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Like their counterparts nationwide, the ethnically specific theatres of the San Francisco Bay Area are trying to ride out the economic downturn. But such theatres also face special challenges: to stage work that "serves as a bridge to other cultures," as Traveling Jewish Theatre artistic director Aaron Davidman puts it; to find enough actors of the appropriate ethnicity; and to cultivate diverse audiences. While more-mainstream theatres may grapple with the same issues, for companies dedicated to exploring a particular culture and working largely with artists from that culture, they're ever-present.

The culturally and aesthetically diverse Bay Area theatre scene is also well-known for its spirit of cooperation -- fostered in large part by the local service organization Theatre Bay Area -- and some theatres co-produce with other companies regularly, sharing costs, talent, and audiences. The area's growing number of ethnic theatres ranges from midsize companies that produce a full season (such as the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre) to small (African-American Shakespeare Company) or community-based groups (Berkeley's Black Repertory Group). Some are less ethnocentric than others: Two in the Mission District_- Brava! For Women in the Arts and the popular small troupe Campo Santo -- often explore the Latino experience, while Theatre of Yugen creates work in a Japanese-derived aesthetic. Some produce sporadically (Idris Ackamoor and Rhodessa Jones' Cultural Odyssey) or mainly in a festival format (Thomas Simpson's AfroSolo). Many have Bay Area Theatre contracts with Actors' Equity Association.

Here are several of the more-established companies whose missions focus on the area's major ethnic groups.

Lorraine Hansberry Theatre

The local community rallied around this 28-year-old African-American theatre last season when it lost its longtime home in a YWCA building in San Francisco's downtown theatre district. (The many-tentacled Academy of Arts University acquired the building.) Suddenly homeless after a proud few decades of staging works, including world premieres, by famous African-American writers such as August Wilson, the company has not yet announced its plans. But the Pacific Gas and Electric Company provided space for two recent shows.

Founded by artistic director Stanley E. Williams and executive director Quentin Easter, both still at the helm, the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre has clearly tapped into a need in the black community. On opening nights, Williams' greetings from the stage foster a warm, communal atmosphere. He and Easter have a bond with their audience, which at a recent performance of William A. Parker's Waitin' 2 End Hell was largely African-American—it's generally 45 percent African-American, according to Williams—and hugely appreciative of this seriocomic look at the ups and downs of modern marriage.

Casting is inclusive; actors of all ethnicities, either local or from farther afield, work here. Actively engaged with the theatre community, the company has a history of co-producing, including with the Bay Area's flagship American Conservatory Theater. Currently the Hansberry is co-producing Tracey Scott Wilson's The Story with SF Playhouse (March 21–April 25 at the Playhouse). Other past and present co-producers include the Asian American Theater Company, Word for Word, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, AfroSolo, and Cultural Odyssey.

Recently, Williams told Theatre Bay Area magazine, "In the 21st century, the idea of ethnic theatre won't be a hindrance. It is the future…. To the extent that we can take our collective ethnicity and wrap it around the human experience, we will always have a future, particularly since some of the cultures we come from are much older than European cultures."

Asian American Theater Company

Newly hired co–artistic director Alan Quismorio is quick to acknowledge that this 35-year-old company -- known for premiering works by Philip Kan Gotanda and David Henry Hwang, among others -- has gone through some hard times. "We lost our way sometime in the mid- to late '90s," says Quismorio, a Bay Area native. For a while, the Asian American Theater Company had its own custom-built performance space in San Francisco's largely Asian-American Richmond District, but that proved unsustainable. The theatre also went through many staff changes over the years while nurturing a great deal of artistic talent, many of whom moved on to Los Angeles.

AATC's potential audience is segmented, Quismorio explains: Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Cambodian, and other groups. "When we put on a show, how can there be something for everyone?" he wonders. Currently he and co–artistic director Duy Nguyen are looking at works that address how the new generation is dealing with and functioning in the American landscape. "We're going through the same experiences as everyone else: being sent off to war, rising in the corporate world," Quismorio says. "How is that changing us within?"

The company has a mandate to cast local Asian Americans as much as possible -- actors who don't normally get sufficient opportunity to cut their teeth, Quismorio explains. And AATC is mentoring young playwrights such as Christopher Chen. "We can't point to anyone and say he's the Asian-American theatre's Suzan-Lori Parks," Quismorio says. Not yet, anyway. He hopes this can be accomplished within the next decade. Meanwhile, the company plans to start producing four plays per year. "In the past we were just trying to stay afloat," he says. "Now we're actually creating the works."

Traveling Jewish Theatre

Like the Asian American Theater Company, Traveling Jewish Theatre has gone through major changes in its 30-year history. It was founded in Los Angeles as an experimental ensemble by performers Corey Fischer, Naomi Newman, and Albert Greenberg. The former two are still associated with the company. It then moved to San Francisco and, no longer traveling, has its own space in Project Artaud, a rambling arts venue in an industrial section of the Mission District. Fischer and Newman recently turned over the reins to the next generation of artists, with Aaron Davidman at the helm. It was a carefully planned transfer of aesthetic practices and values; still, the company is reinventing itself.

