With a friend's passing, Yvette Jackson's family has become somewhat of a fixture among San Diego's southeast residential collective. Her mom is the only original homeowner left in her old K Street neighborhood, where gentrification peacefully coexists alongside a major cultural shift. Hispanics, Filipinos, Laotians and whites are among those settling in the once predominantly black area, which is being renovated in anticipation of Petco Park and a big Omni hotel nearby.
"If you go away for too long," 46-year-old Jackson says, "you kind of question yourself as to "Where am I? I played right here in this alley!' It is becoming more of a melting pot ethnically. There are all types of families."
This influx brings a bounty of life stories, and a forum that traces to Jackson's youth will be used to tell those stories. Founded in 1962, the Southeast Community Players was the city's African-American theater, counting James Avery and Clevon Little among its habitués. But the area's new demographic has caused the group to reinvent itself as a more democratic, multiethnic instrument.
Common Ground Theatre, so named last year, seeks a place among the would-be artists within the new representations. Among its objectives are youth-oriented workshops and community seminars-both of which serve as precursors to a socially relevant theater that combines the expertise of professional and community collaborators.
Case in point: its flagship, Tambourines to Glory, which runs through Oct. 12 at the 590-seat Ray & Joan Kroc Corps Community Center. Written in 1958 by celebrated black poet Langston Hughes, the melodrama features Jobe Huntley's gospel music in a story about two Harlem ladies who start a church to meet their own economic needs. Antagonist Buddy Lomax is Satan personified, routinely sizing up candidates for damnation among the gals' recruits.
But veteran actor Hassan el-Amin, who plays Buddy and includes the L.A. production of The Lion King among his credits, hopes Tambourines will encourage the patrons into participation. The ethnic past is prologue, he says, a kaleidoscope of tongues that demand expression.
"The play is about our culture," Hassan, 48, explains, "something that needs to be re-established. We can't let those old voices be lost. Some of the themes [in Tambourines] are dated, but the issues about good and bad and right and wrong and the ramifications of your choices are still relevant today."
Hassan says that Common Ground embraces ethnic diversity not as a result, but as a means to the communal bond that live theater so adeptly cultivates.
"Humanity is not about color," he says. "Humanity is about your experience as a human being. Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun is about Blackness. Do I think that's a universal theme? No, I don't. Are there universal situations within it? Yes. A father who wants to take care of his son, a husband and wife and the difficulty they have in their relationship: those are universal themes. It depends on the issue."
For Jackson, who plays Tambourines' Mattie Morningstar, it also depends on the size of the turnout. She reports that the city's southeast community vigorously welcomes Common Ground-good news, she says, for a city whose theater scene isn't as energetic as some would like to believe. Jackson has gotten tickets to area playhouses by virtue of her job with the city schools. Friends and family, she says, are afforded no such luxury.
"So here's this pocket of people," she adds, "who've never been to the Old Globe or to the Lamb's Players. I've been many times, but only because of the people I work with. It's not part of the culture of the southeast area to be exposed to these things. We don't hear about them, or maybe there's not a comfort level in going.
"We want [the new residents] exposed to the theater not only because of what it can add to their lives. We want them to be able to say, "Now let's go to one of the other theaters.' It's overwhelming to know the joy that can be gained from this. But right now, sadly to say, [San Diego's performance market] is fairly closed to them. It really is."
Common Ground has no plans for a subsequent production, preferring to gauge fresh input and to seek endowments (corporate and private sponsorship yielded a $58,000 budget for Tambourines). Artistic director Floyd Gaffney eyes a San Jose company as an administrative model, citing its success with African-American, women's and Latino play production under one roof.
"Artistically," Gaffney explains, "each group operates in and of themselves. But administratively, they work under one guise, which makes more sense to me."
Gaffney, 73, is directing Tambourines, an experience that brings him full circle. Not only did the UCSD theater professor emeritus once meet the late Hughes for a discussion about black writers 23 years ago-but he directed Hassan in the same play.
There's a certain reassurance in coincidences like that-one that, in Hassan's words, hails "that other voice that isn't heard, the voice that always needs an outlet." Enter Common Ground, a platform that aspires to community theater in the broadest sense of the term. ©
Tambourines to Glory runs through Oct. 12 at Ray and Joan Croc Corps Community Center. $20-$28. 619-263-0062.