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At a crossroads

Outlook uncertain for African-American theater in Atlanta

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Freddie Hendricks remembers being dazzled by the opportunities for African-American performers when he began acting in Atlanta in the late 1970s.

"Maybe it's because I was young then, but I felt like a country kid going to New York City for the first time. It seemed so vast," recalls the artistic director of Youth Ensemble Atlanta. "Jomandi had just started, and there was Just Us Theater, Walter Dallas' Proposition Theatre, Afemo and Elizabeth Omilami's People's Survival Theater. It was easy to get good work and good training then."

In the year 2001, it's a very different environment.

"There's not as many places you can go as an actor now," he says, noting the state of transition in Atlanta's African-American theater community. Many Atlanta theaters will cast black actors or stage work by black playwrights, with two of 2001's highest profile plays being 7 Stages' Sweat and Actor's Express' The America Play. But two prominent playhouses currently are seeking to replace African-American artistic directors. Kenny Leon is finishing his final season as artistic director of the Alliance Theater, while Jomandi, the largest African-American theater in the Southeast, tries to withstand financial difficulties and a severe leadership drain.

"We're not dead, contrary to popular belief," says Greg Stevens, Jomandi's interim general manager. "If you can make the analogy of a swimmer drowning, our head's below water but our nose is above. Losing our artistic directors has been a stumbling block, but we're looking for positive things."

Earlier this year, Artistic Director Marsha Jackson-Randolph left the playhouse to join the Houston Ensemble Theater, while in 2000, Jomandi co-founder and producing director Thomas W. Jones stepped down to form the production company Visionary Innovative Alliances. Those departures came amid debt problems that have caused Jomandi to cancel or postpone several shows in the past two seasons.

Jomandi's crises have coincided with troubles besetting New Jersey's Tony Award-winning Crossroads Theatre, one of America's major African-American theater companies, which closed its doors and canceled its 23rd season last October. "It's eye-opening that Crossroads Theater in New Jersey and Jomandi have been going through their problems at the same time, but you have other African-American theaters nationwide that are doing well," says Kenny Leon. (Crossroads recently has received grants that may revive the company.)

Leon adds, "There's very little room for failure for an African-American theater in Atlanta. You can't have two to three bad seasons in a row, or miscommunications with the community, or productions on different levels of quality. You have to have consistent material and constant communication with the community."

Stevens points to signs of life with Jomandi producing a kind of "double feature" for Women's History Month. Karen Jones Meadows' Harriet's Return, performed by Denise Burse-Fernandez, offers a one-woman show about Harriet Tubman March 14-17, while Welcome Home, Marian Anderson stars Vanessa Shaw as the famed opera singer March 21-25. Both shows will be held at the 14th Street Playhouse.

A member of Jomandi's board of directors since the theater began in 1978, Stevens says, "Financially, we're in debt -- not as much as three months ago, but we're still working to pull out of it." He estimates that debt to be about $170,000.

He hopes the theater can bring in former Atlantan actor/director Andrea Frye as acting artistic director during the search. Candidates for a permanent artistic director include Carol Mitchell-Leon, Byron Saunders, formerly of Just Us Theater, Edward Smith of Wayne State University and Georgia State professors A. Clifton Myles and Shirlene Holmes. "I'll be looking at the shows from the standpoint of ticket sales and getting people in the seats, keeping the business end going, while the artistic director will focus on that as well as the theater's creative vision. Our year runs from July to June, and hopefully by April 1, we'll have an artistic director in place "

The Alliance Theater is expected to name Leon's replacement as artistic director any day now, and reportedly an African-American is one among several candidates. "With my transition, I don't know exactly how the Alliance will react," says Leon. "I know over the past year we've been talking a lot about the importance of diversity, but the actions will speak louder than words."

Leon asserts that his 11 years as the Alliance's artistic director saw an expansion of the African-American theater audience and a greater appreciation of African-American plays. "At the Alliance, what's happened is that African-Americans would come in just for the plays by African-Americans, the August Wilsons and the Pearl Cleages. But they've been coming back to see more work by a variety of playwrights, the Shakespeares and the Ibsens. African-Americans went from being 1 to 2 percent of our subscriber base to up to 20 percent. That's a tremendous sense of pride for me, that a group that didn't feel welcome at the Woodruff Arts Center institutions now gives them so much more support."

He continues, "The good thing is that the appetite is greater for African-American work, the sad thing is that their are fewer venues for that work. It's sad that Atlanta doesn't have an African-American theater company on solid ground."

