Watts theater founder Lynn Manning: Blinded by bullet, inspired for the stage

Lynn Manning overcame blindness from a barroom bullet to forge a 30-year career as a champion athlete, poet, actor, theater company founder and, especially, playwright inspired by his own harshest experiences and the social problems of south Los Angeles.

Manning died Monday at age 60 after a yearlong fight against liver cancer, the Watts Village Theater Company announced Tuesday.

The theater company, which Manning co-founded, said he “chose to keep his struggle quiet so the community would stay focused on his artistic mission to produce plays of relevance to the underserved communities of Watts and south Los Angeles.” The announcement of the death said Manning “leaves behind a legacy of inspiration.” 

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Manning’s signature work was “Weights,” an autobiographical one-man play about his rough childhood in L.A. and his blinding in a 1978 barroom shooting in Hollywood. The work was developed by the Mark Taper Forum and premiered in 2000 as part of the Taper, Too series of small theater productions, with Manning performing the show himself.

The Los Angeles Times’ review concluded: "'Weights' is a memory play, one man's saga about the triumph of spirit over adversity. As entertainment, it is constantly diverting. As art, it is universal and cathartic. For Manning, it is a personal triumph, bravely revealing and poignant.”

Manning went on to tour “Weights” periodically during the 2000s, including performances in New York City, London, Chicago and at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

He had begun making headway as a visual artist until that moment in a Vine Street bar. By his own account, Manning, who was more than 6 feet tall and athletically built, threw a man who’d picked a fight out of the establishment. The man returned with a gun and shot Manning in the head.

With his dream of becoming a painter crushed, Manning channeled his creative energy into words. He also took up high-level competitive judo. In 1990, he won the gold medal at the World Games for the Disabled in the Netherlands.

Besides telling his own stories, Manning was inspired by classic plays. One of his specialties was using them as frameworks for delving into issues from his own time and turf. “The Caucasian Chalk Circle,” Bertolt Brecht’s drama about political upheaval in a European kingdom, became “The Central Ave. Chalk Circle.” Georg Buchner’s “Woyzeck,” about a doomed 19th century European soldier, was transformed into “Private Battle,” about an American soldier training in 2003 for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Los Angeles is the central character in my work: all that tension, all those issues being worked out,” Manning said in a 2014 interview with the Los Angeles Times.

Recalling his tough beginnings, Manning spoke in the interview of being shunted to foster homes from the age of 7, after his mother had stabbed and nearly killed his father. Drawing became his lifeline, leading him to art classes at Los Angeles City College.

"Growing up, I had developed a habit of always preparing for the worst,” Manning told The Times, and that helped him adjust when the worst in fact happened -- losing his sight and, with it, his chief passion in life.

Manning began winning recognition in local poetry circles in the mid-1980s, and in the early '90s was writing and performing one-man theater pieces. He and actor Quentin Drew founded the Watts Village Theater Company in 1996, with Drew as artistic director and Manning as founding board chairman and resident playwright.

The company, which continues to survive on shoestring budgets of about $130,000 a year, had taken root from a Watts residency by the Cornerstone Theater Company, the downtown Los Angeles troupe that forges ties with specific communities to develop plays relevant to their experiences. As it has done elsewhere, Cornerstone came to Watts to recruit artists and amateurs to help develop stories and carry out productions, and a permanent theater company grew from the effort.

Manning became artistic director of Watts Village Theater in 2012 after the contentious departure of Guillermo Aviles-Rodriguez, who'd become artistic director after Drew's death from cancer in 2006. At issue was Aviles-Rodriguez’s wish to expand the company’s reach beyond its home turf in south L.A. with productions in other areas of the county, and to collaborate with artists from outside the home neighborhoods.

“It’s exciting to take the reins and do what I can to make this company be what it can be,” Manning had said as he became artistic director.

The theater company announced Tuesday that Manning’s hand-picked successor as artistic director is Bruce Lemon Jr., 30. He grew up in Watts, earned a graduate theater degree at the New School in New York City and began working with Manning in 2013 when Lemon was cast in “Riot/Rebellion,” a documentary play about the 1965 Watts riots that Watts Village Theater commissioned from playwright Donald Jolly.

The company will open a restaging of “Riot/Rebellion” on Aug. 14, with performances at the Mafundi Institute Auditorium and Watts Labor Action Committee.

Its next production this year is the premiere of a new play by Manning, “It’s a Krip Hop Nation (Where Are My Crippled Homies At?).”

Eric Inman, the theater company’s managing director, said it’s “an insight into the world of artists with disabilities caused by violence, illuminating what it is like for someone who is an artist and disabled to navigate the entertainment industry.”

Artistic director Lemon said that Manning knew his work on “It’s a Krip Hop Nation” was complete after he saw a June 27 workshop run-through before an audience at the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles in downtown L.A.

“We were talking about what was going to happen next. He smiled and knew everything was in good hands,” Lemon said.

Before the performance, Manning had gotten up to deliver some of his own poems, including some that were freshly written, Lemon said. “It was amazing to see. He gave us a treat."

Before Manning’s death, Lemon said, the company already had decided to remount “The Central Ave. Chalk Circle” in 2016 to celebrate its 20th anniversary. “It was going to be a celebration of Lynn’s life and work, and now it’s even more so,” he said. “He’s picked up so many people and turned us into things we didn’t think we could be, me included.”

“The man had genuine character,” Los Angeles poet and novelist Eric Priestley recalled Tuesday. “And more than anything else, he was a gentleman.”

"Lynn's plays are confrontational," stage director Robert Egan, who had worked with Manning on "Weights," wrote in his introduction to "Private Battle and Other Plays," a 2014 book of Manning's scripts. "Lynn's plays leave you unsettled but hopeful. They leave you informed but challenged. They leave you where theater must -- passionate about making this a more equitable and just world."

Manning's survivors include siblings, who are making private funeral arrangements, Watts Village Theater officials said. The theater company is planning a public memorial with details yet to be announced.

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