A legacy of work: Gordon Davidson

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Last night at the Ahmanson Theater, Center Theater Group held a memorial for their founding artistic director, Gordon Davidson.

In truth, I was dreading it.

Driving down to the Music Center through a gray drizzle with the glare of red brake lights extending endlessly in front of me, it felt like an exercise of obligation and loss. Yes, it was important to go to honor the man, to honor the legacy - but wasn't this about a history that was gone rather than a future that was possible . . .

It was a bit like heading to see a "great" play. You know, one of those important plays Gordon Davidson was known for Angels in America, Children of a Lesser God, The Shadow Box, Zoot Suit. Sometimes It's not until you're there in the audience, usually somewhere during Act One, that the magic really takes hold.

So it was with Gordon's memorial.

It began with a sense of obligation. An evening alternating between memorial speeches and snippets of performance. It was a story most in the audience knew of Gordon’s passion for new plays, of his humanist political bent and the plays that spoke to those politics. His love of artists and audience. Like a classic play you'd heard before, it seemed routine if essential.

Then something changed. For me, it started somewhere between Zev Zaroslavsky and Jonathan Lee. Mr. Zaroslavsky, our former county supervisor, spoke warmly of Gordon's genius and his politics reminding us that lest we doubt the power of theater, "Angels in America probably affected more policy across America than any political memo."

Then Jonathan Lee, the Taper's long time production manager touchingly reminded those of us who had worked for Gordon, why working for him was so special: his infectious passion for the art form and his belief in all of us.

Like great theater, the idea gave way to the emotion.

We weren't thinking about Gordon's politics, we were seeing them embodied onstage: echoing through Keith David giving voice to August Wilson; Luis Valdez, standing in front of an image of himself and Cesar Chavez standing with Gordon nearly 40 years ago. We heard it in the poetry of Luis Alfaro, saying of Gordon,

He had a vision.
And it was simple.
The mission was to tell the story of today.
Because today is full of a lot of drama.
And it's been that way through history.
We are a fragile, contradictory, humanity,
We forge ahead while repeating all our best mistakes.

And then we heard the painfully moving words of his widow, Judi Davidson, sharing that Gordon feared that we'd forgotten him after he left Center Theater Group. I realized she was right. We had. Not that we'd forgotten his import or his legacy but we'd forgotten what was possible. How theater needs to be the beginning of a conversation not the end. How politics isn't an obstacle for the theater, it's a necessity.

As Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of New York's Public Theater, reminded us, Gordon would have relished the challenge of our political moment. His legacy lives on in all of us who learned from him and were moved by what he created. Eustis told us, "I may sit in Joe Papp's chair but I'm doing Gordon's work."

If theater, especially in Los Angeles, is going to fulfill its promise, we need to do more than honor Gordon. We need continue doing the hard work he dedicated his life to.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.