Where's the LA in CTG? Not in the new season

Playwright Paul Oakley Stovall. Photo: CTG.

In recent years, I've annually checked Center Theatre Group's plans for the upcoming seasons at its three venues, looking for evidence that "L.A.'s Theatre Company" - as CTG bills itself - plans to produce scripts that are set in or near LA.

Since my last report on this subject in the late LA Stage Times, I started writing for LA Observed. So perhaps it's even more appropriate now for me to measure the extent to which "L.A.'s Theatre Company" is observing LA.

CTG rolled out the schedule for the next season at its flagship Mark Taper Forum this past week, following previous announcements of the CTG seasons at the Ahmanson and Kirk Douglas theaters. So it's time to report the verdict:

Center Theatre Group still has hardly any interest in exploring its home town on its stages.

Only one play in the imminent seasons at CTG's three venues is explicitly set in LA - Culture Clash's "Chavez Ravine," scheduled to open at the smallest of the three, the Douglas, next February. And it's hardly brand-new -- it's a "new version" of the show that played the Taper in 2003 (with the same director, Lisa Peterson.)

CTG found room for two plays about squabbling siblings at family reunions in the upcoming Taper season. One of them, Paul Oakley Stovall's "Immediate Family," is also a new version of a show previously seen in LA - it was produced by the tiny Celebration Theatre in 2008 under the (uninspired) title "As Much As You Can." But it's set in Chicago, not LA. The other, "Appropriate," is set in Arkansas. Perhaps LA families don't squabble enough?

CTG's myopia about its own community - at least as displayed in its programming selections -- is arguably getting worse. Last year at this time, CTG had scheduled three solos that were at least partially set in LA and environs: "St. Jude" and "Rodney King" at the Douglas and "Buyer & Cellar" at the Taper.

In retrospect, that may have been a high point of CTG artistic director Michael Ritchie's interest in the community in which he and most of CTG's customers live.

Once upon a time, CTG's website vowed to produce programming that "reflects and informs our own community" through "stories inspired on our own streets." But that language was removed from the website two years ago.

This disregard for local content in CTG's programming is often accompanied by a disregard for using LA talent in CTG productions - which tends to rile LA theater artists (who of course have a vested interest) more than even the apathy toward LA content. None of the announced directors in the coming season has been drawn from the active LA directors' pool. CTG's current fave director seems to be Les Waters, who is preparing "Marjorie Prime" at the Taper right now and will stage two additional CTG shows before 2015 ends. He's the artistic director of Actors Theatre of Louisville. Still, general audiences probably don't care much about whether a director or an actor is local.

I prefer to concentrate on the absence of local content. If a theater examines its own area on its stages, its primary audience is likely to feel more of a proprietary interest in the programming - and less like generic patrons of the vast American nonprofit theater, with its many similar branches elsewhere. Theater takes place in one particular space and in one particular moment, in contrast to the electronic arts - so "local" should mean as much to CTG as it means in grocery stores and restaurants.

'RACE' and ''PARIS'

The next Douglas season actually began last weekend, with the opening of David Mamet's "Race." Its selection continues Ritchie's obsession with the later, lesser Mamet plays. This one opened on Broadway in 2009.

"Race" looks a lot like an episode of a TV lawyer show, with more profanity - but with no excursions into the lawyers' private lives or outside their office.

As the on-the-nose title indicates, Mamet is looking at the hidden ways in which tension between blacks and whites affects decisions made within this office, where two lawyers - one white, one black - are initially considering whether to take the case of a rich white man accused of raping a black woman. The fourth and most pivotal role is that of a younger black woman who apparently was hired as a paid intern or junior-associate-in-training.

The play is brief, and the characters are thinly drawn. They resemble talking heads and polemical pawns more than human beings. It all feels arid and somewhat contrived, especially in the wake of a recent and much more fleshed-out black-white-related saga that LA just experienced -- starring Donald and Shelly Sterling, V. Stiviano, Magic Johnson, etc. Now there is a local story that sounds like fodder for a lively play. But I guess that particular play is not yet written?


Shon Fuller and L. Scott Caldwell star in the Colony Theatre production of "What I Learned in Paris." Photo: Michael Lamont

Pearl Cleage's "What I Learned in Paris," in its West Coast premiere at the Colony Theatre, also initially looks like a play about race. It's set on the heels of the 1973 election of Maynard Jackson as Atlanta's first black mayor. But Jackson is not a character, nor are there any white characters. Instead, Cleage - who worked on Jackson's campaign before she became a noted playwright - examines the immediate post-election behavior of two male and two female campaign workers, as well as a former Atlantan who's returning home.

The older man, a leader of Jackson's campaign, is about to marry the younger woman - but then his ex-wife shows up to re-claim her house, which has been in use as a campaign headquarters. The play emerges as a comedy about sex roles and partner choices - a very different goal from that of Mamet's treatise.

It's enjoyable enough, dominated by the vibrant presence of L. Scott Caldwell as the ex-wife who has returned from transformational adventures in California to become Atlanta's hostess with the mostest in Atlanta's interracial post-election future. It's fascinating to see how Cleage, who is black, downplays the role of race in her play - as opposed to Mamet, who is white and seemingly entangled in the most minute ramifications of race.

The two plays aren't at all similar in style - Cleage's is much longer and more successful at developing recognizably human characters. But occasionally Cleage goes through questionable narrative contortions in her quest to steer our attention away from race and back to gender.

It's fitting that "What I Learned in Paris" was first produced in Atlanta, where it's set. Of course, Angelenos also elected a black mayor in 1973 - Tom Bradley, who staged a comeback after a defeat by Sam Yorty four years earlier and went on to become LA's longest-serving (and only African-American) mayor.

From the perspective of just about any theater company in the LA area, the Bradley/Yorty campaigns would be much more exciting material than the post-election behavior of members of a campaign team in Atlanta. When will LA companies (and playwrights?) start delving more deeply into the LA-based drama that's at their doorsteps?

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