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STAGE : A Trailblazer for Diversity : Long before it became popular, C. Bernard Jackson and the Inner City Cultural Center were preaching the gospel of multiculturalism

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Singing and dancing figures cavort in the mural on the outside of the converted Masonic temple. Signs in Korean and Spanish dot the Pico Boulevard neighborhood. Inside, in a second-story meeting room, the faces around the table are Asian, African-American, Latino and white.

Uptown in Hollywood, at the recently reopened Ivar Theater, similar meetings are taking place and a variety of plays and events are being planned.

These may sound like scenes from a documentary about that latest of buzz topics--multiculturalism--but what’s happening here isn’t new. It’s business as usual at the Inner City Cultural Center, now 25 years old and growing.

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With the first production recently mounted in its Ivar Theater (the Celtic Arts Center’s “Shadow of a Gunman”), Inner City not only survives but thrives. This isn’t just the tale of the little theater that could, it is the story of a groundbreaking model--perhaps the urgently needed blueprint--for arts institutions of the coming century.

Inner City, built on the dreams of executive director C. Bernard (Jack) Jackson, was the first arts institution in the United States exclusively devoted to a concept only now gaining wider attention.

“It’s a tribute to Jack’s vision that the multicultural idea has been seen, and that future is on us,” El Teatro Campesino founder Luis Valdez says of the man who gave his organization its “first break and our introduction to the professional theater.”

“He’s been a pioneer, a revolutionary force in humanizing the American arts scene,” continues Valdez. “Jack was the first individual who was stressing multiculturalism, a whole new perspective on what America was becoming. Truth was on his side and he had the quiet persistence to keep on representing that.”

“Jack said, ‘This is not a black theater, this is not a Latino theater, this is not an Asian theater. This is a theater that will reflect the total population,’ ” says Victor Leo Walker II, a UC Santa Barbara scholar whose book “The Autobiography of the ICCC: the Life and Times of America’s First Multicultural Arts Institution,” is due to be published in 1993. “Now everybody’s giving lip service to (multiculturalism). Jack didn’t give it lip service, he practiced it.”

Inner City has also expanded in a period when many nonprofit arts organizations have either struggled or gone under. With the purchase of the Ivar in May of 1989, and with the mortgage on its Pico headquarters paid off, Inner City is in a uniquely secure fiscal position, poised and planning for even more extensive expansion in the near future.

“They’re brave,” says Al Nodal, general manager of the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department. “They’re moving forward and have made a major expansion, when everybody else is in a holding pattern. The Ivar means a lot to the arts community.”

“When in trouble, expand,” Jackson says in a moment of joviality that has currents of seriousness and fearlessness. “It works. That’s all I can say.”

Born out of the spirit of the Watts riots, Inner City has played a leadership role in its home in Central Los Angeles and lent a hand to numerous organizations, such as Teatro Campesino, the East-West Players and Carmen Zapata’s Bilingual Foundation of the Arts (founded in 1973). “The Inner City Cultural Center was the umbrella organization for our first National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1974 and we performed there before we had our own theater,” says Zapata.

As Inner City built bridges between communities, it also spawned and nurtured myriad individual careers, including those of such celebrity alums as Beah Richards, Paul Winfield, Lou Gossett Jr., George Takei, Nobu McCarthy, Mako, Sab Shimono, August Wilson, George C. Wolfe, Edward James Olmos, Ted Lange, Danny Glover, Samm Art Williams and many more.

Countless others have found motivation or gotten that all-important first break through such programs as Inner City’s annual short play competition, which brings together fledgling writers and established film/TV industry professionals who are in a position to--and often do--employ them. (They also sponsor an annual acting competition--the ninth annual currently taking place through May 5--and a competition for musicians and composers.)

Most important, Inner City has been and continues to be a beacon for those who believe in the power of the arts to effect social change. With an annual operating budget of only half a million, it is both cultural center and social service organization, creating productions that move on to commercial success, even as it picks up a bit of the slack left by a government woefully unable to cope with the problems facing the inner city.

“It’s one of the few organizations that came out of the War on Poverty that have survived,” says Walker. “What Jack had was a vision of the future.”

Jackson, now 62 years old, grew up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, playing chief henchman for his cousin, the head of one of the city’s toughest street gangs. Even then--because he spoke Spanish and moved easily between neighborhoods--he often found himself in the role of diplomat.

“Most of my family went to jail and I would have too,” Jackson recalls, “except that somehow I ended up in a high school of music and art. That changed my life. I say that with no hesitation whatsoever. It got me out of the neighborhood and it certainly convinced me that art was a valuable tool for changing ways of perceiving the world.”

Jackson attended Brooklyn College in between stints in the armed forces, then ended up at UCLA, pursuing a master’s degree in music and working as a staff musician.

There he found collaborators. With Jim Hatch he created “Fly Blackbird,” a 1959 civil rights agitprop musical with a multi-ethnic cast that opened in Los Angeles to notable word of mouth--if not critical--success. The show and Jackson moved to New York in 1961.

