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Inspiring Hope

Festival will feature 2 plays linking lessons of apartheid to life in L.A.


For those who think Los Angeles has nothing to learn from South Africa, Lee Isenberg offers a brief story.

She and a friend were talking about a mutual acquaintance, a white woman from South Africa who now lives in Los Angeles.

"Can you believe she had never been to a township before?" asked the friend.

"Have you ever been to Watts before?" Isenberg replied.

The racial and social tensions of South Africa--and their parallels in Los Angeles--have interested Isenberg for years. So it's not surprising that she is the guiding force behind "It's All About Black & White: A Very Colorful Event," a monthlong festival at the Lankershim Arts Center in North Hollywood that starts Friday.

For Isenberg, an elementary school teacher in the Crenshaw district and the associate artistic director of Synthaxis Theatre Company, it all began with the desire to direct "My Children! My Africa!" While securing the rights from noted South African dramatist Athol Fugard, the company learned it could also get permission to do "My Life," a more recent Fugard play. The festival grew from there.

The Lankershim Arts Center is home to four arts groups, and all have signed on for a role in the festival. The Martin Dancers will debut a new work, "Percussive Suite," choreographed by Shirley Martin to African rhythms used in ceremonial dance, and performed with a live band.

The Los Angeles Printmaking Society is showing "Mask Symbology," an exhibit by six local African American artists whose work is a response to the politics or culture of Africa.

But the coup for the festival is "My Life," Fugard's first post-apartheid play, which has never before been staged in the United States. After South Africa's first all-race elections in 1994, Fugard began interviewing young people about their experiences and expectations. Eventually he chose five young women and developed the play, in part, through improvisation with them. The frame is an aerobics class in a Johannesburg Holiday Inn.

Each of the women played herself in the original South African production. And one of these actress/characters became the inspiration for the indomitable Veronica Jonkers in "Valley Song," which just closed at the Mark Taper Forum, and which Fugard both directed and starred in.

Looking for a director for "My Life," Isenberg turned to Peter Grego, who chaired her thesis committee when she was a graduate student in theater at Cal State Northridge.

Grego, who won a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle award last year for his direction of Lee Blessing's "Eleemosynary" at the West Coast Ensemble, said casting "My Life" was not easy. The play called for two black women, one "colored"--or multiracial--woman, one white and one Indian.

Grego decided not to concentrate on skin color. "I asked them when they were called in to tell a story about the most painful racial incident they'd ever lived through. So my cast is psychically analogous to these women," he said.

"The possibility for hope and success in our racially troubled environment is what it's all about. They may start from a very narrow color perspective, but they become one unit. It's like the five fingers of a fist."

"My Children! My Africa!"--last staged here at the Los Angeles Theatre Center in 1991--was written in 1989, but is set in 1985, before the end of systematic racial segregation. The premise is a debate between two high school students: one a white girl, the other a black boy. The third character is Mr. M, the teacher at the township school who argues for hurling words, not stones, for social change.

Isenberg discovered the three-hour play while doing a research project on the prejudice inherent in children's theater. It spoke to her both as a teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District and as a student at CSUN.

"I love this play so much," she said. "I have such a feel for education and feel that it is so important. I see what happens to the children who don't get the proper education. It just breaks my heart."

To view the two plays as before-and-after glimpses of South Africa, said Grego, is too simple. Collectively, they examine racism before and after the elections. In addition, they look at the role of young people, and how their anger turns to hope. The plays feel connected, Grego said. The events in "My Children! My Africa!" are the type of incidents the characters in "My Life" have lived through.

It was a fortunate coincidence for Grego and Isenberg that Fugard was in Los Angeles with "Valley Song." Though he was very busy with that play and another he is writing, he dined with the two directors once and answered their questions by phone and e-mail. His insights, they said, were inspirational.

"I felt like I was talking to MLK or Jesus," said Grego. "It was about changing the world when you talked to him."

Listening to Fugard, Isenberg also felt justified in her belief that Los Angeles and South Africa are not so far removed. In 1992, Fugard told her, he watched the Los Angeles riots on TV and said, "My God. This could be Soweto."

"I feel it's very important for Los Angeles' students and adults to understand what happened in South Africa," she said. Hers is not a widespread opinion, she knows, but she states it with simple conviction: "We could learn so much from their struggles."


Theater--"My Children! My Africa!" and "My Life" play in repertory Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m., through June 15. $15. For schedule, call (818) 761-8838.

Performance--"Percussive Suite," by the Martin Dancers, Sun., 4 p.m. through June 15. $8. Festival pass, $25. Call (818) 789-8499 for tickets.

Exhibit--"Mask Symbology" is on display Thur.-Fri., 1-4 p.m.; Sat. 2:30-6 p.m. through June 14. Reception May 17, 3-5 p.m. (818) 752-2682.

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