Honor Song for Crazy Horse

By Gelb, Hal | The Nation, September 26, 1994 | Go to article overview

Honor Song for Crazy Horse


Gelb, Hal, The Nation


Two developments in Bay Area theater this past year are so remarkably hopeful that I almost can't believe they happened. First, the city of San Francisco, through its Redevelopment Agency, opened a 755-seat state-of-the-art theater, along with three art galleries, a film and video theater and a five-and-a-half-acre park, all in a trendy downtown neighborhood, and mandated that these Yerba Buena Gardens Center theaters and galleries focus on local and multicultural art.

Now actors, dancers and musicians used to performing without sufficient lighting or wing space get to play in a theater that's equipped to the gills. The city gains a lively nighttime neighborhood, drawing audiences you don't generally see at downtown performances; the artists and the experience they portray are legitimized for people who judge the value of a work by the cleanliness and location of the hall in which it's presented; and diversity receives the official stamp of approval.

And all this without great rancor--at least, not recently. The original Yerba Buena Redevelopment Plan was bitterly fought in the 1970s by residents about to be displaced from the poor but functional neighborhood. Their suit prevented downtown interests from building highrise office buildings, parking structures and a sports arena there, and the resulting need to renew support for a project on the site then opened the planning process to the arts and ethnic communities.

The big question, now that multiculturalism has been institutionalized, is whether there is enough programming to support it. So far this year, the center's dramatic offerings have been few, but that will probably change when some of the projects the theater has commissioned kick in.

Meanwhile, Berkeley Repertory Theatre presented a spring season of works devised by Asian-Americans (except for the centerpiece Boston-and-Los-Angeles-bound The Woman Warrior, adapted for the stage by Deborah Rogin from Maxine Hong Kingston's remarkable prose and directed by the Rep's artistic director, Sharon Ott). To my mind, it's an enormous step forward that a white-at-the-top regional rep like B.R.T. is addressing the issue of minority underrepresentation in theater as a question of content and repertory, not just casting. Even when not as wrongheaded as Ott's rainbow casting of Norwegian settlers in Kingdom Come--which suggested that all immigrant groups shared the same experience of America--nontraditional casting tends to leave the perspectives and values of the Western repertory unchallenged. In fact, nontraditional casting can work against diversity, making it appear that all cultures and classes share those perspectives and that all behavior should be judged against them.

The Berkeley Rep Asian-American work is sponsored by a $1.5 million, four-year grant from the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund, the largest private funder of arts and culture in the United States, which in the past four years has given $26 million in grants to help build larger, more diverse audiences for theater. Part of the goal is audience development plain and simple--in the late eighties when theater representatives presented their needs to the Wallace Fund, flat and declining attendance was uppermost in their minds. But the grantees in Wallace's Resident Theater Initiative are also trying to integrate their mainstream reps. They're altering their programming, marketing and staffing patterns (in some instances, that even extends upstairs to management and boards of directors) and creating community outreach programs, ticket subsidies and commissions for ethnic playwrights--as well as experimenting with nontraditional casting. The question, of course, is whether they will continue doing so when Wallace has moved on to other objectives.

To its credit, Lila Wallace--Reader's Digest seems to realize that in bringing minority theater into the mainstream, the Resident Theater Initiative is encouraging the larger, largely white theaters to raid smaller, poorer, less stable multicultural and "culturally specific" theaters for talent. …

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