NEW YORK CITY: The great essayist, novelist and activist James Baldwin was also a playwright, so it’s only fitting that to celebrate his 90th birthday—which would have been this coming August—New York Live Arts is spearheading the first of many remembrances of Baldwin’s path-breaking work over the next year. In conjunction with Harlem Stage, Columbia University School of the Arts, the Vera List Center for Art and Politics at the New School, New York University and the Harlem Book Fair, the festival “James Baldwin, This Time!” will run April 23–27 and incorporate some 20 events, including lectures, panels, performances and a full range of artist talks curated by nonfiction author Lawrence Weschler in conjunction with New York Live Arts leader Bill T. Jones. Featured artists include Suzan-Lori Parks, Stew, Carl Hancock Rux, Colman Domingo, Fran Lebowitz, Colm Tóibín, Charles O. Anderson, Patricia McGregor and Hilton Als.
Among the theatrical premieres in the five-day fest are Nothing Personal, directed by McGregor and starring Domingo, which is based on the 1964 collaborative book by Baldwin and Richard Avedon; Rux’s Stranger on Earth, featuring vocalist Marcelle Davies Lashley; and Stew’s Notes of a Native Song. Go to www.newyorklivearts.org/liveideas.
LOS ANGELES, OKLAHOMA CITY, PHILADELPHIA, HOUSTON: If life’s only real constant is change, the fortunes of theatres—and theatre spaces—must be among the most dramatic illustrations of the truism. Los Angeles’s oldest ensemble company, the 55-year-old Company of Angels, moved from a longtime home in Silver Lake to a space in downtown’s historic Alexandria Hotel seven years ago, but the building’s new owner ordered the company out late last year. The company is now in the midst of an eight-month residency across the street at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, where Latino Theater Company holds sway; it’s there that CoA will pre-sent its annual 10-minute festival, LA Views, in May. Meanwhile, says artistic director Armando Molina, “We have a couple of irons in the fire for a permanent space,” including other downtown spaces run by the Alexandria’s new owners.
Meanwhile, in Oklahoma City, plans to demolish the Oklahoma City Stage Center are proceeding apace, despite a public debate between a downtown developer who wants to build a new 14- to 16-story office headquarters for OGE Energy Corp. on one side, and historic preservationists on the other side. Petitions and appeals are ongoing, but what likely tipped the vote regarding the fate of the historic building (originally designed as the Mummers Theater in 1970 by John M. Johansen) was a presentation showing the extensive damage to the interior after floods in 2010, and the testimony of Peter Dolese, director of the building’s previous owner, the Arts Council of Oklahoma City, who said that it had never been a functional home for nonprofit arts tenants.
Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theatre has purchased an 85,000-square-foot space in the Port Richmond section of the city that will serve as the company’s expanded scenic and prop shop. But this sweet spot isn’t intended for the Walnut’s use only—producing artistic director Bernard Havard has said he hopes that a “centralized properties storage and registry [can] be created to offer the nonprofit arts community of Philadelphia an efficient, cost-effective system to share resources.”
Finally, in Houston, the Alley Theatre is off to college in the fall—the University of Houston’s Wortham Theatre, that is, where it will offer its entire 2014–15 season while its original theatre is undergoing an extensive renovation. The price tag for the upgrade, financed by an extended capital campaign, is $46.5 million, and will include fully modernizing the existing building, including the Hubbard Stage and lobbies, the cleaning of the concrete exterior, and infrastructure improvements that will result in a more energy-efficient building.
LOS ANGELES, DENVER, and NEW YORK CITY: With Culture Clash, the Chicano comedy trio he co-founded 30 years ago, Ric Salinas has played roles of nearly every ethnicity, Latino and otherwise. But he has seldom had the chance to play someone of his own heritage, Salvadoran. And he has even less frequently had the chance to act in a drama (the Culture Clash play Water & Power, at L.A.’s Mark Taper Forum in 2006, was one exception). With Paul S. Flores’s play Placas: The Most Dangerous Tattoo, Salinas finally has the chance to do both, playing Fausto, a Salvadoran in the San Francisco Bay Area trying to rescue his teenage son from the gang violence that has marked his own life—and his own heavily tattooed body. Salinas, who has no tattoos himself, says that it takes an hour to apply simulated tats for the stage, and that he’s careful to cover some of them when he’s in some neighborhoods in his native L.A.
