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Monday, November 29, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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A Seattle star is reborn

Seattle Times staff reporter

If you're young, black and artistically talented, you've probably passed through the doors of the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center, an iconic focal point of community pride since 1972.

Operated by the Seattle Parks Department, the Central Area center has always had a split personality. A rec center for neighbor kids and families, it also has aspired to be an arts organization, where serious actors, dancers and poets perform and train.

Three years ago, the Parks Department reorganized the center to become a bona fide arts organization. After a bumpy transition, it emerged this fall with a new level of stability and a coherent vision, along the lines of New York's Harlem Theatre Company.

In three weeks, students in an ambitious new acting program with a culturally specific focus will present their first showcase. The program was launched by the center's artistic director, director/actress Jacqueline Moscou, whose popular holiday production at Intiman Theatre, "Black Nativity," this year will feature three kids who came up in Langston Hughes' summer musical.

Yet hurdles lie ahead. There are lingering fears that by professionalizing its programs, the center may lose its open-door, neighborhood feel. There are also concerns that the African-American focus will be diluted, particularly since the Parks Department hired Manuel Cawaling, an Asian American, as the center's managing director.

"There was a fear of Langston Hughes being taken away from the community," says Tawnya Pettiford-Wates, a prominent African-American theater artist who has produced events there and who thinks Cawaling and Moscou make "a good balance."

"We're turning the corner," Cawaling says. "We are fully staffed, we have been working really hard to develop infrastructure and we are out in the community raising money."

Once a synagogue

Named for the great Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, the Performing Arts Center is housed in the 1915-vintage Chevra Bikur Cholim synagogue, which the city purchased in 1971 as a home for Seattle's first African-American theater, Black Arts/West, and a minority film training center, Oscar Productions.

Plans for a renovation took so long the groups found another venue.

A sprawling facility, Langston Hughes boasts a steeply-raked, 285-seat theater — the faint outline of a Star of David can still be seen on the ceiling — a 4,400-square-foot multipurpose room downstairs, and a two-story addition for offices and classrooms.

Langston Hughes has long been a launching pad for local black talent.

"For the people that worked to establish the existing hip-hop scene — Vitamin D, Tribal Productions, Blind Council, Jasiri Media Group, Beyond Reality — Langston Hughes was Ground Zero," says Jonathan Moore, who performs under the name of Wordsayer and manages hip-hop talent. Ditto for theater, says Moscou, who snagged her first acting gig at Langston Hughes in 1979.

"There hasn't been an African American in this city — from Timothy Piggee to David Scully, Felicia Loud, Michelle Blackmon, Tawnya Pettiford-Wates who didn't come through here," she says.

In a sense, Langston Hughes has been blessed. Unlike other arts organizations, its overhead is covered by the city, to the tune of $573,000 a year, which pays for eight full-time staff members, facility and administrative costs and a teen program.

But city money also has been a curse, says former center coordinator Steve Sneed, who now directs cultural programs at Seattle Center. Requests for such amenities as a computer ticketing system, for example, were met by the Parks Department with the response, "Why do you need that? You should be doing arts and crafts, not high-quality arts."

"I could see that in order for it grow, it was going to have to change," Sneed says.

After Sneed laid the groundwork, the Parks Department approved a reorganization in 2001, changing the name from Cultural Arts to Performing Arts Center and tossing its "rec-center" staff positions of coordinator and assistant coordinator in favor of a managing director and artistic director — traditional staff positions of a theater.

A chronic underachiever, Langston Hughes finally seemed poised for success. But it would be two years before the new Langston Hughes produced a real season.

Acrimonious staff turnovers, a difficult renovation and money troubles intervened.

Sneed had been running in the red — $33,000 in his last year. After he left in 2000, his successor, managing director Adrienne Caver-Hall, was forced to abandon an unrealistic Parks Department goal of raising $60,000 a year to cover staff costs. Caver-Hall also clashed with Moscou when Moscou came on as artistic director in 2002.

