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Giving Voice: Holding Up One Half of the Stage Lights

Ed Rampell: The 21st annual Los Angeles Women’s Theatre Festival -- which celebrates female diversity onstage -- and its opening night Champagne Gala and Awards Ceremony at Venice’s Electric Lodge got off to a great start on March 27.
Sloan Robinson

Sloan Robinson

LOS ANGELES WOMEN’S THEATRE FESTIVAL 2014: “Giving Voice” Theatre Review

The 21st annual Los Angeles Women’s Theatre Festival -- which celebrates female diversity onstage -- and its opening night Champagne Gala and Awards Ceremony at Venice’s Electric Lodge got off to a great start on March 27. Following a tasty repast of fruits, cheese, salad, salmon and, but of course, bubbly, the sold-out crowd moved upstairs to the “Venetian” venue’s stage for several performances amidst much prize giving. There, the sensuous Sloan Robinson kicked off the Festival with an abbreviated version of her one woman show, Bananas! A Day in the Life of Josephine Baker.

Through dance and dialogue Sloan brought the onetime Cotton Club chorus girl -- who became the toast of two continents in the 1920s and 1930s, and whose song “La Conga Blicoti” is on the soundtrack of Woody Allen’s 2011 Midnight in Paris -- thrillingly alive. Now, as this reviewer’s readers know, he is a film historian, and as such has seen some of the preternaturally beautiful Ms. Baker’s movies, such as 1934’s Zouzou. Your humble scribe also confesses to going nuts, like audiences from Harlem to Paris, when the star of 1935’s Princess Tam-Tam dances the shimmy shammy, et al. Sashaying about in her banana dress (from which Sloan’s play derives its title), Ms. Baker was no desexualized Mammy. When Sloan as Josephine performs a split it causes an effect similar to the splitting of an atom.

Ingrid Graham

Ingrid Graham

Some may feel that Josephine’s sexy, scantily clad performances from nightclubs to the silver screen were another form of stage and celluloid stereotypes, which Sloan mentions while in character. Be that as it may, this critic will let others debate the so-called “Creole Goddess’” persona vis-à-vis racial caricatures -- although naysayers should bear in mind Ms. Baker’s heroic anti-Nazi role in the French Resistance. Suffice it to say, this highly entertaining and informative 20 or so minute excerpt of her entire show only left this writer and the audience wanting more, as Sloan Robinson electrified the Electric Lodge. Indeed, goo goo ga joob, Ms. Robinson. Bravo!

Now that the evening was in high gear, LAWTF’s presenters took to the podium to bestow five awards -- and much lively banter. Actress Starletta DuPois (Waiting to Exhale, Lost, August Wilson’s Fences) and dapper Ted Lange, a playwright and co-star of TV’s The Love Boat, dispensed the Festival’s Integrity Award to Kiha Lee. As with all of the subsequent awardees, a clip of the dancer/choreographer and her work was screened and then she was presented with an LAWTF plaque and a decree from a representative of City Councilman Bernard Parks (you remember, the guy who was police chief when LAPD pigs rioted at the 2000 Democratic Convention and, unprovoked, beat the hell out of unarmed, innocent Rage Against the Machine listeners in Downtown L.A.).

The Rainbow Award for nontraditional, multi-culti theater was then presented to actress/dancer/director/choreographer/playwright Debra De Liso. During her acceptance speech De Liso, who has performed an Isadora Duncan work and is also a teacher, recalled teaching acting at a woman’s prison. “Everyone is an artist… and has a story,” she said.

