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Another milestone for East West Players

February 14, 2009 |  6:00 pm

Tim Dang, East West Players artistic director East West Players has long been known as the granddaddy of Asian American stage companies. Now, the 44-year-old ensemble is laying claim to being the country's longest-operating professional theater of color.

Producing artistic director Tim Dang, right, says the idea was first mentioned to him by an official from Theatre Communications Group, the national organization for not-for-profit professional theater.

"I had always thought, for the most part, we have been following in the footsteps of our African American arts leaders as they have been the trailblazers in breaking the color barrier," Dang says. Indeed, East West's closest rivals agewise include the Freedom Theatre in Philadelphia, which started in 1966, and the storied Negro Ensemble Company in New York, which was founded a year later.

"Perhaps," says Dang, "it is now our time to assume leadership or even share leadership, particularly in California, where the Asian Pacific Islander population is growing very quickly."

Ethnic theaters began to take root in the socially turbulent 1960s, buoyed by the rise of the regional and alternative theater movements -- which promoted the belief that anybody could produce plays anywhere.

East West was created in 1965 ...

... to give Asian Americans the chance to perform roles they might not get otherwise, be it in Shakespeare or Sondheim. That mission was expanded to include cultivating Asian American plays and playwrights, especially after EWP launched its David Henry Hwang Writers Institute in 1991 and moved in 1998 from a Santa Monica Boulevard storefront to a 240-seat house in Little Tokyo.

The company's 194th production, which opens Wednesday, is the comedy-fantasy "Ixnay" by first-time dramatist Paul Kikuchi, an institute graduate. You can read about how Kikuchi's play went from class assignment to main stage here or in Sunday's Arts & Books section.

Over the years, EWP has established itself as the center of Asian American theater as well as a respected local producer of new and classic works. Like many of its colleagues, it also has weathered money problems and internal squabbles and it is constantly seeking better ways to serve the ever-expanding Asian American community.

So, how has East West managed to not only survive, but thrive for so long?

Dang credits devoted artists and a supportive board and public. Staying mellow also has helped. "I think being calm and not jumping to any reactionary position is key to our longevity," he says. "Talking things out has always been important to us in bridging the many parts of EWP."

-- Karen Wada

Credit: Carlos Chavez / Los Angeles Times