Cawaling succeeded Caver-Hall in June 2004. He has a long résumé as a director, manager and educator with the Northwest Asian American Theater and Wing Luke Museum. The nationally respected Moscou has worked in theater nationwide for three decades.

Sneed describes the pair as "the best team that facility has ever had."

After a renovation in 2003 disrupted operations for months, Moscou put up the center's first, modest season last fall. It featured a hip-hop celebration, a spring play, an African-American film festival, a fund-raising gala, "Illuminating Langston," and a summer musical, "Grease," co-produced with the Paramount Theatre.

Seeking the authentic

A fiercely intense woman, Moscou attended New York's High School of the Performing Arts and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. She thinks a culturally specific point of view — not one imposed by the dominant culture — is the path to universal expression.

That's why students in Performance Bound — the new, eight-week program aimed at kids who want professional acting training — are memorizing poems not by Shakespeare but by Paul Lawrence Dunbar, a black poet.

The lead teacher is University of Washington drama instructor Valerie Curtis-Newton. On a recent Saturday when Curtis-Newton couldn't make it, Moscou sat on a stool — back straight, voice keen — and coached 14-year-old Garfield High School student Marita Phelps, reciting a Dunbar poem written in heavy dialect:

When the colored band

Come marching down the street

Don't you people stand there

Lift your feet

"OK," says Moscou. "What does the poet want you to think and feel here?"

"Pride?" offers a student.

"Pride. That's right. The colored band. That's the operative word. Remember how we talked about the word 'go'geous'? It might sound like something your grandmother would say, but that's what really made you feel the line, 'His go'geous uniform'?"

"Go'geous," Phelps repeats to herself, then smiles. "Go'geous."

Something connects. When she recites the four lines again she has attitude, as if she were watching that smart, swinging band come tumbling down the street.

"These young African-American kids think that dialect is like when they were ignorant," Moscou says. "[But] if you can actually express what's authentic about you, you can put it anywhere."

A double role

Some fear that professional training programs will cause Langston Hughes to lose its identity as a neighborhood place where people take classes for fun — in African marimba, tai chi or Brazilian martial arts.

Cawaling says it's not an either/or issue: "I want us to have professional arts activities here, but at the same time, if there is an issue in this neighborhood or in this community, I would like that discussion and dialog to happen under this roof. That will lead to great art."

Moscou compares Langston Hughes to the Seattle Children's Theatre and On the Boards, which also nurture local talent.

Another, more serious concern is that the center will lose its historic African-American focus.

"That was the only theater that the African-American community had," says Darcell Hubbard Hayes, who served as Langston's Youth Theater director for 11 years but was not rehired after the reorganization. "I'm afraid that we'll lose that and we'll have nothing."

Cawaling points out Langston Hughes always has been multicultural as well as Afrocentric. One of the first classes ever taught there was Japanese flower arranging. Several nonblack coordinators have worked at the center.

"I don't think we'll do anything differently than we did before," Cawaling says. "This center is a home for the African-American community."

Says Stephanie Ellis-Smith, executive director of the Central District Forum for Arts & Ideas, which presents events at Langston Hughes: "[Cawaling] sitting in that chair doesn't mean that the focus has to change ... you have to look at what he's done."

"I have confidence in Manny," says Moscou, who agrees that the real test is programming. "A lot of people talk. To me, it's all in the pudding."

She and Cawaling are much less focused on ethnic issues than on putting out a consistent, regular product. By the 2005-06 season, they hope to add a second spring play.

Moscou also has big plans for Performance Bound, hoping to turn it into a comprehensive, three-year training program. That would cost big bucks — upward of $75,000. Currently, the budget for it is $7,000, with students paying $120.

Fund-raising and marketing — as well as a sharpening of staff roles — will be key. Attention — and cash — have started to flow. At "Grease," Holly Martinez, the wife of retired Seattle Mariner Edgar Martinez, wrote a check for $5,000. Mariner Dan Wilson and others followed suit, contributing $12,400.

"Langston Hughes has always been a jewel in this city," Moscou says. "We are trying to take it to the next level."

Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247 or pdebarros@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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