THEATER AND FILM : Black Actors Troupe Expands Its Horizons, Seeks Permanent Home

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The idea of a black theater company in Orange County has always seemed an anomaly, to some even a case of cultural tokenism.

That’s understandable. There isn’t any huge inner-city black community here like those in Los Angeles or Oakland, and Orange County’s black population, estimated at under 30,000, has never developed much cultural clout.

Yet there is one such black theater company here: the 6-year-old Orange County Black Actors Theatre, a small, struggling troupe still in search of a permanent performing home.

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Like other such troupes in urban areas, the Orange County ensemble was formed to provide training for aspiring stage artists, a resident base for experienced actors and a repertoire that includes rarely seen black-authored works.

With Black History Month under way and the attention it focuses on black culture, the troupe reports that it is doing reasonably well, according to executive director Adleane Hunter.

“We have survived, and I’m sure that has surprised a lot of people here,” said Hunter, who has made Orange County her operational base since the 1970s, when she studied theater arts at Cal State Fullerton. “But even more surprising, we have begun to grow as a company.”

Consider the growth of troupe membership in six years, from 15 to 50 “active” adults, Hunter said. Most are pre-professional, but their number also includes several actors who have done theater and films in Los Angeles.

Consider, too, the 1988 production schedule, the troupe’s busiest to date:

-- “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf,” Ntozake Shange’s poetic work on black experience. There will be five evening performances between Feb. 19 and 28 at the Anaheim Cultural Arts Center.

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This is the same critically lauded production, staged by Hunter, that had an eight-performance run last summer at South Coast Repertory’s Second Stage in Costa Mesa. That was the first time a non-SCR production was given an extended run in an SCR facility.

-- “Back To Being Black,” a workshop presentation featuring the company’s 26-member youth group, the Lorraine Hansberry Players. The black-pride musical was developed by the company’s managing director, Zondra Ann Marshall, who is co-directing with Hunter. The performances, both matinees, are Feb. 21 and 28 at the City Hall Annex Auditorium in Santa Ana.

-- “Zooman and the Sign,” Charles Fuller’s drama of gang violence, directed by Elizabeth Bell-Hayes. The 10 performances will be between April 30 and May 15 at the Curtis Theatre in Brea.

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-- “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ,” the Broadway revue based on Fats Waller’s music, with Hunter directing. It has been announced for an extended run in July at South Coast Repertory’s Second Stage, with dates to be arranged. (For information about any productions, call (714) 667-7090).

At the same time, the Orange County Black Actors Theatre is attempting to establish yet another artistic foothold by forming its own conservatory.

Launched last November with 10 tuition-paying adults, the “Actors Forum” classes at Santa Ana’s Bowers Museum Annex are being taught by two young professional actors: Corkey Ford, who has appeared in such films as “Platoon” and “Tough Guys,” and Wolfe Perry, a former Stanford basketball star, who co-starred in public television’s “Up and Coming” series about a black family.

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“Until I met Adleane’s group, Orange County didn’t mean much to me, except maybe Disneyland and Wally George,” said the Oakland-raised Perry, who is developing a film with Ford about two black men from inner-city Los Angeles. “Her group is really something--a company that is as committed and energetic as any around.”

Fiscally, Hunter hopes to repeat last year’s “breakthrough” successes.

That’s when the troupe won a $25,000 grant--its largest by far--from the James Irvine Foundation, one of the state’s most prominent philanthropic organizations. It also won recognition for the first time from the California Arts Council, which awarded $2,000 under a new “multicultural” category for ethnic-minority arts programs.

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This year, the Orange County troupe is counting heavily on public-sector awards. It has applied for a $35,000 community-development grant from Santa Ana, as well as a $5,000 grant under the California Arts Council’s far more competitive general category. Final actions on these applications are expected this spring, Hunter said.

The Santa Ana application is especially significant for the troupe: The funds would be used to lease a facility as the troupe’s regular performing and operational home.

“It’s the ultimate dream for any arts group, and we are certainly no exception,” explained Hunter, whose Santa Ana home has been the troupe’s temporary office since its founding in late 1981. “Like everyone else, we need a place to settle down and dig in and to expand both creatively and as a community resource.”

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While the questions of money and facilities remain large and uncertain, Hunter said the Orange County Black Actors Theatre has at least attained some degree of countywide recognition.

Most of the credit, she maintains, goes to her company’s two-year association with South Coast Repertory, which is providing the black troupe use of the 171-seat Second Stage on a rent-free basis.

“To a lot of people, it (last summer’s SCR run) gave us legitimacy and real visibility for the first time,” Hunter said. “I’m not saying acceptance is exactly overwhelming, but it has reached a point where the doors are now opening.

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“Now, when people say there’s a black theater company right here in Orange County, " Hunter added with the slightest of smiles, “people don’t look so shocked.”

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