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Stripping Away the Labels : "off" deals with themes of race, AIDS and being gay. But its director and writer say they hope it will transcend those categories.

July 09, 1993|T. H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; T. H. McCulloh writes regularly about theater for The Times.

One of the things writer-producer Michael Kearns is concerned about is labels, particularly regarding the production of his play "off," opening Sunday at North Hollywood's NoHo Studio. The staging inaugurates the Artists Confronting AIDS' Theatre at Three series, as well as the San Fernando Valley's newest theater space.

"I wish we could come into this space," Kearns said, "and not label it gay and lesbian, and not even label it 'Artists Confronting AIDS.' But we're in the marketplace. That's why there are Italian restaurants and Chinese restaurants."

Colin Martin, director of "off," agrees with Kearns. "It's a starting point," he said. "A beginning. You say, 'This is what we're starting with, this is who we are to begin with. Now let's expand beyond that.' "

Kearns and Martin are adamant that "off" is not a gay play. The characters, who tell their stories through monologues, are not connected by race, class or sexual preference. Each has killed someone, and each character is the result of the influences of today's society. The play, Kearns states, is about a bigger issue than being gay or ill. It's about bigotry.

Actor Rodney Hargrove, who plays two roles in "off," said he was amazed that "off" was written by a white man.

"In my monologues," Hargrove said, "you don't think in terms of gay and straight. You think in terms of issues and circumstances: This is what a person, given these things, had to deal with. It doesn't have just one theme. I immediately related as a black man, or an Afro-American, or whatever you say these days."

Reminded that those are also labels, Hargrove laughed. "I'm still learning them," he said.

" You are" Kearns asked, also with a laugh. "What do you think we have to go through?"

"I see the validity of getting labels right because they embody so much the pain of people, and they immediately take people to certain places," Hargrove said. "I prefer 'human being.' At some point, a very well-written play has to become about the human experience, so therefore the labels are erased, even though everyone has their own label they attach to it."

The NoHo Studio is the first theater space in the Valley dedicated to gay, lesbian and AIDS issues that will also speak to a broader audience. Kearns, who has lived in Glendale for almost a decade, has achieved recognition for his productions in Hollywood, West Hollywood and as far west as Santa Monica, predominantly dealing with gay and AIDS-related issues.

As artistic director of Artists Confronting AIDS, he felt that it was time to reach out to Valley audiences, just as he has begun to reach out beyond predominantly gay themes in his plays, as he did in the recent "Myron," also directed by Martin. "Myron" is a modernization of "Cyrano de Bergerac," with the hero's problem metaphorically being the black color of his skin and an AIDS-related deformity of his arm. At its core, it is a love story, Kearns said.

"I had to start in a ghetto situation," Kearns explained, referring to his earlier works. "I had to learn all of that and get it out of my system before I could begin to challenge these other ideas, these broader issues, to see how my limited world fits into the big picture. As a gay man, bigotry ties me to a lot of humanity, whether it's because of their age, their color, what country they were born in. This is a pretty strong link."

Speaking beyond what Kearns calls the group's target gay audience, both he and Martin believe that it's necessary to establish a base, a home, so their new space can develop an identity and a relationship with the community.

"When you're talking about a community," Martin said, "you're talking about all members of that community. It's letting people know that there's a place where you can come and observe and partake. Also letting people know there's a place you can come and bring your work, a forum for artists. Not just gay and lesbian artists, but all artists who want to deal with the issues of sexuality, with issues of AIDS. Not everyone who has AIDS is gay or lesbian."

Those are not, however, the only issues that the group's material will deal with.

"It's our responsibility," he said, "even if we're gay, and in my case, have HIV, to speak to larger issues."

Where and When What: "off." Location: NoHo Studio, 5215 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Hours: 3 p.m. Sundays. Indefinitely. Price: $10. Call: (213) 969-2445.

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