It was close encounter of a theatrical kind. Uptown at Lincoln Center, the Peking Opera Company of Shanghai was giving traditionally stylized performances of fragments from its classic repertoire. Downtown at the Public Theater, two young Chinese-American actors were drawing on similar classic movements for David Henry Hwang's fascinating dramatic amalgam, "The Dance and the Railroad."
While more exotic than most, the thespians from the People's Republic of China were nevertheless part of the train of overseas visitors who help animate New York's world of stages. "The Dance and the Railroad," on the other hand, is part of the city's colorful patchwork quilt of indigenous ethnic playmaking. It commemorates the role of Chinese immigrant labor in helping expand the American frontier.
The presentation of Mr. Hwang's plays at the Public Theater illustrates the New York Shakespeare Festival's continuing commitment to ethnic interests. There have been productions of Shakespeare, Chekhov, and O'Neill with all-black casts. As a sometime tenant at Lincolnf Center, the festival produced the works of black playwrights Ron Milner, Bill Gunn, and Ed Bullins.
Notable Public Theater productions have included the award-winning "Short Eyes," by Miguel Pinero; "For Colored Girls Only Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf," by Ntozake Shange; and "No Place to Be Somebody," by Charles Gordone.
Says festival producera Joseph Papp: "New York City represents all races and cultures, and any theater that has its roots in the city should reflect this."
"No Place to Be Somebody" and "For Colored Girls . . ." were among the ethnic plays and musicals that moved to Broadway from Off Broadway and Off Off Broadway theaters. Joseph Walker's "The River Niger" and Samm-Art William's "Home" came from the Negro Ensemble Company. Among the musicals to make the transfer have been "don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope" and "Your Arm's Too Short to Box With God" (from the Urban Arts corps), "Bubbling Brown Sugar" (from the AMAS Repertory Theater), and the current "Ain't Misbehavin," (from Manhattan Theater Club).
More than 50 black troupes and at least half a dozen Hispanic companies help enliven New York's ethnic theater scene. Leading black companies include the Billie Holiday Theater, the Black Spectrum Theater, the New Heritage Theater, and the Richard Allen Center for Culture and Art. For several years, the Richard Allen Center sponsored an international black theater festival, featuring companies from various parts of the United States and also from Africa. (Funding problems have caused the festival's temporary suspension.) In yet another area of activity, ADELCO (Audience Development committee) honors achievements in black theater with a yearly televised awards program.
Among New York's veteran Hispanic troupes are INTAR (International Arts Relations), Repertoreo Espanol, and the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater, which recently took up quarters in a former firehouse in the Broadway district. Besides continuing to travel the five boroughs and tour nationally, the company this year made a 45-day visit to Spain.
Prompted by Off Off Broadway's lively avtivity, Avon has published a paperback, "New york's Other Theater," by Mindy N. Levine. It deals primarily with the 88 member-companies of the Off Off Broadway Alliance (OOBA). Included in the directory are more than 20 ethnic companies: among them the Jewish Repertory Theater, the Irish Rebel Theater, the Pan Asian Repertory Theater, the innovative New Federal Theater, and La Mama E. T. C. (Experimental Theater Club). Grand dame La Mama, besides playing host to distinguished troupes from many parts of the world, is the home base for Spanish-English, Chinese-English, Filipino, Moroccan, Korean, Japanese, American Indian, Latin American, South American, and East Indian ensembles.
New York's ethnic theater reflects the city's amazing diversity of cosmopolitan cultural expression. Where else would you be likely to find an oriental production of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" set in the Ming Dynasty?