Creating a Forum for Latino Audiences : Theater: The Taper’s weekend events kick off the venue’s $1.4-million Latino Theatre Initiative.


Three decades ago, a predominantly Latino neighborhood was torn down to make way for the Los Angeles Music Center. Since that time, with rare exceptions, a Latino presence hasn’t been very visible on the site.

Only 2% of Mark Taper Forum subscribers are Latino. And only one play by an American Latino writer--”Zoot Suit” in 1978--has been presented at the Taper.

This weekend may mark an end to that era. On Saturday, a procession celebrating El Dia de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead) will virtually encircle the Center and then ascend to the Music Center Plaza for an afternoon of holiday activities, representing “the living reclaiming life in honor of the dead,” according to Josephine Ramirez, the event’s producer.


Although it won’t be stated in so many words, Ramirez said, “we’re doing it in homage to them (the previous residents of the area) and their neighborhood.”

The procession is part of two days of events, beginning with an evening program on Friday, designed to attract Latinos to the Mark Taper Forum. But this weekend is only the beginning. It will kick off the Taper’s Latino Theatre Initiative, a four-year project for which the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund is providing $1.4 million--the largest grant the Taper has ever received from a source other than the Music Center itself.


Jose Luis Valenzuela--who brought his Latino Theatre Lab to the Taper after its former sponsor, the Los Angeles Theatre Center company, collapsed in 1991--will direct the Initiative. He became a full-time Taper staff member as part of it.

Valenzuela cited the dearth of Latino programming when asked why Latinos haven’t come to the Taper. “You only go where you’re invited,” he said. “When (Latinos) know the Taper is doing something for us, they’ll go.” And after Latinos see “a serious commitment,” they’ll go to non-Latino Taper programming as well, he predicted.

So look for a lot more Latino programming in coming years. The Latino comedy group Culture Clash will play the Taper later this fall, and Luis Valdez’s “Bandido!” is scheduled for next spring.

The Latino Lab is researching a collaborative piece about Latinos in Los Angeles that Valenzuela hopes will be ready for the 1994-95 season. He also plans to prepare a new dramatized version of the old story of “La Virgen del Tepeyac” for the holiday season in 1994, though he’s not sure it would be performed at the Taper. It might be done in a venue closer to Latino audiences.


As many as five play commissions will go to Latinos during the first years of the program, and as many as four during the second year. A Latino festival will be held in 1996, with full productions of four plays, probably in repertory, said Valenzuela.

But programming isn’t the whole package. Audience development is the other part of it. The initiative has paid for the hiring of a Latino audience development coordinator, Xavier Sibaja.

The 33-year-old Sibaja, L.A.-born but Mexico City-raised, had attended only three or four plays at the Taper prior to being hired. It’s his impression, he said, that Latinos believe the Taper is too formal. He noted the importance of open spaces in Latino culture--something the outdoor procession on Saturday may begin to address.

A survey to be conducted during the next year as part of the Initiative will provide a more scientifically researched conclusion about Latino attitudes toward theater and the Taper.

Bilingual advertising is planned as part of the new outreach. But what about bilingual programming? Could some performances of Latino plays be in Spanish? Ramirez, the Initiative program producer, said Ruben Martinez will deliver a 10-minute piece in Spanish as part of “Out in Front: Otra Vez,” the program that will open the weekend festivities Friday.

But Ramirez doubts that full-length performances will be held in Spanish. She said the Initiative is focused primarily on a Chicano audience--and that English is the first language for many Chicanos.


“Out in Front: Otra Vez” will also feature rappers Machete and the Chicano Squad and performers Luis Alfaro and Maria Elena Gaitan, plus the short film satire “El Luchador Chicano” with live stage voices from Latino comics. Information: (213) 365-3500.

On Saturday night, “Noche de Risa y Susto” will open with Edward James Olmos and 18 dancers from the original Taper cast of “Zoot Suit” performing a number from that show, followed by a series of Latino comics. The “Noche” is a high-priced benefit for the Latino Lab.

Information: (213) 972-7588.