Parable of Equity Comes to a New ‘Circle’ : Theater: Adaptation of Brecht’s play highlighting class injustice carries special meaning in the community production in Watts.
It’s nearly dinner time on a Sunday evening and the dimly lit warehouse-turned-theater of the Watts Labor Community Action Committee is filled with more than two dozen men, women and children, ranging in age from 6 to 81.
With the exception of a few kids who troop in and out of the room, oblivious to the rehearsal in progress, everyone’s attention is focused on theater director Bill Rauch. Dressed in a baggy blue shirt and khakis, the sandy-haired 33-year-old gives the actors, musicians and crew members feedback on a scene they’re preparing.
It’s the final scene in the Cornerstone Theater Company production of “The Central Ave. Chalk Circle,” Lynn Manning and Eric Bentley’s adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s 1944 “The Caucasian Chalk Circle,” a parable about justice, equity and the tussle over the fate of a child.
After listening to Rauch’s comments, the cast falls into place for another run-through. “What there is,” intones the multiracial chorus, lined up side by side across the back of the stage, “shall go to those who will do the best by it.”
This time, the voices--and the moral--come through loud and clear. As well they should.
It is, after all, a message that rings particularly, wishfully, true in Watts--a community where equitable distribution has never been the order of the day.
“Watts is not unique,” says Rauch, seated in a local diner during dinner break. “But because of the ’65 riots, Watts looms really large in the national consciousness.”
And so it is particularly fitting that Cornerstone and the people here have chosen to present a play that calls attention to the injustice of such conditions.
Perhaps more important, though, they are doing so--even as the media continue to brim with stories of strained racial relations--in an interracial collaboration that supports the idea that the problems of communities such as Watts are as much about class as race.
Class politics are emphasized in Brecht’s parable, and the L.A.-based Manning, 40, agrees with the late German Marxist. “I stayed with it, definitely,” he says. “Because I think the truth about what ails the society is more about class than race.”
For the past 15 months, Cornerstone--a group founded by Rauch and his fellow Harvard alum Alison Carey in 1986 and based in L.A. since 1992--has been involved in its Watts Community Residency Project. So far, the group, which brings theater professionals such as playwright Manning together with people from various communities, has produced three full plays and two storytelling workshops.
“The Central Ave. Chalk Circle” is a “bridge” show, with participants from all of the previous Cornerstone Watts shows. Under the guidance of Cornerstone artistic director Rauch, the play features 19 actors, both professional and amateur, as well as additional community-based performers, who appear only in a prologue, staged by Dennistine Lyle.
The set (by Ed Haynes)--most of which will be left intact after the show--includes a three-tiered stage with a rotating turntable and a 200-foot catwalk that runs around the perimeter of the auditorium. The fully designed production also features original music by Shishir Kurup.
Certainly it’s a far cry from the makeshift ways of what’s usually referred to as community theater. But then, there aren’t many, if any, community theater groups that receive permission to adapt and perform such a text.
Although it had previously been denied the rights, Cornerstone approached the Brecht estate, and Brecht translator-adapter Bentley again last year, hoping that its track record and plans for the play would ultimately be persuasive. “We were really amazed that both Stefan Brecht and Bentley gave us permission for Lynn to adapt because they’re really conservative about adaptation,” Rauch says. “We were surprised and honored.”
Manning, Rauch and other Cornerstone folks then held a meeting with people from Watts. “People started getting really fired up about [saying], ‘Make it here and now, and make it [set in] Watts,’ ” Rauch says. “The passion that people had about that surprised me.
“In your worst moments, you fear that those of us who are artists coming from outside the community have this one artistic agenda and those from the community have a different agenda,” Rauch continues. “And it was really affirming to remember that we all really do have the same agenda here.”
Manning, who grew up near Watts and later in Compton and other parts of L.A., agreed about the need for making the piece contemporary. “When it’s about this long-ago, faraway place, you lose a lot of people’s interest right up front,” he says.
Navigating the hot-button topic of race, however, proved trickier. “As soon as I mentioned that there were racial problems in the play, there were some people who felt that it shouldn’t be addressed,” Manning says.
But he was able to show his collaborators that there’s a difference between a character with racist feelings and an ultimately racist work. “I’ve been able to make [people] see that you can be offended by a character or what the person said, but that’s not the play,” he says.
“Besides,” Manning adds, “if I don’t ruffle some feathers, then I’m probably not doing my job.”
* “The Central Ave. Chalk Circle,” Watts Labor Community Action Committee Auditorium, 10950 Central Ave., Watts; Thurs.-Sun., 7 p.m., Nov. 19, 2 p.m. Ends Nov. 19. $5, or pay-what-you-can. (213) 567-8634. Buses providing free round-trip transportation to the auditorium leave from Nickerson Gardens, Imperial Courts, Jordan Downs and other points throughout Watts. Information: (213) 567-8634.