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Speaking Language of Youth : Mary Mann has written a rap musical for children and teen-agers that tackles such adult issues as guns and ethnic divisiveness.

July 30, 1993|TOM JACOBS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Tom Jacobs is a regular contributor to Valley Life

Like many of us, Mary Mann was shaken by the shooting of Latasha Harlins. "It nearly drove me crazy," the Burbank playwright and theater scholar recalled. "I couldn't explain it."

Harlins, a 19-year-old black from South-Cen tral Los Angeles, was shot to death by a Korean grocer who accused her of attempting to steal a carton of orange juice. Mann was particularly upset that the shopkeeper--who was convicted of voluntary manslaughter in the 1991 incident--was a woman.

"That went against all my ideals about women, who in my last play were the peacemakers," she said.

Her response was to write another play--a 45-minute work for children and teen-agers that tackles such adult issues as guns and ethnic divisiveness. Titled "Thugun and Natasha," the rap musical premieres at 2 and 4 p.m. Saturday at the Burbank Little Theatre.

The play is a fictionalized re-creation of the shooting that dramatizes the events and attitudes that led up to the tragedy. According to Mann, one catalyst for the killing was the misunderstanding and hostility that still exist between people of different racial and ethnic groups.

"The shooting exposed a chasm in society--and made it a lot worse," Mann said. "People viewed events exclusively through their ethnicity."

The other primary catalyst, as Mann sees it, was the ever-increasing tendency of people to use guns to settle disputes. One of the title characters, Thugun--a.k.a. The Gun--is the personification of an actual firearm.

"The act of violence has become so commonplace in our society," said Sherron Welden, who is directing the play. "The message of the play is we don't have to use the gun to solve our differences. We can communicate."

Mann determined that the best way to communicate with young people was through the use of rap music. So as she began work on the play, she asked her 20-year-old son to get her some rap recordings so that she could learn to write in that style.

"He was concerned that I would be offended by the bad language," she said. "I told him, 'Don't worry.' "

Mann managed to keep her own lyrics clean; the play is suitable for anyone whose age is in double digits.

Producer Estelle Busch said tight scheduling at the Burbank Little Theatre makes post-play discussions impossible. But she hopes that parents take their children to see the work and talk about its implications afterward.

Those talks will be led by teachers if Busch is able to find a corporate sponsor and take the work into schools this fall.

"Ultimately, I'd like to have kids perform the play themselves," Mann said. "That would really enable them to feel what it's like to be from another culture."

A native of Australia, Mann moved to the United States in 1965. After spending the late 1960s and early '70s in Berkeley, she moved to Los Angeles, where she received a doctorate in communications and drama from USC.

She originally hooked up with Busch's Synthaxis Theatre Company, which specializes in shows for youngsters, in 1978. She wrote several plays for the troupe, including two adaptations of "The Tempest."

Mann, whose largest work is a two-evening play about a key battle in Australian history, believes the fact that she is from another country gives her an advantage in writing about the United States.

"When somebody beats up on me, I don't have a culture or a community to turn to," she said. "I think that gives me the ability to see things more clearly."

And what does she see? "We've developed an adversarial system where it's winner versus loser," she said. "If you're not with us, you're against us. This philosophy hasn't been examined as well as it should be in this country."

Consider this play a small part of that examination.

WHERE AND WHEN

What: "Thugun and Natasha."

Location: Burbank Little Theatre, which is in George Izay Park, 1111 W. Olive Ave., Burbank. Parking is accessible from Clark Avenue.

Hours: 2 and 4 p.m. Saturdays through Sept. 25.

Price: $6 general, $4 children under 12.

Call: (818) 954-9858.

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