Ethnic Theater At a Crossroads

Tim Dang has reason to be proud. Today, as he sits in the renovated historic Union Church, now home to the East West Players, the producing artistic director is relishing the successful completion of "Pacific Overtures," his company's debut in its new site.

The first and foremost Asian-Pacific-American theater group in America has begun its 32nd year with a move to the state-of-the-art theater in the heart of Little Tokyo. A Kabuki-style version of the Stephen Sondheim musical was extended because of demand.

But in spite of, or in part because of, the success of a show by a Caucasian composer, Mr. Dang also has reason to ponder pressing issues that are confronting every US ethnic-specific theater group today.

In an era of affirmative-action rollbacks that some say threaten minority representation at many levels, does the minority theater community have a crucial role to play in communicating another cultural perspective? Should it have a separate voice? What is the role of minority theater in both its community and the country?

There is no single answer to these questions, say theater professionals as well as academics and activists, but the attempt to answer them is producing many different community-based models. It also is driving fresh minority-theater activism that some say will help redefine the country's social agenda well into the next millennium.

"Artists are going to be called upon to solve the complicated problems of the 21st century," muses Victor Leo Walker II, a drama professor at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. "It is a changing cultural landscape in the new millennium, and we want ... to help reposition the arts at the center of the community," he explains.

His Dartmouth colleague William Cook, an English professor, notes that ethnic theater in particular has a key role to play in American life. "It provides a very human need to celebrate and understand life as it really is," he says, noting that great American playwrights such as Eugene O'Neill wrote out of their ethnic heritage. He adds that it is only through the specific that we find the universal. "What would O'Neill be without his Irish background, after all?"

Professors Cook and Walker partnered with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson to produce the recent National Black Theatre Summit. (See related story, below.) Out of that event came what they dub a concrete, economic model for all minority theaters, the African Grove Institute for the Arts (AGIA), which they view as a tool for social change.

"AGIA is an umbrella group for a wide range of ventures in support of a strong minority theater community," observes Walker, who, along with his summit colleagues, was a recent visiting scholar at the Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities in Los Angeles. The most ambitious plan involves a partnership with the Dartmouth business school to equip managers of minority theaters with the business expertise they need to ensure their theaters' economic survival. The first six managers will start this summer.

"There is a huge need, now more than ever," remarks Ricardo Khan, president of the New York-based Theatre Communications Group, a national advocacy organization. "There's a national rollback of priorities," he adds, pointing to cutbacks in funding for grass-roots organizations of all sorts.

Multiculturalism, money, and art

Some question whether separate institutions are needed. In a well-publicized debate with Mr. Wilson, Robert Brustein, artistic director of the American Repertory Theatre (ART) in Cambridge, Mass., has called the funding of ethnic-specific institutions a form of "coercive philanthropy." Further, he maintains that equating the need to develop a more multicultural audience with the pursuit of artistic excellence is a quick road to degrading "the product," as he wrote in The New Republic.

While Mr. Brustein did not return calls to discuss his views, it is worthwhile to note that ART recently shared in a $1.5 million Ford Foundation grant with the specific purpose of enhancing a cross-cultural conversation in the arts.

Walker notes that the need to fill seats, not genuine artistic worth, has often produced plays such as "West Side Story" and "Miss Saigon," which he says insult rather than represent a genuine minority experience. But, he adds, this sad history makes sound economic management all the more important.

Playwright Ifa Bayeza, also a partner in the summit, underlines the importance of ethnic-specific theater with a personal anecdote. She describes a meeting in which she pitched her own coming-of-age story during the civil rights movement to an enthusiastic producer. Ms. Bayeza's eyes dance with mirthful fury as she remembers the executive's response. "She said, 'I only have three small changes. Could you make the heroine white, make her a teenager, and change the time to the present?' "

She says simply, "We must be the custodians of our own stories."

Wilson, whose plays have been produced at major theaters across the country, says this idea is the cornerstone of AGIA. Wilson says funds for the development of new work cannot be at the whim of a larger institution whose commitment could cool when the minority issue is no longer "the flavor of the month."

Gordon Davidson, artistic director of Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, wonders about the drive for separate institutions, adding that inclusiveness is a fundamental goal of any meaningful theater. "We're not going to suddenly stop being interested in issues that relate to large segments of our community just because the money runs out or the trends change," he notes.

Mr. Davidson points to the numerous minority projects housed under the Taper umbrella, among them Asian Theatre Workshop, Blacksmyths, Latino Theatre Initiative (LTI), Other Voices Project, and P.L.A.Y., a youth theater program. He maintains that these represent an institutional commitment to represent an entire society, which he believes is ultimately the healthiest role for theater to play. "If all we have are separate schools and entertainment, then we pull away from the crazy quilt that is the power of this country."

LTI director Diane Rodriguez says that while a theater of one's own is an admirable goal, some voice is better than none. "I can't explain it, but in a city with the Hispanic population as large as L.A.'s, there is no Hispanic theater for me to call home." The Taper, she says, has given her that home, even when LTI's grant money ran out, as it did in June 1997 - and in spite of the absence of a major Hispanic-themed play to emerge so far.

But in many cases, having a home, as East West Players (EWP) does, only means a safe zone within which to continue the debate over what voices to present and how to cast the plays - indeed, the fundamental direction and mission of the minority institution itself.

Changing focus

EWP's Dang muses that his theater was born out of the 1965 Watts riots. In the early days, it was committed to roles for Asian-Pacific performers whose opportunities in mainstream theater were limited to "Flower Drum Song" revivals or Japanese war movies. Now, he notes, the focus of EWP has shifted to developing Asian-Pacific playwrights, such as David Henry Hwang ("M. Butterfly" and the Tony-nominated "Golden Child").

But the decision to present "Pacific Overtures" has some people, such as actor Keone Young, whose association with EWP runs back to the '70s, asking fundamental questions about the mission of EWP. "Why are we presenting a play written by a Caucasian?" he wonders.

Offering a broader perspective is what theater is all about, answers Dang. He says the show presents an opportunity to examine the intersection of East and West - using the moment when Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in Japan - from an Eastern point of view.

"Theater can ask the questions that society has trouble addressing," remarks Dang. Who is the outsider? Who are the barbarians? These are questions, says Dang, that go to the very heart of America, which demographers say will become a major- ity made up of minorities within the next century.

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