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Langston Hughes Has LATC Abuzz

January 25, 1998|Don Shirley | Don Shirley is a Times staff writer

For the first time in nearly three years, all three of the larger stages at Los Angeles Theatre Center are coming to life at the same time.

The event has been dubbed "Three Plays Running" by L.A.'s Cultural Affairs Department, which runs LATC. All three productions have a connection to the work of Langston Hughes, and all are billed as events marking African American Heritage Month.

One of the three--the Los Angeles premiere of Pearl Cleage's "Blues for an Alabama Sky" in LATC's Theatre 3, opening Feb. 4 with Loretta Devine, James Avery and T.C. Carson--is using an Actors' Equity contract covering the entire cast. Its producing company, Black Artists Network Development, will be the first home-grown African American company to use a regular Equity contract in a long time--probably since the busiest days of the Ebony Showcase more than 20 years ago, though exactly how long isn't clear from Equity records. Hughes is an unseen presence in "Blues," which is set in Harlem in 1930.

The Hughes connection is more direct for the other shows. "Tambourines to Glory" is by Hughes, and "Caderas," opening Feb. 12, is a musical based on a Hughes short story.

"Tambourines," already open in LATC's Tom Bradley Theatre with Marla Gibbs playing an evangelist in one of two alternating groups of lead actors, has a vast cast including many nonprofessional students. But three of the actors are covered by an Equity per-performance contract. Based on a reading of "Caderas," Equity ruled that the Afro-Cuban-flavored show, produced in Theatre 2 by L.A. Diversified Theater Group, is performance art, and primarily in Spanish instead of English--and therefore is not under Equity's jurisdiction, though Equity actors are participating.

The Cultural Affairs Department introduced the three shows at a press conference Monday. Mayor Richard Riordan showed up to exclaim, in a hyperbolic burst of local pride, that LATC is "a great jewel in the entertainment industry of our city. Its intelligent and provocative theater is matched nowhere in the United States."

ARTISTIC DIRECTORS DISCUSS: A recent panel at the Skirball Cultural Center featured Center Theatre Group's Gordon Davidson, Geffen Playhouse's Gilbert Cates and Reprise!'s Marcia Seligson. Davidson and Cates did most of the talking. Some of their more quotable lines:

Davidson: "We have to figure out how you don't do one play that's only for young people, one play that's only for black people, one that's only for old people, so that the community comes together in all its complexity."

Cates: "Two women were talking about a third woman who had gotten married. The first woman said, 'My God, why? She's 75, he's older than she is, he's not attractive, he doesn't earn a living.' The second woman said, 'Well, he can drive at night.' I'm interested, as I guess a lot of us are, in an audience that can drive at night to come to the theater. And it's getting harder to find that audience."

Davidson: "Artists are struggling to figure out what makes the theater special, unique. . . . How do you know you're in the theater and not watching a movie? Part of it is whether you're sitting forward or sitting back [in your seat]. Part of the language of the theater is language, words. It's also gesture, movement and the sense of participation. But the idea of the fourth wall, of the curtain lifting and you're peeking in on an event that's happening onstage, and you hear the bacon frying and the water coming out of the tap, is not as fresh and stimulating, because the films do it better. They take you to real places."

Cates: "I hate the subscription concept. I didn't want to get into it in the worst possible way. . . . This business of doing a season--think about it. If the play's a big hit, you can't run it, because you have the next play coming in. If the play is unsuccessful, you're still obligated to run it for the four or six weeks, because people have tickets. You lose on both ends [but] if you don't have a subscription audience to drive the previews and the first couple weeks of the show, you run the risk . . . of not having an audience. . . . Seventy percent of my time at the Geffen is spent worrying about money."

Davidson: "I certainly made my reputation on new plays that speak immediately to the issues of the day, but I'm totally committed to the idea of preserving the classic repertoire. In fact, I don't think we're doing enough of that right now."

Cates: "I wanted us to do plays, frankly, that I liked. . . . I didn't say that with hubris, I didn't say everyone had to like what I liked, but the audience would know they were seeing plays that at least one person liked. . . . Of the first 650 plays we read, over two-thirds had Jewish themes, and over half had gay themes. So the number of plays that were not involved with Jewish or gay themes was very slender--like 15%."

Davidson: "There is a dichotomy in the theater: As long as there is a 'Lion King' or 'Ragtime' side by side a theater that's reviving Chekhov or the Greeks or Shakespeare or Miller, there is a confusion. You don't want to suspend judgment, you want to judge both in a similar way, but the goals are very different."

Cates: "A dentist withdrew his subscription because he was so offended by 'Quills' [about the Marquis de Sade]. He said he was married for 35 years, and that he and his wife talked about that play for weeks. It was disgusting. I said, 'Isn't that wonderful that you and your wife after 35 years found something to talk about for two weeks?' "

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