Nursing Dream of Black Arts Center

When the Orange County Black Actors Theatre got its biggest break in the summer of 1987 by being offered 2 weeks at South Coast Repertory's Second Stage, its director, Adleane Hunter, was ecstatic. She had just one reservation. Two weeks simply wasn't long enough to showcase properly the Black Actors' interpretation of "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/ When the Rainbow Is Enuf."

She was right. The show sold out, and hundreds of customers were turned away.

It was a dramatic illustration of the fact that the Orange County Black Actors Theatre desperately needs a place of its own to perform--and has matured to the point where it can fill a void in the county cultural scene with quality productions.

That's why the group is pushing two fund-raisers in December. The first, an art auction focusing on black art, is scheduled Dec. 3 at Bowers Museum. The second--and more ambitious--event is a two-night performance of the Dimensions Dance Theatre at Chapman College on Dec. 16 and 17.

The 38-year-old Hunter has nursed this group through several metamorphoses in the last 10 years, arriving finally at the formation of the Black Actors Theatre in 1986.

She is an immensely proud woman, so sure of her own identity that she can play the games required by the culture in which she operates extremely effectively. Her husband, Jerome, a dean at Rancho Santiago College, has told her that the two things she shouldn't have been are black and poor because of her fierce pride. "But," Hunter says, "those are the things I cherish most, and I won't sell out to make others comfortable."

"I was raised," Hunter says, "in a single-parent family. My mother cared for us by working as a domestic in the homes of the kids I went to high school with (in Santa Ana) . . ." Hunter was also set apart by her intelligence--she was in a gifted educational program--and her athletic skills ("I was good"). She went on to what was then Santa Ana College, then married a man several years older whom she had dated in high school. The marriage lasted 2 years and produced one daughter, Crystal, now a 20-year-old college student who lives with her mother.

Hunter went to work as a corporate training coordinator for minorities and met her current husband, who was doing similar work before he became an educator. The Hunters have two children, Jamila, 13, and Lawrence, 11, and live in a spacious Santa Ana home.

Hunter had no interest in theater until the year after Lawrence was born. Then she decided to go back to college and took a theater arts elective in creative direction at Cal State Fullerton that hooked her for life. She decided--against the advice of people at her church who called the drama department at Cal State Fullerton "racist"--to change her major from child development to theater arts.

"I found out they were right," she says. "I wanted to act, and I felt I had the right to be cast in any role and not just what they considered black parts--especially in an educational institution.

"But I learned in a hurry that I wasn't going to change the system, so I switched to directing and had two of the best years I ever spent."

Out of college, she helped form the Group Theater in Fullerton, then broke off to form a performing group called Good We Showed Up.

After 2 years of modest success--including their first performance of "For Colored Girls" at a fund-raiser for the Orange County Performing Arts Center--Hunter and two other members of the group pulled out to start the Orange County Inter-Cultural Committee for the Performing Arts.

Then 2 years ago, Hunter renamed the group the Orange County Black Actors Theatre--and things have been picking up ever since. There have been healthy contributions from several corporations (including the Adolph Coors Co.), the California Arts Council and the James Irvine Foundation. The Lorraine Hansberry Young People's Acting Group was formed and flourished. So has an adult actors conservatory that is providing a pool of talent for the theater group's productions. And a second run at SCR--this time with the Broadway musical "Eubie!"--proved as successful as "For Colored Girls."

She is a little chagrined that her family does not see a lot of her as a result of the troupe's success, but she says she has their "full support."

It's the kind of support she feels she will need when rehearsals start for the group's first production of 1989, a new play by black playwright Jeff Stetson that Hunter describes as a "portrait of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King." By that time, Hunter hopes that the fund-raisers in December will have provided a seed from which her dream of a black cultural arts center in the county may grow.

"I see a center," she says, "that would house a professional theater, a museum and a bookstore, with the theater coming first.

"Black kids have no identity here. They're not taught their own history to reinforce their difference. More than any other race, we buy into the dominant culture because we've been so ostracized we want to be assimilated. But I can't imagine giving up my own history. That's why my vision for this theater is to be on the same level as the Negro Ensemble of New York.

"We must keep our identity as a black group. We can't go forward without our past."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World