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Ebony Showcase Looks to ‘Norman’ to Bail It Out

<i> Don Shirley writes about theater for The Times. </i>

It was 1971, before the days of “non-traditional casting” and “multiculturalism” seminars. The Ebony Showcase Theatre took a Broadway flop written by and for whites, cast it black, and turned it into the biggest hit that this “oldest black-founded theater in the United States” ever had.

The play was “Norman, Is That You?,” a comedy about a middle-American father who learns his son is gay. It ran for seven years at the 299-seat theater on Washington Boulevard in Los Angeles--and inspired a 1976 motion-picture version that starred Redd Foxx and Pearl Bailey.

On May 8, “Norman” will return to the Ebony--if the Ebony is still in business.

Nick and Edna Stewart started their theater in 1950, performing in a series of venues before purchasing the Ebony in 1971. Now they are in dire financial shape. A missed mortgage payment on Feb. 1 triggered foreclosure proceedings.

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An Eartha Kitt concert at the theater in February netted only $7,500. Quincy Jones gave $25,000, and Time Warner contributed $10,000, say theater officials. But at least another $100,000 is needed within the next month or so.

“We may be forced to take out another high-interest, short-term loan,” said Valerie Stewart, the theater’s coordinator and daughter of its founders.

The theater has been used mostly for rental productions and classes since 1984, when expensive earthquake renovations began. Recently it has housed several Korean-language productions.

In the most optimistic scenario, a revival of “Norman” could signal a return to what Ebony Showcase does best--which might in turn drum up contributions. In a recessionary climate, though, it could be too late for the Ebony to rebound.

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Nick Stewart, now 81, admits that he “never learned the art of writing proposals” for grants and that he is generally averse to “handouts"--because “when the funding stops, I don’t want to die with it.”

The Ebony hasn’t applied for grants from the city’s Cultural Affairs Department during the last two seasons--though it did receive a special $50,000 city grant two years ago. Of course, without an active production slate, grants might be hard to find--and it’s unlikely that a return of something as conventional as “Norman” would alter that.

But Stewart isn’t going to change his programming to conform to the standards of grants-givers.

“I would never do the angry black shows,” he said. His daughter Valerie expressed disdain for the genre of plays in which women “do a lot of standing with one hand on the hip. People think that’s black theater.”

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While some might see stereotypes of gay men in “Norman, Is That You?,” Nick Stewart said the goal of his production was to treat the situation as “the parents’ problem, not to ridicule the gay son.”

Stewart, a vaudeville trouper from way back, said he grew up on the legendary can-do tales in the Horatio Alger books. A little of Horatio’s ingenuity may be necessary if the Ebony Showcase is going to survive.

An End to the Drought?: “El Diluvio Que Viene” (“The Coming Flood”), a Spanish-language musical, is slated for its U.S. debut at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood near the end of the year.

A hit since 1977 in Madrid, Mexico City, Buenos Aires and other Spanish-speaking capitals, “El Diluvio” is based on a 1974 Italian musical “Aggiungi Un Posto a Tavola.” It tells the story of a village priest who is warned by God of a second great flood. After the show opens in Spanish, performances in English may be added, said producer Harry Bernsen.

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From the LADCC Podium: After his experience with “My Children! My Africa!,” its South African writer Athol Fugard considers Southern California " a new home,” said La Jolla Playhouse associate director Robert Blacker while accepting an award for Fugard at a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle ceremony last Sunday. Blacker added that Fugard now realizes “that one doesn’t need New York"--where “My Children!” was not received as warmly. Fugard may stage an annual play at La Jolla; this year, he’ll revise his “A Lesson From Aloes” there.

A Broadway-bound actor at the awards ceremony also joined the SoCal cheerleading. Said award recipient Richard Kline (director of “Present Laughter”), who will soon take over the role of Fidler/Irving in “City of Angels” on Broadway: “I’m going to tell all the gang on 42nd Street that theater in L.A. is very much alive and well.”

Concluding the ceremonies, “Present Laughter” co-producer Bill Haller presented a wish list for L.A. theater, including a wish “that Charles Marowitz would finish his rewrites of Shakespeare--so we can look forward to the Marowitz Neil Simon.”


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