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Quest for the Real Thing : * Theater: Teacher and student team up to create a musical that examines the search for love in an age of materialism and glitz.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Seventeen years ago, for a theater course she was teaching at the Educational Cultural Complex in Southeast San Diego, Anasa Briggs auditioned, then took on, Ron Covington, who at the time was a 14-year-old ninth-grader and aspiring actor.

The thought he had talent.

Today, she still thinks so.

Covington, 30, is now a writer, composer and actor in Los Angeles, and Briggs, who now refers to herself by her married name, Briggs-Graves, is directing his new musical, “State of the Art Heart,” at the Kingston Playhouse. The show, opening tonight and running through Sept. 1, is a co-production for her own company, Graves Communications, with Blackfriars Theatre (formerly the Bowery Theatre).

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“She was the first person who talked to me like I was a developing actor,” Covington recalled, smiling as he turned to Briggs-Graves, who sat next to him for an interview at the Kingston. “It was a respect thing.”

Briggs-Graves, who preferred not to give her age, said she felt parental toward him right from the beginning.

“He got so turned on to theater. When he told me he was going off to Howard University to study theater (Covington graduated in 1982), it was like, ‘Wow, my kid.’ I feel very possessive about students like him.”

When Covington sent Briggs-Graves his newest work, “State of the Art Heart,” in January, she knew immediately that she wanted to produce it.

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The show is a 65-minute pop-operetta about love--or rather love’s misfires. A man falls in love with a woman who is provocative and intelligent but not interested in getting attached. After some prodding, Covington admits the plot is inspired, in part, by his own frustrated search for a long-lasting relationship like that of his parents.

“Basically I’m a romanticist,” Covington said. “I believe true romance is the thing that’s going to save us. The media and the money mentality trivialize what romance is about and break down relationships. To be very honest, a lot of the women I had been seeing were very into glamour/glitz and not concentrating on the real thing. I started thinking about my parents. They’ve been married 33 years, and they still love each other intensely. True romance is still here, it’s a solid foundation, and I want to have a relationship like that someday.”

Briggs-Graves had originally commissioned a love story from Covington 1 1/2 years ago. At the time, she was looking for something she could star in with her longtime former-San Diego acting buddies James Avery and John Wesley, both of whom are now working in Los Angeles.

Avery plays the father in the television series “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” and Wesley has appeared in “In the Heat of the Night.”

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Meanwhile, Briggs-Graves has stayed in San Diego, making her mark locally in 1980 through her own talk show for KPBS-TV, which she also produced. Until last summer, she was also department head for black ethnic affairs at the station, but the position and the show were dissolved during a major restructuring at the station prompted by rising costs and a deficit in projected revenues.

“It was tragic,” she said. “I think a lot of people came to rely on (the show) for an African-American point of view, even though it wouldn’t always be about African-American issues, but issues of concern to an entire community.”

After she was laid off, Briggs-Graves quickly immersed herself in new projects. She went back to her acting roots, garnering acclaim for her performance in the San Diego Repertory Theatre production of “Still Life” in June. She also pressed Covington for a draft of the love story she had asked for more than a year ago, but he said he first had to finish another project that he couldn’t get out of his mind.

She told him to send the project he was working on. It was “State of the Art Heart” and she loved it, even though the love story had no part for her. She showed the script to Blackfriars’ development director Allison Brennan in March and got the green light to make it part of the theater’s Community Collaborations Outreach Program, through which Blackfriars provides administrative and production support for emerging local artists and companies.

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Briggs-Graves acknowledges that she was a little disappointed not to get the work she’d originally commissioned, but said she’s still glad to get something she felt should be seen.

“So, when I didn’t get my love story and instead I got his love story, I saw immediately this is a young man’s point of view on what it takes to create love, and how society says no, you can’t be vulnerable, you have to have certain material trappings to attract a woman and keep those trappings to keep her.

“It’s a male’s point of view on how men can get hurt, and I saw the humanity of it all,” she said.

But she’s still waiting for her own love story, she reminds Covington, turning to him and giving him a look .

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“I’m working on it,” he assures her. “I’m working on it.”

Performances of “State of the Art Heart” are 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays, with Sunday matinees at 2. Through Sept. 1. Tickets are $12-15, with $2 discounts for seniors, students, military. At 1057 1st Ave., San Diego, 232-4088.


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