A Playwright Who Found His Groove

Don Heckman is a frequent contributor to Calendar

A night on Central Avenue in the 1940s was an experience to savor. From the Dunbar Hotel at 42nd Street, up and down the avenue, the Los Angeles street was a rich tapestry of sights and sounds. On any given night, one might have heard such sterling saxophonists as Lester Young, Dexter Gordon, Wardell Grey; jived to the song and dance of the Will Mastin Trio with Sammy Davis Jr.; or stopped in at an after-hours joint to catch a late set by the brilliant Art Tatum. There was also the possibility of catching a glimpse of Clark Gable or Howard Hughes limousining down to catch the sounds (and check out the ladies) at the latest hot spots.

But Central Avenue--like so much of the country--was rapidly changing in those post-World War II years, its decades of glory beginning to fade in the face of a series of social and cultural upheavals.

A new play, aptly titled "Central Avenue," which deals with the period, has been drawing full-house audiences into the heart of those upheavals since its opening June 9 at the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood. Taking on all the issues, using that time and that fabled location as both a setting and a metaphor, the production examines a fascinating and critical moment in Los Angeles history.

"When I started to write the play," Stephen Sachs says, "I had no idea how many different elements would eventually work their way into it. But as I did more research, it began to come together, and I began to see all the connections: postwar L.A. society, still segregated; the way in which the music was changing from swing to bebop; the attempts to merge the two musicians' unions, black and white; and the efforts to integrate the police departments. All this social change and the changes in awareness that were taking place in Los Angeles were totally fascinating to me."

Sachs came to the project with very little understanding of jazz. But the 42-year-old playwright, whose works include "Sweet Nothing in My Ear," which won the 1998 California Governor's Media Access Award, immersed himself in the period and the music. Reading everything he could find about the decade, taking a crash course in jazz, speaking to such articulate veterans of the period as saxophonists Buddy Collette and Teddy Edwards, he labored to create an air of authenticity.

"I interviewed many of those players for hours," he says. "And there are lines in the play that are almost direct quotes of some of the things they said. I really wanted to get it right for them.

"In fact," he adds with a laugh, "when they all came down to the play on opening night, I was more nervous about them being there than anyone else."

The more he read about the era, the more he listened to the pithy reminiscences of those who had experienced it firsthand, the more Sachs became captivated by everything about Central Avenue.

"I wasn't really aware of what a segregated city Los Angeles was at that time," he says. "When you think of some of the sorts of things that found their way into the play, you tend to think South. But Los Angeles has its own dark history that a lot of people are really not aware of."

Early in the play, one of the principal characters ruefully notes, "Los Angeles just Mississippi with palm trees."

Sachs was drawn to the Central Avenue scene as well.

"The neon," he continues, "the bright lights, the people dressed to the nines, the big limos and the stars coming down. Charlie Chaplin and Spencer Tracy. All the musicians--Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie--staying at the Dunbar Hotel. What a time it was."

But Sachs didn't overlook the irony of white movie megastars cruising down to segregated Central Avenue for entertainment. And the juxtaposition of those elements provides one of the play's most important subtexts.

"When you think about it," he says, "here we were in Los Angeles in the mid-'40s, like every other major city in the country segregating white culture from black culture. Central Avenue evolved because white Los Angeles segre-gated black Los Angeles along this one avenue downtown, saying, 'You can't go anywhere else in the city.'

"Yet here were white people swarming down there to listen to the music, to experience the avenue--and not just movie stars and Hollywood types, but everyday people too. And it was this love-hate, this attraction and fear that we seem to have with each other, all of the feelings sort of swarming around the music. The music could both transcend all of that and yet be divisive at the same time."

Sachs explores that enigma via Sam Washington, a veteran black saxophonist with the Jimmie Lunceford swing band who has derisive feelings about the newly emerging sounds of bebop, and Eddie James, a young white saxophonist who comes to Central Avenue to hear Charlie Parker, hoping against hope that the blackness of jazz will somehow rub off on him.

"That relationship between Sam and Eddie is the core relationship to me, in part because it symbolizes so many of the issues taking place," Sachs says. "The old guard in the person of Sam, aware that the times are changing, that the music is changing and that his days are waning. But he has a strong need to pass the music on, and fate brings him a very unlikely apprentice in the person of this young white guy." Although Sachs ends the play with an upbeat moment, he is too aware of the complexity of the issues to offer easy solutions. In a particularly telling scene, a black musician named Walter tells Eddie, "You gotta live the life before you earn the right to blow the notes."

Other threads stretch beyond the web of the drama. The merging of the black and white musicians' unions finally shows signs of getting on track. But the selection of William H. Parker as police chief has a vastly different effect on the engine of integration. "Keep your eyes and your ears open," Parker tells a young officer named Daryl Gates. "We are the thin blue line of salvation."

Understandably, Sachs found strong contemporary resonance in the story, as well. "Just as bebop was thought of as wild, out of control noise, that's what parents are saying about rap music today," he says. "Segregation, in a way, still exists, just in more covert forms. And the brutality and militarization in the Police Department obviously is what we're seeing every day, with the Rampart scandal, with police corruption, with the Rodney King beating."

Sachs has not been hesitant to deal with controversial themes in his past work. "Sweet Nothing in My Ear," from the Fountain Theatre's 1997-98 season, examines the struggles within a family that has both deaf and hearing members, as they grapple with the decision to use medical technology to overcome deafness or to accept it as a cultural value. Performed in American Sign Language with voice interpretation, the play was favorably reviewed at the Fountain as well as at other venues around the country. Sachs was born in San Francisco, and raised in Los Angeles from age 7. He studied drama at the Los Angeles City College Theatre Academy and spent a decade working as an actor in theater, TV and film. After running the Ensemble Studio Theatre, he co-founded the Fountain Theatre in 1990 with Deborah Lawlor.

"Sweet Nothing in My Ear" is scheduled to be made into a television movie. However, "Central Avenue" is the work that has identified Sachs as a writer with the potential to move on to bigger opportunities. Although the play is articulately staged by Shirley Jo Finney within the tiny confines of the Fountain, it could also fit comfortably in a larger theater. And negotiations are, in fact, in the works for its presentation elsewhere--either on Broadway, TV or film.

Sachs continues to refine "Central Avenue," his sixth produced play. But he is largely content that he has made meaningful connections in its diverse but inextricably linked dramatic themes.

"When I saw all the individual pieces of the puzzle, I thought, 'Look at what's happening here, look at all these changes,' " he says. "Then I remembered that 'changes' is a jazz term--musicians refer to playing the changes, learning new changes, referring to the harmonies. And it's that element of change that was happening in the city, so the musical term became a kind of metaphor for what was happening in the play, as well.

"And that led me into seeing the play in a different sense dramaturgically, as well," Sachs concludes. "I began thinking in terms of writing the piece almost as a jazz work--with duets and trios and solos, having quick scenes and fast phrases, intercutting different sections, repeating themes. And there I was, full circle, with a piece that kind of moves and jumps around and hits you with surprises--just like jazz, and just like Central Avenue."

*

"CENTRAL AVENUE," Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Hollywood. Dates: Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Closes Sept. 30. Price: $22. Phone: (323) 663-1525.

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