Soon, though, Jackson was back in Los Angeles. He started the Robertson Playhouse and went back on staff at UCLA, where he met the late physician and philanthropist Dr. J. Alfred Cannon. They started talking about the need for a cultural matrix within the inner city.

“We couldn’t get anybody interested,” Jackson recalls. “Then came the Watts uprising and everybody was interested.”

Inner City started formally in 1965 in a donated office on Crenshaw Boulevard. Hollywood heavyweights and concerned Westside patrons got behind the cause; Gregory Peck was a major backer.

In 1966, Inner City leased the former Boulevard theater, a house of more than 900 seats at Washington Boulevard and New Hampshire Avenue. After five years, during which Inner City renovated the building, the landlords threw them out.

During those early years, however, Inner City became part of three-year nationwide pilot venture--the Educational Laboratory Theater Program, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Office of Education and the L.A. Unified School District--that hurtled the organization to national prominence.

The Educational Laboratory Theater, like other Great Society programs, was launched in the heyday of the civil rights movement. Starting in 1967, about 30,000 students a year were bused in to see productions of classic dramas, staged by the Inner City multi-ethnic repertory company. Andre Gregory was the artistic director, and the actors included George Takei, Robert Ito, Roscoe Lee Browne, Lou Gossett Jr., Bonnie Bedelia, George Gaines and others who’ve gone on to successful careers.

“It was controversial on two levels,” Jackson recalls of the program, which was undertaken simultaneously in New Orleans and Providence, R.I. “One, the idea of high school kids from all over the city being bused into the inner city made everybody nervous and, two, our non-traditional casting, which wasn’t called that at the time.”

When Vietnam began to siphon off the monies for such programs, the Educational Laboratory Theater went the way of so many best-laid plans.

Inner City, however, was well on its way. When its leaders lost the first theater, they realized the next move had to be to purchase property. In 1972, they bought the three-story Masonic temple at Pico and New Hampshire for about $120,000. Converted, the building now houses four theaters, a library, offices and studios. The purchase was a shrewd move that ensured not only the organization’s base but its future for decades.

Around the time of the purchase, the Ford Foundation chipped in with more than $600,000, earmarked for the center’s expansion from 1972 to 1978. During those years Inner City flourished, disproving predictions that no audience could be lured into the Pico-Vermont area.

The resident school, the Inner City Institute, also took off, with an enrollment of several hundred technical theater students. It lasted until the Reagan Administration yanked its CETA funding during the ‘80s. Inner City Press began publishing books and there also was a highly regarded magazine, Neworld, which chronicled developments in the multicultural arts.

Although times became somewhat lean in the early ‘80s--as they did for most not-for-profits throughout the country--Inner City held fast.

“One of the major problems in the so-called minority communities has always been the transient nature of institutions, particularly arts institutions,” says Jackson. “We set out to build a legacy.”

Legacy-making, though, has not been without its share of triumphs and tragedies, confrontations between new ideas and old prejudices and the usual hardships associated with forging an unconventional institution.

The original multicultural concept was hotly contested. “It was the kind of project that at the time seemed totally inappropriate to everybody,” says Jackson. “To a white community, it was a violation, a disservice to the (classical) works we were presenting.”

Those hackle-raising productions included an “Our Town” with several ethnicities cast within each nuclear family, a multi-ethnic “Tartuffe” featured Gossett in the title role, and a “Glass Menagerie” in which Paul Winfield did a turn--wearing whiteface--as the gentleman caller.

Resistance didn’t only come from whites, though. At a time of emerging black nationalism, Inner City’s ideals were seen as an affront.

“People felt, since Inner City grew out of the Watts rebellion, that this was intended to be a black organization and that we were diffusing the impact,” says Jackson. “People--including ones within the organization--wanted to know what all these other communities were doing here.”

“Some members of the Black Panther Party were telling Jack that people have to worry about their own,” says Walker, the UC Santa Barbara scholar and writer. “He took a lot of flak.”

The Chicano community, in the throes of its own movement, responded similarly--if less intensely. Emphasis was being placed on going back to one’s roots, not spending valuable energy trying to forge alliances.

“We defined our mission as ‘exploring the arts as a tool for bridging cultural and communication gaps which existed throughout the United States,’ ” says Jackson. “There was violent opposition, but eventually that opposition died down, particularly because artists as well as audiences began to realize that something was happening here that wasn’t happening anywhere else.”

However, it wasn’t accomplished by wishful thinking alone, or--as Jackson often points out--by one man. Several members of the staff, which was multi-ethnic from the get-go, helped shape Inner City.

Two of the most important--Elaine Kashiki and Josie Dotson--met untimely deaths that stand, for Jackson, as symbols of the toll that such an intense undertaking can exact.

Kashiki was just 17 years old when she came to the fledgling center as assistant to program manager Jeanne Joe. Both Kashiki, who eventually became the Inner City administrative director, and Joe were instrumental in bringing the Asian-American community into the fold.

Kashiki died in 1983, at the age of 35, of a brain hemorrhage and stroke. Dotson, Inner City’s general manager and a respected actress in her mid 50s, died last June--also of a stroke.

