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Great expectations

A lack of funds prevents 2 black theaters from living up to their billing.

September 26, 2007|Erin Aubry Kaplan | Special to The Times

On the still riot-marred landscape of South L.A., "potential" has become a hackneyed word, a political euphemism for improvements in black neighborhoods that were discussed after the riots in 1992 but never materialized. Yet there is one unlikely area of redevelopment where "potential" still resonates beyond the rhetoric: theater.

While commercial projects struggled, two mid-size theaters -- the Vision Theater in Leimert Park and the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center in midtown -- were acquired by the city in the late 1990s to preserve and build an arts scene that seemed like a natural catalyst for the kind of development these neighborhoods lacked.

As is the case with much of South L.A., the two venues have been defined less by what has happened than by what has not. The Vision remains in the early stages of renovation, while the Holden is open for business but often stands dark. Still, the theaters serve as powerful symbols for what is possible in black neighborhoods, creatively and economically. Whether they will live up to this potential is an age-old question that many hope will be answered in the affirmative.

The biggest obstacle is one that's plagued South L.A. and black neighborhoods for years: expectations. Development has been unimaginative and mostly limited to chain stores and small-scale retail -- Wal-Mart, Krispy Kreme, Starbucks. Certainly everyone embraces the idea of developing the arts; like education reform, it's a politically popular position to take, especially in Leimert Park, where jazz and blues venues, coffeehouses, galleries and African-themed shops have made it a local mecca of black culture for two decades. But Leimert has languished, part of the larger economic struggle of the surrounding Crenshaw District.

Enter District 8 Councilman Bernard C. Parks. For the last two years, the former Los Angeles police chief has been pushing to finalize a redevelopment plan for Leimert Park Village with a restored Vision Theater at its center.

Though still short on specifics, Parks has taken an aggressive stance on the pace of this project. The councilman did not return calls for comment, but aide David Roberts was upbeat: "The Vision will be an economic catalyst to drive restaurants and be a cultural hub. It could host live theater, concerts, music, the Pan African Film Festival, the Debbie Allen dance theater -- we've already had a lot of interest."

District 10 Councilman Herb Wesson, who represents the midtown neighborhood where the Holden is located, sounded a similarly proactive note -- not just about the Holden but about the whole area as an arts destination. Wesson would like to see the Holden serve primarily as a dance theater, one with a black identity but known for dance of all kinds. He's met with UCLA and the Los Angeles County Arts Commission to discuss possible partnerships, but neither has panned out -- partly because of divergent visions but mostly because of money.

Wesson wants to find a way to generate revenue from two spaces in the Holden that could function year-round as cafes or venues for community events. He also wants to put together a two-year pilot program of theater produced by local actors -- a group that includes Laurence Fishburne. Though these options are still in the planning phase, Wesson sounds undaunted. "I'm not going to go quietly into the night with it. The jury is still out on how the city will do the things it needs to do. But I'm going to do my best."

Others are more circumspect. "The city basically builds the [theater], turns the key over to us and tells us to operate it -- with no operating budget," says Ernest Dillihay, facilities director for the city's Department of Cultural Affairs, which oversees six theaters citywide. He says some city theaters, such as the Madrid in Canoga Park and the Warner Grand in San Pedro, receive support from community or preservation groups. But that has not been the case in South L.A., also the site of the Watts Towers Arts Center and the William Grant Still Arts Center.

The city's acquisition of theaters in financial or structural trouble is a liability that's tougher to overcome in the inner city, Dillihay says. "The city is usually a last resort," he told a group of Leimert Park residents and activists this year. "It's a model built on fallback, not on initiative."

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