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Sunday, July 2, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Theater

Can black theater resurge in Seattle?

Seattle Times theater critic

"We need more black theaters," the late Seattle dramatist August Wilson famously (and repeatedly) declared.

But the city where the Pulitzer Prize honoree Wilson wrote some of his most celebrated works still struggles to find room and a loyal audience for African-American stage expressions.

And now a cluster of determined theater folk who share Wilson's sentiments are endeavoring anew to raise the profile of black drama here.

Recent history suggests it will not be easy. Some ethnic-minority troupes that were fixtures here in the 1970s and 1980s (Black Arts/West, the Paul Robeson Theatre, the Group Theatre), eventually stopped producing due to a lack of funds and other problems.

And in the 1990s, the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center's valiant try to mount a subscription season of black plays, and a fledgling Nu Black Arts West's dreams of securing a theater space, also foundered.

Yes, Wilson's Broadway scripts are prominently staged here at Seattle Repertory Theatre. (The Rep will mount Wilson's "Gem of the Ocean" in its 2006-07 season.) And African-American stage activity revs up yearly for Black History Month. As Seattle actor-adaptor Reginald Andre Jackson notes wryly, "We're all working in February."

But the rest of the time? There are no steady outlets for an array of modern and historical black scripts. And while black theater certainly can cross over and resonate with nonblack patrons, local stage folk also yearn to attract a larger, more committed black audience for their artistry — even in a city where African Americans make up only 8.4 percent of the total population.

Today, a cluster of artists and playhouses are renewing that ambition, with such shows as "Wine in the Wilderness," on stage now as the first production from ACT Theatre's new initiative, the Hansberry Project, and Jackson's upcoming "Bud, Not Buddy" (for Book-It Repertory Theatre in December).

Some of these efforts are modest in scope; some, like the Hansberry Project, are springing forth within established theaters. But all are designed with an eye toward avoiding pitfalls like-minded black drama pro's have encountered in the past.

"There's definitely something in the air," says Michelle Blackmon, a Seattle actor who is now an arts liaison in Mayor Greg Nickels' civic Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs. "The energy is there, and things are happening."

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Notes Tyrone Brown, artistic director of the upstart Rainier Valley troupe Brownbox Theatre, "I'm not trying to reinvent the black theater wheel. I just want to see the wheel expand."

Adds Jackie Moscou, a longtime Seattle actor-director and artistic head of the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center: "What you see now is an intuitive, political and I'm-an-artist-dying-to-create desire to make more black theater. It's not competitive. We're all rooting for each other."

ACT'S Hansberry Project

Between them, Valerie Curtis-Newton and Vivian Phillips have decades of experience in the Seattle arts trenches.

They are tapping it all now to launch the Hansberry Project at ACT Theatre, a new program which (according to the company's Web site) is "an autonomous entity" committed to "developing and producing the best plays of Black theatre — classics and new works alike."

The impetus for the program came from ACT artistic director Kurt Beattie, and what he calls his "sincere yearning and interest to see and witness more African-American theater." But Beattie says he also realized how rough it is "to start a theater from the bottom up."

Beattie determined ACT could support a fledgling black drama project in-house, but only with "gifted African Americans calling the shots."

He invited Phillips (a publicist and consultant who has worked with Seattle Theatre Group, KCTS and former Mayor Paul Schell) and Curtis-Newton (a veteran director, and University of Washington faculty member) to create a unique "theater within a theater" at ACT.

For its first three years, under their guidance, the Hansberry Project will mount at least one black play per season at ACT. The first: the mid-'60s drama "Wine in the Wilderness," by Alice Childress and staged by Curtis-Newton, which runs through next weekend.

Panel discussions and staged readings of new scripts (recently, a play based on the novel "My Jim" by Seattle author Nancy Rawles) are also priorities. Also planned: more outreach from ACT to the region's black community.

"We want to create a place where black playwrights can get excited about their work being read and done, and where black actors in town can work so they don't have to keep going out of town to make a living," explains Curtis-Newton.

"I appreciate what the Intiman and the Rep have done with black scripts. But it's been too narrow in scope — generationally and artistically. Most plays we see here take place between 1945 and 1960, as if that's the golden age of black life in America."

Scripts by a young wave of black authors, steeped in a 21st-century sensibility, are not entirely absent. Next year, the Rep will present Tanya Barfield's award-winning drama "Blue Door."

