Helping to Spur Black Theaters

Don Shirley is a Times staff writer

In a 1996 speech, playwright August Wilson raised eyebrows throughout the theater world by condemning nontraditional casting. He also advocated strengthening black theaters.

His casting stance created a lot of talk--but little action. Nontraditional casting is still popular. Witness the cast of many colors in "Our Town" at South Coast Repertory, or--on a wider canvas--the TV production of Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Cinderella," starring Brandy, last fall.

Wilson's advocacy of African American theaters, in the same speech, may turn out to have a much greater effect than his opinions on casting.

Wilson continued the discussion at a March 2-7 conference at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., where he's a fellow of the college this term. Most of the event consisted of closed-door talks among several dozen black theater leaders, but it was followed last Sunday by public sessions attended by around 300.

The goal was to strengthen existing black theaters rather than start new ones, Wilson said Monday. He believes that concrete results will emerge. Managers of several black theaters will get scholarships to a summer program at Dartmouth's business school, designed to help their institutions restructure and expand. A black theater journal is in the talking stages. Wilson said that he and two of his Dartmouth colleagues have been invited to L.A. to talk about the subject of black theaters with officials from the Getty Trust.

Wilson's own plays have not been developed at black-specific theaters. After his 1996 speech, some commentators suggested that the prestige of developing and presenting a Wilson premiere would give any struggling black theater a big boost. Asked whether the conference had inspired him to try that route, Wilson said he was "not averse to it--I'm just not sure which [black] theater could give me the level of production values" that his work gets at the chain of mainstream resident theaters that traditionally develop his plays.

If the black-specific Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul successfully completes a plan to finance and erect a $28-million complex, it will get one of his plays to premiere, Wilson said. As for now, his play "Jitney" will be produced this fall at Boston's Huntington Theatre--one of his usual developmental venues. He's also working on a new play, "King Hedley II," set in 1985, using a character first introduced in his "Seven Guitars."

Wilson was unaware that an L.A. company, Black Artists Network Development, had recently staged "Blues for an Alabama Sky" at Los Angeles Theatre Center--the first home-grown black company in years to present a production on an Actors' Equity contract. That show closed last Sunday--the day after Wilson's conference.

PASADENA WHERE?: From all indications, the hit production of "Sisterella" at the Pasadena Playhouse in 1996 was the official premiere. After the initial reviews came out, the price for remaining tickets was increased to $55, from $13.50-$35.50.

But think again. A recent press release heralded the "world premiere" of "Sisterella" in Melbourne, Australia, last weekend, in a new $6.5-million production from producer Kevin Jacobsen.

Near the end of the release, one sentence referred to "when 'Sisterella' previewed in Pasadena." There was no mention of a European tour that "Sisterella" took in between Pasadena and Melbourne.

Publicist Lee Solters, who's representing the new "Sisterella," said that the Pasadena production was, "with all due respect, like a bus-and-truck company compared to what the show is now." The show now has 40 tons of scenery, he said.

Della Miles and Wanda Houston from the Pasadena cast are still in the show, as are writer and director Larry Hart, Australian TV comedy star Red Symons and former "Laugh-In" star Chelsea Brown.

"As a diversion, it has a lot to recommend it, but more as a concept album with accompanying sumptuous videoclips than as a piece of theater," said one critic. Another advised that "if you can tolerate some American schmaltz and you check your brains and your politics at the door, you'll have a good time."

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