“Part of my frustration is you expect your children to outlive you,” says Jackson, who was married only briefly years ago and has never had children. “These were my colleagues, my children. I don’t know better people than these.

“You can blame conditions at Inner City, conditions in the society at large for their early demise. I think there is a relationship,” he says. “They had the kind of dedication which enabled them to do without all the stuff that other people take for granted--health insurance, adequate anything.

“We still live in a chauvinistic society where it’s assumed the ideas come from the guy at the top, but there’s no way we could have held onto this core set of values without these women.”

The current full-time staff numbers seven, including producers Rosamaria Marquez and Gloria Calomee and Ivar Theater manager Susan Alvarez. Development consultant director Larry Kubota was the first director of the Inner City Institute for the Arts.

Having a core of co-workers who, like Jackson, live in or near the Inner City neighborhood, has gone a long way toward establishing the organization’s credibility.

“It dawned on us about 10 years ago that we are the principal social service agency in our area,” explains Jackson. “We’re perhaps the largest single employer in the neighborhood and the principal educational institution outside of the public schools. People know who we are. People grew up inside of our institution and around it.”

Those functions--which aren’t exclusively arts-related--are essential to the center. “The difference between LATC or the Music Center and us is they see their primary function as to produce works of art,” says Jackson. “Our primary function has been to reach an accord with the community in which we’re located.”

On the other hand, when it comes time for Jackson to court corporate funders, he has to be cautious. “I have to be very careful to whom I talk about our social responsibilities,” he says. “In some parts of the art community, you don’t mix art and sociology.”

Some funders, however, prefer that mix, or at least Jackson’s particular brand of it.

“They fit our guidelines in terms of being an arts organization that has an outreach program for inner city youth and people in general,” says David Boyd, director of communications for Arco, which has made grants to Inner City on more than one occasion. “They support a neighborhood--as well as the entire city--which has had little opportunity for cultural entertainment and education.”

“There’s been a long tradition of people who create work that comes out of traditions other than those of the European communities having difficulty finding support,” says Juan Carrillo, deputy director for programs at the California Arts Council, which also funds Inner City. “I think funders are (now) interested in having their money address something beyond art for art’s sake.”

If the Cultural Affairs Department’s recently released master plan is an indication--and the city’s Nodal says it is--Inner City will likely find itself playing an even more prominent role in L.A. life in the years to come.

“As demographics change, we need to identify those institutions that have a track record,” says Nodal. “Inner City is in the running to be one of our major priorities. We’re looking at a multiyear commitment.”

That funding could go to support the Ivar, a 267-seat house (with more seats to come when the balcony refurbishing is done) that Inner City acquired in a quiet coup over a year and a half ago.

Inner City leaders acted so discreetly and efficiently, in fact, that several other parties who had been eyeing the property were taken by surprise. “I didn’t even know until later, when we were in the midst of the transaction, that (Center Theatre Group artistic director) Gordon Davidson was interested,” says Jackson. “I started getting calls from Gordon saying, ‘Well, we’ve been looking at that place also.’ ” Davidson never made a bid on the Ivar, though, and the Inner City deal sailed through.

“I tried to keep (the Ivar deal) quiet, and I was really angry that Gordon got word of our negotiations,” says Jackson. “After we got it, people came out of the woodwork saying they’d been bidding on that building for years.”

Six months of work were required to get the Ivar in shape, and there’s still work to be done. The plan, over the next five years, is to make it, in Jackson’s words, “a theater of the 21st Century, integrating the high-tech that’s available into a new way of looking at performance.”

Specifically, plans include an experimental sound system that will allow audience members to hear a live stage production in a variety of languages. Similar technological innovations are in the works in the areas of lighting, including some possible forays into holography.

Also on the agenda is an “electronic star walk,” with computerized video booths where theatergoers can call up information on a vast array of subjects from information based at UC Santa Barbara’s collection of ethnic cultural resources.

“I’m not oriented toward high-tech personally, but it’s political for me,” says Jackson. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the people who mastered these new techniques were people of color, who were then providing leadership? Not just saying, ‘Where do I get in the door?’

“I want us to be the place where such technologies are experimented with, where people will come to see what’s happening,” says Jackson. “I want it to be a tourist attraction.”

Such an audience would also help make the Ivar operation as self-sufficient as the Pico-New Hampshire location. “We do performances at night and these enormous spaces sit there empty 80% of the time. Our concept is it opens at 9 a.m. and it goes until 2 the next morning--a classy Disneyland, if you will, hopefully one that will attract people from all over the country.”

Still, no matter how enthused Jackson is about the innovative future of the Ivar, he is still driven by the same convictions that led him to found Inner City 25 years ago.

“I can sit and talk about all this high-tech jazz, and even relate it to our principal mission, which is to develop opportunities for people of color and build bridges between various cultural groups,” he says. “But if I look at society as a whole, it’s discouraging. Society is unable to cope with the most minimal needs. I’d like to change that.”


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