Welcome to Stanley Bennett Clay's Baldwin Hills.
In "Ritual" (at the Ebony Showcase Theatre through Sunday), Clay introduces audiences to the Becker family of Baldwin Hills, a black upper-middle-class foursome at war with each other and the pressures of modern-day assimilation.
"Asians are having operations to make their eyes look more Anglo," said the show's writer-producer-director. "Hispanics are lightening their hair and blacks are getting the nose operation. You know, the Michael Jackson special."
Clay felt another pressure: "My father is a mailman, but he insisted that we live in a certain way. He always worked extra hours to make sure we lived in nice neighborhoods. So there were all these upper-middle-class black doctors and lawyers--and then the mailman's family. We couldn't quite afford Baldwin Hills, but I went to (nearby) Mt. Vernon Junior High School, so I heard the different things their families were going through."
One was a color bias within the black community. Clay, 39, recalls a friend who was going out with a light-skinned black girl from Baldwin Hills. "The mother took one look at him and forbade her daughter to date him again--because he was 'too dark.' I never had that problem (of intolerance), because my mother was very dark-skinned; our family's a rainbow of colors. But I've seen other families divide into those camps, and it's sad. We try to uplift ourselves by tearing down others."
Competing in the predominantly white theater community is a another matter. For previous smaller-theater stagings of "Ritual" in 1981 and 1986, "it was like pulling teeth to get the press down," said Clay. "It's very hard for independent black producers. Black theater only gets (widespread press coverage) if it's at the Mark Taper Forum or the Westwood Playhouse or some other major venue" (referring to such hits as "The Colored Museum" and "Checkmates").
On the bright side, Clay--who is concurrently directing Gerard Brown's popular black-frat drama, "Jonin,' " at the Harman Avenue Theatre--firmly believes that black theater is enjoying a renaissance: "Black people in Los Angeles are so used to black plays now, hungry to see themselves. A lot of people overlook the fact that there's enough money and spending power in the black community to support anything. Shelly Garrett proved that with 'Beauty Shop' (a recent comedy at the Wilshire Ebell). He was making money hand over fist--just by targeting the black community."
Word of mouth helps, too.
"Also, whenever you turn on a black radio station now, some play is being advertised. If you advertise on the radio, you hook into the black community. We also have a big sign at 'Jonin' ' about 'Ritual'--and same thing over there. And I encourage all the other shows in the community to bring their flyers into our theater. The thing is, we help each other by encouraging audiences to go out and see another play. There's also been an important exchange of information (between theater groups): mailing lists, a lot of networking."
Does the targeting of blacks exclude a potential white audience?
"I'm not trying to do a crossover thing," he said firmly. "If it crosses over, fine. This is a story from the black experience. It's about blacks and it's for blacks. It's also for the observation of others who want to see a different side of black life. It bothers me when some people say, 'I don't want to be a black artist; I just want to be an artist .' Well, I'm many things. I'm an American. I'm a black American. I'm an African-American playwright--and very proud to be that. I'm not just a playwright. When I write, it comes from a specific experience."
Clay (whose most famous TV commercial as an actor was a long-running spot for Pac Bell--shot when he was 31--playing an earnest 16-year-old: "Mama, I am calling") shrugs off any elitism. "I've always moved in all kinds of groups. It's the only way you learn. I think that's the beauty of L.A. We have this incredible racial mix. But family comes first. And as a member of the black family, this is my priority. I've got to take care of them first. I cannot allow black theater to be thrown away as a stepchild."
Though he still acts occasionally, Clay's far happier on the producing end. "I'm not a good employee," he said flatly. "I've always been the one in charge. I like the responsibility. At 12, I produced my first show: wrote it, composed the music, directed it, sold tickets, controlled the concessions--lemonade and cookies--and starred in it in my parents' living room. People from the neighborhood lined up to see it. Yeah, it's about control. I'm doing my own things, doing them the way I want them done."
While he dreams of one day running his own theater and paying his actors handsomely ("so they can walk out with their heads held high"), Clay has no intention of looking to the government for subsidy. "I do not believe in grants or any of the federal charities," he said. "I don't want their money. This show is financed by friends of mine who loved it and wanted to help get it on. My dream is to be like David Merrick or Harold Prince--to go out there and make a lot of investors rich. Including me."