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At a crossroads

Outlook uncertain for African-American theater in Atlanta

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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.'"

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