One of Atlanta's most vibrant theatrical troupes is Youth Ensemble Atlanta, or YEA, 7 Stages' resident youth ensemble. Freddie Hendricks officially founded YEA in 1990, stemming from work he'd done at Morris Brown College. "I was meeting kids who were interested in theater but their parents couldn't afford lessons at places like the Alliance, so I just said, 'Let's meet after school,'" Hendricks recalls. "In working on theater with them, I knew I found something like a higher calling. I try to make YEA a safe haven from the streets, and a place where they can express things they can't at school or on the playground."

YEA's latest production, B.L.A.C.K. (Better Left a Colored Kid) features about 32 young performers ranging in age from 11 to 22, most of whom have never performed before, but they write, sing and dance the material under Hendricks' direction. Like previous YEA shows, B.L.A.C.K. grew from a development process that began with teens having round-table discussions of issues that range from school violence to teen pregnancy to apartheid.

YEA provides shows that burst with energy and creativity while offering a theatrical training ground for African-American teenagers. "I'd say about 55 to 60 percent continue in theater, but our goal is less to build great artists than great human beings," says Hendricks. "Many of them go on to college, but they can still come back and participate with us, even if they're studying to be doctors or something like that, as long as they apply their passion when they're with us."

Whether YEA alumni or other African-American theater artists will find many opportunities in Atlanta's current climate is an open question. Many performers and directors have guarded optimism. "As an actress, I worked every month last year, so I don't necessarily think there are fewer opportunities," says Sandra Benton. "The information for everyone to know about them is not as wide as it could be. There are many wonderful theaters in Atlanta, and not just African-American theaters, but if it's not sports, it seems that Atlantans don't know as much about it, and the city doesn't support it."

Benton adds, "Most of Atlanta theater companies are good at color-blind or nontraditional casting, but I think a lot of them aren't taking into consideration African-American plays, or ones by people of other ethnicities. And there aren't a huge number of African-American companies now.

Hendricks doesn't believe actors should pin their hopes on other theaters providing them work. "I think it's up to us to make our own opportunities. What I tell my kids is, 'Don't look to get all your stuff at the Alliance or Jomandi -- create your own stuff.' Which is hard to do, but everything in life is a challenge, especially the things worth doing."

For an example of this proactive approach, consider Good Company, founded in January 2000 by a group of African-American artists, including Benton, Shontelle Thrash, Neal Hazard and Shirlene Holmes. "We founded Good Company because we weren't interested in waiting for others to let us in," says Holmes, the troupe's artistic director. We wanted to get together and express things in our own voice, but we are joined by people of other ethnicities." From March 23-April 8, Good Company will present Shawties 2, an evening of nine plays written by Holmes at 7 Stages Back Stage theater.

Even the potential departure of a theatrical star like Leon can support an optimistic spin. "His example is absolutely positive," says Stevens. "Just knowing Kenny was there at the Alliance gave African-Americans hope. Never say you can't dream: He was a pioneer, and you don't see opportunities diminishing."

Holmes agrees that Atlanta's black theater is in a state of flux, and is concerned that other talented players may seek their fortunes elsewhere. "I'd like to see a town meeting where we can talk about what's going on. We need to regroup before we lose some of the fine African-American artists who are here," she says. "I'd like to see us return to developing more socially conscious work, as well as developing musicals and building a support base in the community."

Leon emphasizes the importance of doing theater that speaks to your own experience, as well as more classical, universal material. "You don't want to do all of your work in foreign territory," he says. "It's one thing to work on Shaw and Shakespeare, but it's also important to work on cultural-specific material that's more about who you are, and part of what defines people is race. When I would select shows for the Alliance, my reasoning would be, 'This play has something to do with race. This one has to do with my role as a son. This has to do with my role in life as a heterosexual male.'"

Losing Kenny Leon and Marsha Jackson-Randolph may be a blow in the short term, but Atlanta's African-American theater professionals voice confidence that past gains will be built upon and current problems will be overcome. The tricky part is dealing with the uncertainty. One of Freddie Hendricks' young performers in B.L.A.C.K. may well be Atlanta's next major theatrical impresario. But tomorrow doesn't readily give up its secrets.

B.L.A.C.K. ("Better Left A Colored Kid") plays through March 25 at 7 Stages, 1105 Euclid Ave., with performances at 7:30 p.m. Wed.-Thurs., 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat. and 5 p.m. Sun. $15. Call 404-523-7647. Harriet's Return plays March 14-17 and Welcome Home, Marian Anderson plays March 21-25, both at the 14th Street Playhouse, 173 14th Street. $20-22. Call 404-876-6346. Shawtys 2 plays March 23-April 8 at the 7 Stages Back Stage theater. Call 404-893-0974.

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