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Blacksmyths Chisel Out a Future for Playwrights : A Taper Project Tackles the 'State of Black Theatre Today'


It's been 174 years since a group of pioneering New York theater artists banded together to form the African Company, the first black stage troupe in America. Yet many of today's African American playwrights still feel the need for a group of their own.

Enter the Blacksmyths. Founded in December of 1994, the African American playwrights project of the Mark Taper Forum includes both veteran and emerging dramatists. Directed by L. Kenneth Richardson, the Blacksmyths are Sharon Beatty, Paul Benjamin, Ron Brown, Don Cheadle, Nat Colley, Silas Jones, David Lee Lindsey and Lynn Manning.

This week, the group will host its first public event: A symposium with panel discussions and more, "The State of Black Theatre Today" will take place at Occidental College, the Los Angeles Theatre Center and the Music Center Annex, Friday through Sunday. Highlights of the weekend include readings of three new plays and a workshop production of Jones' "American Medea," directed by Richardson at LATC on Saturday night.

The events may be billed as an analysis of the current state of affairs, but the purpose of the gathering is to look to the future. That, in fact, is why Richardson launched Blacksmyths in the first place.

Prompted by an invitation from Taper producing director Robert Egan, Richardson set out to create an environment that would inspire African American writers. "We need to find a way to keep black writers writing in the theater," says Richardson, seated in a Music Center Annex rehearsal room on a recent Monday night, prior to a Blacksmyths session. "Since I'd had a history with nurturing black playwrights, I came up with the idea of this group."

His theory was that writers, like other theater artists, benefit from the dynamics of working in a group. "Just as a director is responsible for infusing energy into a group of actors and designers, writers too need to know that there are people who are interested in them as writers," says Richardson, who is best known as the co-founder and former artistic director of New Jersey's Crossroads Theatre Company, where he directed the 1986 premiere of George C. Wolfe's "The Colored Museum."

"Writing is the most difficult job because it's a lonely job," continues Richardson, who also directed "The Colored Museum" at the Taper in 1988 and Heiner Muller's "The Task" at the Taper, Too in 1991.

"As a director or an actor, I can be in a room full of people and we can vibe off of each other. But those writers have to go home and sit there at that typewriter or word processor alone and work."

Richardson's aim is to facilitate an exchange of ideas among a select group of writers. "I have the responsibility to be there and be the cheerleader, saying, 'Work hard, work hard,' " he says.


Such support is necessary, Richardson believes, because black artists no longer write in the kind of charged cultural climate that produced the best black plays of the 1960s. "In the '60s, we had this black theater movement in New York," he says. "And by the late '70s to early '80s, none of those people were writing anymore. Why did the tradition not continue?"

Though he doesn't have an answer, Richardson is convinced that attitude is key. The trick, he says, is not to fall into the traps that so often ensnare artists of color.

"I've had to spend a great deal of time trying to be less negative and more positive, because I can be very negative about the state of black theater in this country," Richardson says. "Multiculturalism hasn't done a damn thing for black theater except move money away from black artists and take directing jobs away from black directors."

The problem, in part, is that multiculturalism can sometimes emphasize victimhood and tacitly condone inaction over productivity. "One of the traps of racism is that you sit around in a room and you point fingers and say, 'They, they, they are responsible for my predicament,' " Richardson says. "And the temperature of the room and what is talked about in the room never changes."

Ultimately, that means that plays don't get written. "We just bitch and moan, and you end up being bitter," Richardson says. "And bitterness doesn't do anything but make you immobile.

"But I'm going to make sure that this symposium does not go down that road."

* "The State of Black Theatre Today," Occidental College, 1600 Campus Road; Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., and Music Center Annex, 601 W. Temple St.; Friday-Sunday. Free, but reservations required. (213) 972-8089.

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