Although its audience is more than 50 percent Jewish, the theatre has no mandate to cast Jewish actors or even tell strictly Jewish stories. Davidman is interested in stories that are inspired by Jewish ethics and values. Thus, David Greenspan's Dead Mother attracted gay audiences, and the Burning Man crowd showed up for beatboxer Tim Barsky's The Bright River. This year's lineup includes works by Donald Margulies (The Model Apartment, featuring Newman, through April 5), Bernard Malamud, and Woody Allen.

The big change since the company's inception, though, is that its productions are no longer ensemble-created but come from submitted manuscripts, commissions (including African-American playwright Marcus Gardley, who is writing about Jewish civil rights activists in 1964), and existing works. And co-productions with Thick Description, Word for Word, and the Jewish Community Center are ongoing.

"We're in transition -- it's an interesting moment," says Davidman. All culturally specific theatres, he adds, are wrestling with the question of how to sustain a meaningful connection to their own ethnicity while at the same time connecting to other ethnicities.

Theatre of Yugen

Also occupying a small theatre space in Project Artaud -- and also celebrating its 30th year -- is Theatre of Yugen. Created by Japanese theatre artist Yuriko Doi, who is still associated with the company, Theatre of Yugen is culturally specific only in its aesthetic purpose, not in the ethnic makeup of its artists or the themes of its plays. The works are company-created (some by longtime ensemble member Erik Ehn, an experimental playwright), often adaptations of literature. The rigorously trained ensemble performs in the classical Japanese theatre styles of No and kyogen.

Explains co–artistic director Jubilith Moore, "Our work is not identity-based." Theatre of Yugen embraces all cultures, she adds: "If we deal with identity, we're creating a border." For example, her adaptation of Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea investigated the Latin experience.

Because having few members limits the kind of work it can do, Moore wants the company to expand. The catch is that performers must train in its style. The idea is that every performer is also a student. Says Moore, "There's always another song and dance to learn."

Golden Thread Productions

A more recent addition to the area's ethnicity-specific theatre scene is this Middle Eastern company founded by Armenian-Iranian artistic director Torange Yeghiazarian. "Artistically we're in an exciting place," she says. Golden Thread Productions has created a national new-play initiative in partnership with New York's Lark Play Development Center. The company also has its own new-play program and recently commissioned local performer Denmo Ibrahim to create Ecstasy in the River (opening July 23). "More theatres are producing plays related to the Middle East," says Yeghiazarian. Berkeley's Aurora Theatre Company, for example, recently staged George Packer's Betrayed, about translators working for Americans in Iraq. "But their perspective is different. We're more interested in challenging the perceptions people have about the Middle East, whether it's about women's roles or the roots of conflicts." Currently playing is Joyce Van Dyke's A Girl's War, directed by Yeghiazarian, in which a young Armenian woman leaves New York to return to her mother's house in a war-torn region and starts an ill-advised romance with the ethnic enemy.

"Casting is challenging," Yeghiazarian admits. Part of the company's mission is to support Middle Eastern actors. "We're always searching for strong actors from the Middle East. I don't think it's necessary to cast with a specific ethnicity, though." None of the five actors in A Girl's War is Armenian, and none were born in the United States: Two are Iranian, one is Afghan, one is Mexican, one is British. In mainstream theatre, Yeghiazarian says, "there is an assumption that if the ethnicity in a play is not emphasized, the role must go to a white actor. In our work we try to look for ways to include nonwhite actors."

Golden Thread has collaborated with the longtime experimental troupe Thick Description (and produces at its cozy Thick House in Potrero Hill, as does the Asian American Theater Company) and has had discussions with the avant-garde Cutting Ball about co-producing. "Sometimes there's a perception that the plays we produce do not relate to the broader community," says Yeghiazarian, who estimates that half her audience is of Middle Eastern heritage—primarily, she guesses, Iranian and Palestinian. "We're perceived as marginal. But I think the plays we produce are very relevant to the community and society at large."

Teatro Visión

The South Peninsula has long been home to a large Latino community, so the 25-year-old Teatro Visión, with its primarily Chicano focus, fits right in. Formed by artistic director Elisa Marina Alvarado and several of her colleagues in an erstwhile agitprop theatre, the company aims to reach all ethnic communities in the San Jose area. It's in residence at the 500-seat Mexican Heritage Plaza Theatre, where Culture Clash's Water & Power runs March 12–29.

Inspired by California's flagship Latino company, El Teatro Campesino in San Juan Bautista, Alvarado is committed to developing playwrights and casting Latino actors, although actors of any ethnicity, including emerging performers, are encouraged. She expects her casts to support novices, and she also expects directors to understand "how culture shapes our values, how we behave, how it binds groups, what a culture might have looked like in a particular period."

Alvarado adds, "All plays are political, and all plays are filled with culture as well. It's great if a director understands Chicano history, how Chicano theatre emerged from struggles for social justice."

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