WOODIE KING Jr. has been talking up his National Black Touring Circuit for five years. Finally -- Tuesday night at the Kennedy Center -- We will see what's behind the talk. And so will he.
The chemistry ought to be favorable. King is launching his venture with "boogie woogie landscapes," a new play by Ntozake Shange. And his company will perform not only here, but in Chicago, Philadelphia and Detroit -- all cities with large black populations.
But there will be no time to waste. King doesn't expect the Ford Foundation or the other underwriters of the touring circuit's first season to stick with him unless he can draw hefty audiences. "It took Zelda Fichandler 20 years [to successfully launch Arena Stage]," he says. "We've got to do it with the first play."
The first play has already had its problems. Hoping to use movie stars to help attract audiences, King hired Abby Lincoln, Paula Kelly and Philip Michael Thomas -- and fired all of them after a week of rehearsals. There were "artistic difficulties," a spokesperson explained. "They felt that they were from California and they were doing this little community production."
So, after an awkward few days of trying to patch things over, King found three replacements: Calvin Lockhart (of "Cotton Comes to Harlem," "Uptown Saturday Night" and the stage musical "Reggae," for which King was executive producer); Marjorie Barnes (the signer, of The Fifth Dimension and the black Broadway company of "I Love My Wife"); and Charliese Drakeford. The production resumed rehearsals with the new cast members on June 6, leaving less than two weeks before the Washington opening. m
King's ability to recover quickly may not only be important to the ultimate success or failure of his venture, but to the state of theater-going in Washington. This will be the Kennedy Center's first big chance to show that it is something more than just an art center for whites. And whether it makes that point or fails to, there will be aftershocks.
To hear King tell it, drawing audiences won't be the problem. The problem will be fitting them inside the Terrace with its 500 seats. Anyone who figures King has lost a few of his marbles should know this: He produced the two non-musical plays that have probably attracted the largest black audiences in this city's history --- Shange's "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf" and Ron Miller's "What the Winesellers Buy."
(King may add a new play by Milner, "Season's Reasons," to the Touring Circuit's repertory this year, but probably not before the company leaves Washington. King hopes to do the play here later this year, but at some theater other than the Kennedy Center.) Both of the earlier plays were done at the National Theatre in the mid-'70s -- the low point of its fortunes -- and they helped get the National back on its feet.
Born in Alabama, King came to New York City in the mid-'60s (in his own mid-20s) as an actor. He later turned to producing because "they weren't putting on the kind of plays I liked." One of the first plays he put on was Adrienne Kennedy's "Black Girl," and in 1970, he founded the New Federal Theatre at New York's Henry Street Settlement, a company that is still operating 10 years later, still under King's direction.
It was in 1974, while on the orad with "What the Winesellers Buy," that he hatched the idea for the National Black Touring Circuit. Black theater groups all over the country (including his own group in New York) were generating high-quality productions, King believed, but they were "just sitting still and dying." His success with "Winesellers" convinced him that there was no reason for that -- black plays could have national impact even without the usual prerequisite of a successful run on Broadway.
So he met with the heads of 13 nonprofit black theater companies (including the Frank Silvera Workshop in Los Angeles) and won them over to his concept. The rest of the battle -- which wound up taking the better part of five years -- was finding the necessary seed money.
Why was King successful where otheres have failed -- and where still others have not had the guts to try? "We went after the black audience," he answers. h"We went after the black audience," he answers. "We didn't spend a lot of time trying to go after everybody ." Specifically, King bought a lot of radio advertising time on black stations. He plans to do that once again with the Touring Circuit, but this time he has extra promotional money in the kitty because from the Rockefeller Foundation.
In addition, King worked on an arrangement with McDonald's to plug the Touring Circuit in its ads. McDonald's agreed to help -- in Philadelphia, Detroit and Chicago as well as here. On five Washington-area radio stations, 60-second ads for McDonald's will contain 20 seconds about the show, and stores will feature posters, in-store promotions and $2 discounts on tickets. "We're going to try to get all those folks that come in and buy hamburgers to come see our plays," says King.
At $9.50 and $10.50 a ticket, "boogie woogie landscapes" will cost somewhat more than a hamburger, but less than some plays.
In bringing the show to the stage, King will be battling two prejudices. One -- which lingers despite King's previous successess -- is that if a play has a black orientation, it had best be a musical. The other is that if it can't be a musical, it should be an old-fashioned, well-made play calculated to warm the universal heart.
Shange, a 32-year-old woman of many intense convictions, feels particularly intense convictions, feels particularly intensely about these matters. "Black people are the only people who immediately believe in the legitimacy of black drama," she says. "We don't have to sing and dance for one another." And she is tired not only of musicals but of the traditional Anglo-American play torm. "There should be a 10-year moratorium on black drams in the classical mold," she says.
Shange's most recent work was an adaptation of Brecht's "Mother Courage," re-set during American Civil War days and performed (like her earlier "For Colored Girls" and "Spell #7") at New York's Public Theater. This "Mother Courage" was not a notable critical or commercial success, but even before that had become apparent, Shange seemed to have suffered a loss of enthusiasm for adaptations. "I'm never ever doing another adaptation in my life," she said. "It's too frustrating being tied to somebody else's vision. I'm not a translator. I'm a primal person. It makes me feel cut off becuase I can't make the characters do whatever I might want them to do." o
Like "For Colored Girls," "boogie woogie landscapes" is a theatrical collage of music, dance and poetry. It is a "whimsical exploration of the psyche of a black girl," and Shange hopes it will bring out strong "sense Memories" in black theatergoers of her own generation. Plays without music and dance are "not true to the reality of our lives," she says. "Most people do sing -- most black people do dance."
Director Avery Brooks agrees. "The accepted concepts of form have been borrowed from Europe rather than thinking about an Afro-American esthetic," he says. And he adds, "Our lives operate outside of kitchen sinks and broken glass and poverty. That's a very simple way and a very narrow and restrictive way of looking at the lives of African people in the world."