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Maurice Hines - a High-Energy Hoofer With Strong Views

WITH the same high energy that has won his latest dance-musical rave reviews from Washington to Atlanta to Chicago, choreographer/dancer/director Maurice Hines is decrying the financial plight of ``Harlem Suite.'' ``Audiences are going craaaazy. The critics love it. We're doing everything every theater-producer and backer says you have to do for the money to roll in,'' he said backstage at a rehearsal hall here. ``But still we're getting a pittance.''

That is part of the reason this 16-hoofer tour through 50 years of Harlem dance - tap, tango, jitterbug, Charleston, and more - will travel for months at a crack to Japan, France, Switzerland, and Germany.

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``The Japanese saw us in Atlanta and said, `Man, why are you strugglin' here?''' he recalls, laughing infectiously. ``They said, `You come over to us for a few months'; so we're going!''

After that, Europe is beckoning with theaters and cash. And there has been talk of bringing ``Harlem Suite'' to New York. But not, for reasons Mr. Hines will discuss later, to Broadway.

The financial situation surrounding ``Harlem Suite'' is a theme Hines returned to often in a one-hour interview studded with references to ``power hungry'' New York critics, who can close a show by withholding a rave; an insider-network of theater owners who suggest using white collaborators to mask the fact that ``Harlem Suite'' is conceived, directed, and choreographed by Hines; far too high Broadway ticket prices that ``rape the public''; a far-too-prevalent anti-black prejudice despite civil-rights-era gains.

``My friends outside theater tell me, `Man, this is 1989. Those kinds of things aren't supposed to be happening,''' Hines says, remarking about one theater tryout where blacks auditioned all day before choreographers mentioned they would not be using any black dancers. ``I tell them, `I know, I know. But it is.'''

Hines is not on a soapbox to complain about such matters, but he comments strongly when asked about the general status of blacks in theater, film, and television. Their situation has regressed, he feels, since the 1960s spotlights put pressure on owners and producers. As far as musical theater is concerned, ``There are waves of black successes when the white community runs out of creativity and turns to us,'' Hines says. The latest wave was in the mid-'70s with such Broadway hits as ``Ain't Misbehavin'''; ``Sophisticated Ladies,'' ``Eubie,'' ``Bubblin' Brown Sugar,'' and ``The Wiz.'' Between waves, the way over the hurdles, he says, is by ``celebrating and convincing on the stage.''

The situation in musical theater is part of a larger discrimination across the field of entertainment, he adds. He points to a recent Los Angeles Times series that concluded, ``Hollywood is an insular, virtually all-white world with few opportunities for young black filmmakers.''

According to Anthony Legrand, equal opportunity employee representative for Actors' Equity, the situation for black actors and performers in theater is ``still pretty bad,'' despite gains his office has made in the past few years. Though there was a vogue of black productions in the '70s, he says a change in economics - skyrocketing production costs - and in tax shelter laws has made investing in theater less attractive to many and hurt especially those started by minorities. Musicals are the brightest spot for minorities, employing about 20 percent. Dramas are the dimmest: about 2 percent. Overall, the numbers have risen from 7 percent in 1982 to about 12 percent last year.

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``Part of the problem for black actors is that playwrights are reluctant to provide the large-scale vehicle for them,'' says Mr. Legrand. And even when a show has achieved critical success, box office does not always follow. ``Black and Blue,'' an all-black musical now on Broadway, is running only at 70 to 80 percent capacity despite 10 Tony nominations.

Those barriers have been enough to drive other black talent to Europe, or keep them from trying at all, Hines says. But not enough to keep his four-year directorial dream from happening.

``I always wanted to be in total control of the black performer,'' says the man who has acted, sung, and danced in film (``The Cotton Club''), TV (``Hines, Hines, and Dad''), and theater (he received a Tony nomination for ``Uptown ... It's Hot'' in 1985). ``With a few exceptions, black people are still [those mediums'] drug pushers, prostitutes, and pimps.'' It was important for Hines, he says, to ``show young people how to see blacks glamorously done'' as well.

``Harlem Suite'' is a series of flashbacks through the eyes of Hines's grandmother. In the show, when Hines and co-star Melba Moore, as modern-day entertainers, begin looking for material to perform, they consult Grandma's old scrapbook, which comes to life in a series of show-stopping dance numbers. Though the show does not avoid the racism of Harlem's past or its politics and problems, Hines wanted it to be a more feel-good reminiscence about Harlem's creative genius. Seen through the eyes of his grandmother - with Hines and Miss Moore as principal actors, singers, and dancers - the show's 16 full dance numbers do just that.

``Maurice Hines' Harlem Suite is the kind of crowd pleasingly kinetic musical show that wrings undignified whoops and hollers from normally staid critics,'' wrote the Washington Post when the show opened there. ``And you should hear the rest of the audience.''

``You won't find a happier or hotter show in town than `Harlem Suite,''' wrote the Chicago Tribune.

``Maurice Hines's electrifying and varied choreography struts, sashays and sizzles...,'' wrote the Atlanta Journal and Constitution.

``With press like this, we should be off and running,'' says Hines, decrying the ease with which English musicals such as ``Cats,'' ``Phantom of the Opera,'' and ``Les Mis'erables'' get backing. ``But we're struggling. Do you know how bad that makes us feel? It's just terrible.'' He doesn't begrudge those musicals their success, but feels money ought to come his way as well.

``Peter Allen [in ``Legs Diamond''] can burp and get $4 million. I'm not even asking for $1 million, and I still have to compete.''

Hines has taken his show on the road partly because he feels critics outside New York care more about nurturing a production along. Even with the tour's success, he doesn't want to subject his dancers to the same New York critics that shortened the run of ``Uptown ... It's Hot'' four years ago, despite packed houses.

``I think the New York critics are out to hurt people and trash shows as opposed to critics on the road who encourage you, even if they have problems with it,'' he says. He complained of one reviewer who criticized the differing styles of Maurice and his brother Gregory, without even fundamental knowledge of the milieu from which they arose.

Keeping a show open in New York is impossible without press support, he adds. ``All those fund-raising luncheons are populated with the ladies from New Rochelle and White Plains - and all they read is the New York Times,'' he says. ``If the critics don't give you a rave, you better have another million bucks for press and publicity,'' he laments.

Hines's claim that the New York Times can close down a show with a negative review ``happens to be a fact,'' according to Harvey Sabinson, executive director of the League of American Theatres and Producers. ``A bad review in the New York Times will mostly likely close a show that doesn't have a large advance sale, a main star, or a really wide appeal,'' he says. ``The power of that paper also inhibits producers and theater investors from making that investment in shows. that hasn't changed in 43 years.'' Mr. Sabinson adds that the situation was better when there were more daily papers in New York.

The only reason Hines could even mount this project at all is that his friend Kenneth Feld, who owns the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, had also produced a Broadway show entitled ``Satchmo'' a few years ago. Costumes and sets to the tune of $800,000 were donated to Hines. ``You've got to understand that Feld is outside the New York circle, too,'' adds Hines. ``As is every backer I've ever had.''

The situation for other blacks is bad, too, he adds. It is for these reasons that he will stay where the money, critical, and audience support are strong. So far, that will be Europe and Japan. ``If I was still 20, I might stick around and stick it out,'' he says. ``But I'm 45 and have to get going. If I come back to New York,'' he adds, ``it will be to Harlem.''

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