He notes that one of the services offered by Father Greg Boyle’s East L.A.–based Homeboy Industries is tattoo removal. “Shedding your skin, shedding your past—there are a lot of analogies,” says Salinas, in the midst of a Placas tour that has so far taken him to Washington, D.C.’s Gala Hispanic Theatre and Oakland, Calif.’s Laney College Theater, and will play at Los Angeles Theatre Center April 3–6; Denver’s Su Teatro, April 10–13; and New York’s Puerto Rican Traveling Theater (presented by Pregones), April 16. The tour has the support of the National Performance Network and the National Endowment for the Arts, among others.
Though Salinas might justly feel entitled to write a play about the Salvadoran-American experience himself, he doesn’t begrudge the work of Flores, whose heritage is Cuban and Mexican. “Sometimes I think you need an outsider to write about it, to see it clearly,” Salinas says. Flores—who wrote the play on a commission from the Central American Resource Center (CARECEN), and traveled to El Salvador to do interviews—pays the compliment back: “Ric has thrown in a lot of his own zingers. He’s playing a dramatic role; it’s a tragedy, an intense piece. But you need a little levity when people are talking about the heaviness of going to jail, being deported.” For Salinas, who survived a shooting 25 years ago while trying to break up a fight, the play “attempts to put a human face, a human value, on brown-on-brown crime. Parents who are gang members do have love for their kids in the midst of all the violence. It’s strong. It’s like the Mafia. You’re out there offing people, then you’re going to church with your mother.” Talk about a culture clash. Go to www.thelatc.org, www.suteatro.org, www.prtt.org.
SAN FRANCISCO: For two decades now, Ten Thousand Things Theater artistic director Michelle Hensley has been staging plays, mostly classics, with minimal props, sets and lighting, taking her productions to correctional facilities, homeless shelters and other places she could find underserved audiences in the Minneapolis area. “Their honest, open responses make me a better theatre artist,” explains Hensley, who offers the same productions to paying Twin Cities theatregoers.
Other theatres, craving a little of the improvement such radical egalitarianism can bring, have been recruiting her for what she calls the “Johnny Appleseed projects.” First, in 2010, the Public Theater brought her to New York to help restart a Joe Papp–era innovation, the Mobile Unit (AT, Dec. ’10). And in January and February she was brought to the Bay Area to do something similar with the Triangle Lab, an ongoing community-engagement collaboration between San Francisco’s Intersection for the Arts and Orinda’s California Shakespeare Theater. Hensley brought along an all-female, seven-actor adaptation of Twelfth Night she did in Minneapolis in 2008, casted Bay Area performers in the roles and toured eight facilities in the region, as well as at Intersection.
Cal Shakes artistic director Jonathan Moscone initially approached Hensley about directing on his theatre’s mainstage, but she instead won him over to the idea of bringing her aesthetic and methodology to Cal Shakes. That dovetailed with one of his initiatives at the theatre, which is “trying to find creative ways to bring this work alive for communities that don’t traditionally go to the theatre.” The project has a built-in ally: “Shakespeare has a unique capacity to speak to a diversity of people in the room, because he wrote for a diversity of people in his room.”
It’s still a lesson for today’s theatremakers, says Hensley. “I think a lot of theatre artists unconsciously imagine the responses of an upper-middle-class audience to their work,” says Hensley. “But if you start imagining a more diverse audience, it really broadens the choices you make. You start out imagining the response, then
find out if you’re right—that’s what theatre is.” Go to www.calshakes.org and www.tenthousandthings.org.