Tia Matza

Tia Matza

The Maverick Award, bestowed for “a high standard of individuality and self-styled creativity,” was, with much justification, given to the multi-talented writer Josefina Lopez, a singular talent who, in that Sinatra tradition, has always done it her way. Josefina is the Founding Director of the CASA 0101 theater in Boyle Heights and she gave the evening’s most heartfelt acceptance speech. The outspoken Latina revealed the source of why she stands up and speaks out strong: As an undocumented daughter who grew up in El Norte in a household where her overbearing father always silenced her mother, Josefina vowed to fight for the voiceless and referred to Hispanic women as being “the epitome of the 99%.” (As an activist’s work is never done, the ever-committed Josefina told this writer that after the LAWTF ceremony, around midnight she was going to a movie theater for the debut screening of Cesar Chavez, the biopic that co-stars America Ferrera, whose career Josefina helped launch by writing the play and 2002 film adaptation of Real Women Have Curves, which gave the future Ugly Betty star her first screen role.)

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Ingrid Graham

Ingrid Graham

As Josefina Lopez is a tough act to follow, her speech was literally followed by a trapeze act. I kid thee not, Dear Reader: Aerialist Tia Matza accompanied a black and white film with music as she performed live derring-do on a horizontal bar suspended by ropes from the Lodge’s roof. The pretzel-like Matza was anything but unleavened while she literally rose to the occasion, as the daring young woman on the flying trapeze twirled and swirled overhead with the greatest of ease.

DuPois and Lange then presented LAWTF’s Eternity Award for lifetime achievement to stage and screen actress Amentha Dymally, which began in 1965 with James Baldwin’s three-act play The Amen Corner, which went to Broadway. In her acceptance speech, recounting her life onstage Dymally wittily quipped, “I was determined to be in theater… The theater is my husband and even though I’m an old lady he sometimes calls on me.” And so have the movies and TV, as Dymally has lit up the big and little screen, from the series Room 222, Ironside and Marcus Welby, M.D. to 1978’s Coma and John Singleton’s 2001 Baby Boy.

Tia Matza

Tia Matza

LAWTF’s Infinity Award was posthumously confered upon Juanita Moore, another former Cotton Club chorus girl who went on to appear in Elia Kazan’s 1949 Pinky and to co-star opposite Lana Turner and Sandra Dee in another drama about passing for white, in Douglas Sirk’s 1959 Imitation of Life, for which Moore was Golden Globe and Oscar-nominated, at a time when only one Black thespian had won an Academy Award. Her other credits ranged from the TV series The Thin Man, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Ben Casey and Mannix to the 1973 Blaxploitation classic The Mack. Moore’s Festival plaque and decree were accepted by family members, as the actress passed away in January at age 99.

Following brief sound problems choreographer and hoofer Ingrid Graham performed a modern dance. A glowing Adilah Barnes, LAWTF Co-Founder/President, then gave upbeat closing remarks and invited everyone to enjoy dessert. Which, coming on top of a most enjoyable evening at the thee-a-tah, only served to prove, as I have previously written (can a writer plagiarize him/herself?), that one can indeed have your cake and eat it, too.

The Los Angeles Women’s Theatre Festival continues with themed one-woman shows, starting with “Transformations” at 8:00 p.m. on March 28; “Mirrored Reflections” at 3:00 p.m. and “Rising Above” at 8:00 p.m. on March 29; “It’s All Relative” at 3:00 p.m. and “Riffs” at 7:00 p.m. on March 30. The Festival draws performers from near and far; Dacyl Acevedo traveled from Manhattan to Venice to present “Will Work For”, which chronicles her adventures with unemployment following the 2008 Wall Street collapse, and serves to prove that old cliché: “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade” -- or a one person show dramatizing your ups and downs.

The Los Angeles Women’s Theatre Festival is taking place through March 30 at the Electric Lodge, 1416 Electric Ave., Venice, CA 90291. For schedule information: See www.lawtf.com/ or call (818)760-0408.

ed rampell

Ed Rampell

L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampell co-authored “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.” (See: http://hawaiimtvbook.weebly.com/.) In the April issue of The Progressive Magazine Rampell interviews Michael Peña and reviews his new movie “Cesar Chavez” and also interviews the Marxist economist Prof. Richard Wolff.