In their own words, with their own voices

Special to The Times

As the Los Angeles Women's Theatre Festival marks its 10th anniversary this month, gender is still taking center stage. But when it does, all bets are off. The self-titled Multicultural Festival of Solo Artists is still a banquet of one-woman performances, but fewer and fewer deal directly with women's issues.

Artists in this year's event, dubbed "A Perfect Ten," are still concerned with issues of identity. But as the "women's movement" settles comfortably into this side of the millennium, gender is taking a back seat as women grapple with quandaries surrounding race and culture.

"It's a way of celebrating the many, many voices of womanhood in one particular time frame," says festival co-founder Adilah Barnes.

What many of those voices are saying is that they're citizens of the universe, a melting pot of cultures that's reaching a boil. During the festival, which kicks off Thursday with a gala leading to five clusters of diverse performances March 27 to 30, women are making art out of their struggles to find their proper place in an increasingly complicated world.

In "The Clearest Brightest Blue You've Ever Seen," performance artist and poet Pat Payne talks about her conflict about marching against police brutality even though she comes from a family of policemen. In "Laundry and Language," Kristina Sheryl Wong describes growing up as a second-generation Chinese American and feeling like an outsider in the community into which she was born. Vanessa Hidary's "The Culture Bandit" uses poetry, monologue and music to address difficulties she has faced as a Jew with a passion for hip-hop, an outsider by birth in her adopted community.

"My struggle has been more about finding my identity racewise than it has been as a woman," says Hidary, who will be performing March 30. "I still think I'm telling it from a woman's point of view. If a man were telling it, it would be a different story. But it's been more of a human thing than a male-female thing."

When the festival was born a decade ago, it was very much a female thing. It came together almost serendipitously when Barnes met co-founder Miriam Reed at a California Arts Council conference in Pasadena during the summer of 1993. The two were delighted to learn that they had something important in common: Both were solo artists performing shows portraying historical women. So they decided to find out whether there were more kindred spirits.

"She said, 'What if I ask if there are any solo artists here who are female and if we can figure out a way to support each other,' " says Barnes, who carried on the festival torch after Reed moved from L.A. "We were bombarded with all these women -- actors, dancers, performance artists, storytellers, musicians. We knew we were on to something."

Ten women met later at the Burbank Little Theater and decided to create their own version of Philadelphia's Women's Theatre Festival, which had attempted to launch an L.A. satellite at UCLA. Two dozen women performed in the first festival, held at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, among them Barnes and Reed, who did excerpts from their shows. Reed portrayed birth control activist Margaret Sanger, and Barnes depicted Zora Neale Thurston, Angela Davis and Maya Angelou in her show, "I Am That I Am: Woman, Black."

"We decided to make it a women's festival because Miriam and myself have a strong affinity for making sure voices of womanhood are heard," Barnes says. "As solo artists, we can control our destiny."

Indeed, women in the festival have always been free to tell whatever stories inspired them, and even back then performers talked about gender-neutral issues such as the environment and slave culture.

Still, festival organizers were surprised by the pattern that emerged during auditions, says board member Jill Turnbow, who helped cull 24 performance artists, dancers, poets, storytellers and musicians from about 140 hopefuls around the country. "Most of the things we saw were women addressing their own culture," she says. "Women are really wanting to discuss where they come from and their cultural influences and history and not typical women's stuff."

The shift stems from cultural changes that have been gathering steam since the feminist call to arms in the '70s. In Hidary's case, her place in her world evolved along with hip-hop. "When I was into hip-hop in high school, it wasn't nearly as cross-cultural as it is now," says the 32-year-old New Yorker. "There weren't nearly as many white people into hip-hop. There wasn't that whole commercialization of hip-hop. That made a big difference."

For some artists, moving on is the result of feminist burnout. "When you look at popular culture, I wonder why I burned a bra in the first place," says Payne, 43, who started a "women's lib club" in elementary school. ("I burned my mother's bra. She wasn't happy about it.") "Images of women in popular culture are so degrading. What's the use of educating people? They're not hearing it." Of course, some performers are still tackling traditional women's subjects, such as spousal abuse and losing one's virginity. Often, though, they're exploring these subjects in untraditional ways. Theater clown Hilary Chaplain explores her ambivalence about relationships with men in "A Life in Her Day," which she calls "a plainclothes clown show for adults." Her corpulent character's life turns into a nightmare when she becomes a wife and mother, with a little help from an arsenal of paper towels and a dummy.

"What I explore in my work is anything that gives me problems," she says. "Whether it's about my relationship to a bowl of marshmallows or my relationship to a man, it's about trying to maintain dignity."

The right role? Write it

Despite the widening scope of the event's focus, female performers appear to agree that they still need their own festival. It's harder for them to get stage time, they say, especially if they don't conform to certain preset notions of how women should be.

"I act, but it's frustrating when you have to wait for roles to be written by someone else, and they're roles I find degrading," Wong says. "I feel like an oddball as an Asian woman, so it's great for me to see women creating their own work with their own voice. This is a way for me to be understood."

For Hidary, her identity was not enough for the marketability of the business. "I wasn't ingenue enough; I wasn't character enough," she says. "There wasn't really a voice out there for a Jewish girl into hip-hop who had a story to tell and cared passionately about something. So I had to create my own niche."

Perhaps ironically, that may be a difficult task for some women more at home in mainstream culture. "I imagine that it's easier for gay and lesbian artists to find a place to do performance work," says Payne. "There are a lot more places where their work is accepted because it's part of the underground movement. As a straight woman, I sometimes feel left out because there are more conferences and events geared toward gay and lesbian experimental work."

The festival kicks off at the Los Angeles Theatre Center on Thursday with a champagne gala and awards ceremony hosted by Broadway veteran Hattie Winston and featuring performances by actress Marla Gibbs ("The Jeffersons"), Karen Malina White ("The Cosby Show") and Tony winner Virginia Capers ("Raisin"). The evening also will honor Rachel Rosenthal, Latin Heat publisher Bel Hernandez, the late UCLA theater professor Beverly Robinson, and Linda Mabalot, executive director of the Asian American arts center Visual Communications.

Beginning March 27, artists will perform excerpts from their shows in performance sets titled "Music, Chalk and Fingerprints," "In Your Face," "Rhythm, Laughter and Lessons," "Unedited," "Pulsations" and "Unbound." The annual festival, held during Women's History Month of March, will include workshops for writers and performers.

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Women's Theatre Festival

Where: Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., L.A.

When: Thursday-March 30; see www.lawtf.8m.com for full schedule

Price: $20 per show; passes $100 and $180

Contact: (213) 473-0640 or (818) 760-0408

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