But Curtis-Newton wants to see more showcases for scripts by such up-and-comers as Kia Corthron and Eisa Davis. She's also eager to excavate "classic black plays" rarely mounted here, like Childress' pungent (if preachy) "Wine in the Wilderness."

It's part of avoiding what Newton-Curtis dubs " 'The Color Purple' Syndrome," referring to the Broadway musical of Alice Walker's novel, set in the bygone rural South.

"When it's the only thing in the marketplace, people think that's all there is to black theater," she contends. "But our community isn't monolithic. So Vivian and I want to give a fuller sense of who we are as a people, and as artists."

Just as important to Phillips was the chance for the two women to be involved in ACT as a whole, not just the black wing. She notes that they are members of the ongoing staff and share an office near Beattie's. "Val and I didn't want to do this if we didn't have real seats at the table," Phillips says. "That's crucial."

Eventually, if the Hansberry Project gathers enough momentum and resources, it may spin off in a separate location.

Beattie says ACT's support is not conditional. "This community is richer in diversity than many people know. And the cultural conversation the Hansberry Project generates can only add to that richness."

Brownbox Theatre

Across town at the Rainier Valley Cultural Center, Tyrone Brown's upstart black troupe has just taken its maiden voyage — and it wasn't entirely smooth sailing.

Due to various glitches, Brown cancelled several shows planned for Brownbox's inaugural 2005-06 season in the Columbia City auditorium.

But "Hamlet X," Brown's imaginative staging of Shakespeare's tragedy, and the quirky Adriano Shaplin play "Wreck the Airline Barrier" drew small but enthused audiences, decent reviews and grants from private and civic funders.

Brown says what he needs now is "more infrastructure" to promote his shows and sell tickets. And a more targeted game plan.

Indeed, Brownbox's future seems promising but in flux. In 2007, Brown hopes to produce an annual "Negro Passion Play" with a "black Christ, set in the South during the Civil Rights era." Next year he also wants to revive "Hamlet X" and "Black to My Roots," an ebullient riff on black women and their hair challenges which has toured locally and to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. And next summer, he aims to concoct a classical mini-fest, "Shakespeare In the Park'N Lot."

It's quite a stretch for a company that's still largely a one-man band. But Brown, an earnest, energetic Western Washington University grad and Gulf War veteran in his 30s, is up for the challenge. "We want to create a niche for doing new and diverse work with a populist bent, urban and youth-oriented," he says. "You'll never see us do 'The Wiz,' or 'Raisin in the Sun,' because these things already get produced. I'm really into exploring something different, testing the boundaries of what black theater can be."

He's also ready to test where it might be. Brown envisions getting a "pimped-up RV that can transport the actors to different places in the city, to do Shakespeare. And we could have a pre-show with local hip-hop artists to gather a crowd."

Does he worry his shoestring troupe will be eclipsed by bigger black drama initiatives? "Not at all. The day we have a black theater on every corner, like we have Starbucks, maybe. Right now, the more the merrier."

Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center

Talk about black theater in Seattle, and Jackie Moscou has been there and done that. She's an associate artist with Intiman Theatre, and has worked extensively at Seattle Rep, with the Group and with many other arts outfits.

"Because this is basically a white town, I've always been an independent artist working in a lot of theaters," says Moscou, who also has freelance directed around the country. "Now, as artistic director of Langston Hughes, I have an opportunity to do some institution building."

What that means in terms of black theater, she says, is helping "groom the next generation of artists" via youth drama programs such as the center's annual summer teen musicals.

It is also about producing at least one professional show a year at Moscou's multidisciplinary Central District venue. Last year the pick was an intriguing "Death of a Salesman" with an all-black cast.

Next up, in October: "The Diva Daughters Dupree" by Kim Euell, a comedy-drama about three African-American sisters reuniting for a family funeral.

"I like it because it's got three archetypal women, ages 20 through 40s, the kind of women we all could know — a corporate climber, an academic, and the youngest sister, who just married an Israeli immigrant," Moscou says.

One of her goals is to appeal to a more economically diverse, and geographically scattered black public. In a recent survey, only half those attending plays, films, classes and other Langston Hughes events said they now live in the Central District — once the locus of Seattle's black community.

"Now, they're coming to us from Federal Way, from Renton, from all around to see African-American programs," Moscou reports. "They feel isolated, and are really dying for these things."

How does that change the climate for black theater? "In the '60s and '70s," says Moscou, "black theater was all about artistic expression and freedom. Now it's about leadership and creating a gathering ground."

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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