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In their own words, with their own voices

The Women's Theatre Festival grew out of a need to speak from a female perspective. This is year No. 10.

March 16, 2003|Irene Lacher | Special to The Times

As the Los Angeles Women's Theatre Festival marks its 10th anniversary this month, gender is still taking center stage. But when it does, all bets are off. The self-titled Multicultural Festival of Solo Artists is still a banquet of one-woman performances, but fewer and fewer deal directly with women's issues.

Artists in this year's event, dubbed "A Perfect Ten," are still concerned with issues of identity. But as the "women's movement" settles comfortably into this side of the millennium, gender is taking a back seat as women grapple with quandaries surrounding race and culture.

"It's a way of celebrating the many, many voices of womanhood in one particular time frame," says festival co-founder Adilah Barnes.

What many of those voices are saying is that they're citizens of the universe, a melting pot of cultures that's reaching a boil. During the festival, which kicks off Thursday with a gala leading to five clusters of diverse performances March 27 to 30, women are making art out of their struggles to find their proper place in an increasingly complicated world.

In "The Clearest Brightest Blue You've Ever Seen," performance artist and poet Pat Payne talks about her conflict about marching against police brutality even though she comes from a family of policemen. In "Laundry and Language," Kristina Sheryl Wong describes growing up as a second-generation Chinese American and feeling like an outsider in the community into which she was born. Vanessa Hidary's "The Culture Bandit" uses poetry, monologue and music to address difficulties she has faced as a Jew with a passion for hip-hop, an outsider by birth in her adopted community.

"My struggle has been more about finding my identity racewise than it has been as a woman," says Hidary, who will be performing March 30. "I still think I'm telling it from a woman's point of view. If a man were telling it, it would be a different story. But it's been more of a human thing than a male-female thing."

When the festival was born a decade ago, it was very much a female thing. It came together almost serendipitously when Barnes met co-founder Miriam Reed at a California Arts Council conference in Pasadena during the summer of 1993. The two were delighted to learn that they had something important in common: Both were solo artists performing shows portraying historical women. So they decided to find out whether there were more kindred spirits.

"She said, 'What if I ask if there are any solo artists here who are female and if we can figure out a way to support each other,' " says Barnes, who carried on the festival torch after Reed moved from L.A. "We were bombarded with all these women -- actors, dancers, performance artists, storytellers, musicians. We knew we were on to something."

Ten women met later at the Burbank Little Theater and decided to create their own version of Philadelphia's Women's Theatre Festival, which had attempted to launch an L.A. satellite at UCLA. Two dozen women performed in the first festival, held at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, among them Barnes and Reed, who did excerpts from their shows. Reed portrayed birth control activist Margaret Sanger, and Barnes depicted Zora Neale Thurston, Angela Davis and Maya Angelou in her show, "I Am That I Am: Woman, Black."

"We decided to make it a women's festival because Miriam and myself have a strong affinity for making sure voices of womanhood are heard," Barnes says. "As solo artists, we can control our destiny."

Indeed, women in the festival have always been free to tell whatever stories inspired them, and even back then performers talked about gender-neutral issues such as the environment and slave culture.

Still, festival organizers were surprised by the pattern that emerged during auditions, says board member Jill Turnbow, who helped cull 24 performance artists, dancers, poets, storytellers and musicians from about 140 hopefuls around the country. "Most of the things we saw were women addressing their own culture," she says. "Women are really wanting to discuss where they come from and their cultural influences and history and not typical women's stuff."

The shift stems from cultural changes that have been gathering steam since the feminist call to arms in the '70s. In Hidary's case, her place in her world evolved along with hip-hop. "When I was into hip-hop in high school, it wasn't nearly as cross-cultural as it is now," says the 32-year-old New Yorker. "There weren't nearly as many white people into hip-hop. There wasn't that whole commercialization of hip-hop. That made a big difference."

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