among the three subjects is how captivating they are: "When I started working on King, I assumed there'd been so much done about him. But in my research, I discovered so many wonderful things about him as a person. I wanted to know him."

Byron joined the "King" cast in 1991 as Stokely Carmichael; he's played the title role for the past year. "It's an honor, but tremendously humbling," acknowledges the actor. "It took Nyna 3 1/2 hours to talk me into doing it, to get past the awe of stepping into his shoes. Then I did weeks and months of research. And the more I got into it, the more respect I had for his life. We all know about the speeches and marches, but when the wife and children come together, what was that like?"

To help fill out the theatrical experience for schoolchildren, Andersen provides teachers with suggested reading material and vocabulary sheets ahead of time. "The teacher has the option of preparing them," said the playwright, who was a third-grade teacher in Los Angeles after her graduate studies at USC. "Sometimes we also have post-show question-and-answers. A lot of these kids have never been exposed to live actors."

Andersen, who is also founder and director of Colors of Love, a choir currently accompanying "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" at the Pantages Theatre, hopes "Legends" can become a fixture at the West End, where a full-length production of "King" played last summer. "Eventually, I'd like to bring in other people's shows, have a series about outstanding Americans," she says. "What I want to do is bring quality theater to young people."

WHERE AND WHEN

What: "Legends"

Location: West End Playhouse, 7446 Van Nuys Blvd., Van Nuys

Hours: 1 and 3 p.m. Saturdays, beginning June 26. Runs indefinitely.

Price: $6 to $8

Call: (818) 503-4459

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