LOS ANGELES -- Black theatre companies have not fared well locally in recent years. Marla Gibbs' Crossroads Theatre, the Chesley Playhouse in the Crenshaw district, the Black Actors Lab at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, Jayne Kennedy and Bill Overton's Inglewood Theatre Center and C. Bernard Jackson's Inner City Cultural Center have all disappeared from the scene.
The high failure rate hasn't deterred Spencer Scott, though. Last year the actor formed the Unity Ensemble, a collective of 25 people who share a variety of duties--acting, directing, publicity, technical chores--in the interest of mounting regular full-scale productions at the Inglewood Playhouse, an Equity-waiver space located in Edward Vincent Park.
Scott, who was appointed producing director by the collective, was recently profiled by the Los Angeles Weekly. "Other major cities seem to have at least one classic black rep company," he said. "Here someone will produce something, it'll go up, it'll close, and that's it."
Scott attributed that phenomenon partly to L.A. theatre always laboring in Hollywood's shadow. "Actors would rather be in a music video than have the lead role in a play. Everybody wants to be a star. But theatre is the essence of the art, and there's an audience for it."
To date, audiences have been responding to the company's first full season. The Trees Don't Bleed in Tuskegee, Duane Chandler's play about the infamous Federal experiment that turned a group of syphilitic black men into guinea pigs, ran to capacity houses and later transferred to the Hudson Avenue Theatre. The next subscription offering, El Hajj Malik (El Shabazz), an impressionistic look at the life of Malcolm X, also drew well and transferred uptown.
Presently Unity Ensemble is running a bill of one-act plays, A Black Trilogy, which has been a box- office if not critical success.
Scott and company have drawn full houses by aggressively promoting within the community via fliers and radio ads. "You're nowhere in black theatre without radio," he said.
Unity Ensemble has also been able to recruit actors in recent months; a casting notice for Trilogy drew 150 hopefuls.
Unity's biggest challenge, though, is posed by "the chitlin' circuit" plays, such as Mama Don't and I Need a Man, which are performed almost monthly at major venues like the Wiltern and Wilshire Ebell.
"I operate on the clean water/dirty water theory," Scott said. "People drink dirty water because they don't have the option of clean. They drink anything because they're thirsty."
Think of Unity as the new Sparklett's man on the block, said the Weekly.
-- By Willard Manus
Southern California Correspondent