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Mavericks bow to change

Alternative theaters, born to serve specific communities, adapt to new circumstances by entering the mainstream.

November 10, 2002|Jan Breslauer | Special to The Times

A theater of one's own: Since the 1960s, that dream has launched scores of companies coast to coast. From L.A.'s Bilingual Foundation of the Arts to New York's Pan Asian Repertory Theater to the St. Louis Black Repertory Company, community-specific troupes have long functioned as an important alternative voice on the American stage.

But times change, and so do the politics of making theater. The separatist ideology of the '60s and '70s that helped give rise to these nonprofit companies has gone the way of much of the public arts funding that nourished these groups. At a time when the line between commercial and nonprofit theater has blurred and multiculturalism has become a part of institutional theater rhetoric, there's much less support for maverick groups that put the needs of a limited constituency first. Where once they rode the tide of social change, they now swim against it.

As a result, community-specific theaters of more recent vintage trade not in separatism but assimilation. They aim not to be an antidote to the mainstream, but to become a part of it. A case in point is Deaf West Theatre, which brings its production of the Roger Miller-William Hauptman musical "Big River" to the Mark Taper Forum on Thursday. Directed by Jeff Calhoun and first staged at the company's North Hollywood home last year, "Big River" mixes deaf, hard-of-hearing and hearing actors in the company's trademark style, which interweaves voice and sign language. The co-production represents the first time the Music Center venue has imported a production from one of L.A.'s myriad smaller theaters.

Deaf West's aspirations don't end with the Taper. The group is also working toward a national tour and perhaps even a tilt at New York. "It's just really the right time and the right place for us to be mainstreaming," says Deaf West artistic director Ed Waterstreet, who started the company in 1991. "We're hoping that someday we'll have a deaf theater that is only for the deaf. But we haven't been able to do that yet, because right now we've been very busy with more mainstream work."

Yet such a cozy relationship between special-interest troupes and the bigger houses raises questions about an increasingly homogenized American theater. Minority self-determination and diversity of expression could be the costs if control of what's on stage is consolidated in fewer hands -- particularly given that those hands still belong overwhelmingly to white men.

"I believe in the theater it's our biggest problem when it comes to the work of 'the Other,' " says actor-director L. Kenneth Richardson, co-founder of New Jersey's Crossroads Theatre, which is devoted to African American work. "The idea of the black or the Asian theater is a thing of the past. A young producer who comes along may be black, but he's thinking it may not be viable to have a black company. "Why are we trying to shape it for this amorphous thing we call mainstream? Mainstream will follow our lead, but we have to lead," Richardson continues. "What concerns me is that these theaters are all but dead. We can't let them die. We can't let go of that mission."

The rise of minority theater

The social upheaval of the '60s gave rise to a related movement in the American theater. Minority actors, directors, writers and others who had long suffered a dearth of creative opportunities sought empowerment by creating their own companies -- separate, if not equal.

L.A.'s East West Players was one of the pioneering groups. The oldest Asian American theater in the U.S., it was founded in 1965 by a group of actors frustrated by their limited opportunities in Hollywood and commercial theater.

"We wanted to break out of stereotypic molds we were placed under," recalls Mako, the veteran Broadway and film actor who led the group and served as its artistic director until 1989. "We wanted to prove to the world and the community and the industry that we were capable of doing more than that."

Indeed, many of this country's Asian American theaters, such as Seattle's Northwest Asian-American Theater and San Francisco's Asian-American Theater, were launched in the '70s on the model of East West's early success.

New York's Negro Ensemble Company, founded in 1967, was dedicated to nurturing the work of black theater artists. Like East West Players, it inspired a second generation of similarly committed companies, including Crossroads, founded in 1978.

The intention was to serve African American audiences and artists. "When we started Crossroads, the idea was to serve a black community, to create a company that would speak specifically to this community," says Richardson, who served as Crossroads' artistic director until 1988, when he came to L.A. to direct "The Colored Museum" at the Taper.

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