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A black and brown improvisation

October 23, 2008 |  3:00 pm

Like many who figure they really know L.A. -- both its rough spots and its sleek contours --  Kathy Gallegos was unnerved by the headlines, an uptick in violence between black and brown. It had already gone from abstract statistic to personal two years, says Gallegos, when it hit home: "In my own community a young black teenager was shot."

'The Black/Brown Dialogues' Gallegos, director of Avenue 50 Studio in Highland Park, has been there long enough to remember when it was different. Her neighborhood -- a vibrant old- school L.A. mix of a little bit of everything -- had seemed a place immune to such a display of discord.

This tension, particularly between black and brown, wasn't always this way. Not in the old neighborhoods: those thickly populated places that seemed to back into one another; those neighborhoods that shared borders and stories. It's just that that Gallegos wanted to get at -- the wealth of things shared. This year the gallery, a neighborhood hub for Latino art and culture, hosted two exhibits -- "Changing Ties" and "Lives at the Intersection" -- on the subject of black-brown tensions to underscore "not the differences but the similarities," says Gallegos, who was born in New York but is of Puerto Rican and Cuban descent.  And to honor the essence of what can exist, Gallegos commissioned a series of performance evenings, "The Black/Brown Dialogues."  Each would be a night of improvised poetry, music and conversation, curated by poet Peter J. Harris, to address what is at the heart of the rift -- real, perceived or trumped up.

Harris, who is African American and the artistic director of "Inspiration House," a former KPFK (90.7 FM) radio show turned live, spoken-word experience, has been living in neighboring Mt. Washington for 15 years and had also been concerned about the headlines, but more about what they elide or conflate: "Some of it is divide and conquer and some of it is just male energy in the midst of its rites of passage." But really, says Harris, from way back, "Black and brown have much more history as lovers and allies than we do as enemies."

The last of the quartet of evenings will happen Saturday night and will feature poetry by Amalia Ortiz, Francisco Letelier, Imani Tolliver and Harris with music by Maria Elena Gaitan, on cello; Robert S. Hilton on slide harp; Curtis Robertson Jr. on acoustic bass. It's the radio show "up on its feet" says Harris. "We are trying to honor ethical communication across borders, so this was a way to serve a larger issue through arts," says Harris. "I wanted it to be improvisational because that's what conversation is. And if you're looking at a changing neighborhood you better have your metaphor ready and what's a better metaphor if not improvisation?"

Drop by Saturday, 7 pm. Avenue 50 Studio, 131 N. Ave. 50, Highland Park. For more information, call (323) 258-1435.

-- Lynell George

Photo: Inspiration House Poetry Choir at Avenue 50 Studio. Photo courtesy of Kathy Gallegos

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