There was something delightfully refreshing about the March 23 champagne gala at the Barnsdall Gallery Theatre in Hollywood that kicked off the 24th annual Los Angeles Women’s Theatre Festival. This brainchild of LAWTF co-founder and President Adilah Barnes places groups that the entertainment community often overlooks or downplays front and center, where they belong: The female of the species, with a special (although not exclusive) emphasis on women of color. In particular, as program notes state, “multicultural and multidisciplinary solo performers from around the globe.”
After an outdoors buffet dinner on the lovely grounds of the Barnsdall, perched atop a hill offering majestic La La Land vistas, guests moved downstairs for an awards ceremony. It opened with this year’s LAWTF solo artistes dancing together to the taped beat of a Katy Perry empowerment tune. In keeping with the evening’s theme of “Standing on the Shoulders Of…” each performer paid verbal homage to loved ones or talents who inspired them to follow that yellow brick road to creativity. For example, actress/dancer Sloan Robinson gave tribute to the outstanding entertainer who inspired her one-woman show, “Bananas! A Day in the Life of Josephine Baker.” Broadway actress/ singer Eloise Laws also lit the joint up with two songs, one performed with “El’s” sister and one solo, accompanied by taped music.
LAWTF’s awards ceremony was co-hosted by Hattie Winston (of TV’s Becker, Broadway’s The Me Nobody Knows and a Negro Ensemble Company founding member) and actor/playwright Ted Lange (of TV’s The Love Boat and a one-man show about poet/novelist/playwright Paul Laurence Dunbar). With lots of jovial, good-natured and apparently scripted banter Winston and Lange smoothly presented the various accolades.
Serving as a Sierra Madre Playhouse board member and president and currently as that mountain outpost of theater’s managing director, Estelle Campbell accepted the Rainbow Award, “Presented to an artist or individual whose work has set a high standard of individuality and self-styled creativity,” according to the program.
The Rainbow Award went to Center Theatre Group’s Leslie K. Jonson, “whose work has set a high standard of individuality and self-styled creativity.” A film clip projected onto a rear screen revealed the artistry of actress, writer and educator Pauline Sahagun, who has toured throughout Mexico and the USA with Mexican and Chicano ensembles. Sahagun received the Maverick Award “for her diverse contributions to fostering non-traditional and multi-cultural theatre works.”
Performer/arranger/conductor/composer (and lest we forget, hockey player!) Megan Cavallari, who has worked on 50-plus film scores, musicals, jingles, etc., gave an uplifting “grrrl power” speech upon accepting the Integrity Award for bringing “credibility and dignity to her work.” The Eternity Award went to singer/recording artist/vocal teacher Barbara Morrison for “lifetime achievements [that] made a lasting contribution to the world of theatre.”
Emmy Award winner Doris Roberts, co-star of the popular sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond, was posthumously honored with the Infinity Award, “Presented to an artist who has passed on and leaves behind a legacy that will always be remembered.” Accepting on her behalf, in keeping with the night’s theme, Roberts’ diminutive longtime manager and friend Sandy Joseph told a droll story about how she literally had to stand on top of Roberts’ shoulders once to get something above the kitchen counters. She also eloquently added that Roberts, who died last April 17, “would have hated everything that happened in the last year [in terms of the presidential race], but would have loved tonight.”
The awards ceremony’s final speaker was the Festival’s co-founder and president, actress Adilah Barnes, whose credits includes 2000’s Erin Brockovich and depicting journalist Ida B. Wells opposite Hilary Swank, Anjelica Huston and Vera Farmiga in the 2004 suffragette HBO movie Iron Jawed Angels. LAWTF’s diverse opening night crowd included the great director/actress/writer Iona Morris (her father Greg Morris co-starred in the 1960s TV series Mission Impossible), who directs Momma is Back! at the ACME Comedy Theater April 7-9.
From March 24-27 LAWTF’s action moved to Venice’s Electric Lodge for the performance of a cornucopia of multi-culti female solo acts, including dancing, singing and acting. There are far too many to list here (although if, like Charles Dickens, I was paid by the word I would), some standouts include:
The Bay Area’s Dr. Diane Barnes, who has studied with Anna Deavere Smith and is a Meisner-trained thesp, wrote and performs the one-woman show My Stroke of Luck (see: www.dianebarnes415.com/), about her recovery from a catastrophic illness.
While Barnes’ solo show is autobiographical, others are biographical. In Dora Maar New York actress Michelle Farbman brings alive the subject who may be painter Pablo Picasso’s most famous 1930s model, his mistress, the titular Dora. Perhaps this piece will explain why Maar was a “weeping woman” in so many Picasso oils - did her trail of tears spring from her tumultuous relationship with the Cubist? Or was it this European Jew’s angst at the spread of fascism? An excerpt from another bio-play, Sloan Robinson’s aforementioned take on the bodacious Ms. Baker, is also on the same bill.
Lynne Jassem’s wittily entitled autobiographical From Como to Homo traces her circuitous path as a 10-year-old tap dancer on singer Perry Como’s Kraft Music Hall to what appears to be her coming out. Ai Yoshihara’s My River Phoenix also has a show biz twist - as a Japanese girl she yearned to marry the eponymous actor and moved to America to find and marry him (or a reasonable facsimile).
Believers often “praise the lord” for splendid weather and so on, but how about holding that omnipotent being accountable for all the bad things that occur, too? Juliette Jeffers’ philosophical Judgment Day dares to ask what would happen if god was held responsible for the suffering experienced by African Americans? (Hey, wouldn’t it be fab if we could sue those tax free freeloading places of worship every time an “act of god” ruined something and inflicted misery?)
As Hamlet says, “There’s more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio” - and likewise at the multi-faceted, multi-talented LAWTF. The Festival’s “do it yourself” spirit is extremely admirable, as Adilah Barnes and all the women of various hues who participate in this annual cornucopia of talent in an industry that often neglects and undervalues them take it upon themselves to seize the spotlight and shine it where it belongs: Upon their awe-inspiring selves.
The Los Angeles Women’s Theatre Festival takes flight through March 26 at the Electric Lodge, 1416 Electric Ave., Venice, CA 90291. For more info and a full schedule of the 24TH annual Los Angeles Women’s Theatre Festival: www.lawtf.org; (818)760-0408.
Film historian/reviewer Ed Rampell is co-presenting Esther Shub’s documentary The Fall of the Romanovs on Friday, 7:30 p.m., April 28, 2017 at The L.A. Workers Center, 1251 S. St. Andrews Place, L.A., CA 90019. This is part of the ongoing “Ten Films That Shook the World” series celebrating the centennial of the Russian Revolution, taking place on the fourth Friday of each month through November. For info: firstname.lastname@example.org.