Things are looking a little rosier for the reopening of the Spotlight Theatre in downtown Bakersfield.
If all goes as planned, Spotlight will present "The Fantasticks" in May, under the direction of veteran local producer-director Ron Steinman, who's also serving as treasurer of the nonprofit organization.
Two factors have made it possible to do the show: a crew of energetic volunteers who are cleaning up the interior and backstage areas, and an anonymous underwriter who will fund the musical.
A week ago, I was one of about a dozen guests whom board president Peggy Darling invited to tour the recently refurbished facility.
It does look spiffier, especially the freshly painted basement, which is used mainly for rehearsals and classes.
This below-ground--level area also has a brightly lit dressing room with a long mirror on one wall and a wooden pole for hanging costumes opposite. It's painted a pleasant peach color.
Darling is planning to tour other groups of interested people in the weeks to come.
"I want everybody to see what we've done," she said. "It really does look a lot better than it did a year ago."
Even so, more volunteers of the "worker-bee" category are needed to continue the restoration. Those who are interested should call board member Lauren Franconi at 589-4849.
Spotlight has an impressive collection of costumes. Several of these elegant gowns can be seen on mannequins that have been placed on an ornamental balcony visible from the lobby area.
On the night I visited, Annette Bridgeman spoke to the group from the lighted stage, which was adorned with a white multi-layered lace dress on a model that stood next to a delicate-looking Victorian chair upholstered with red velvet.
In a conversational manner Bridgeman recounted her experiences with Spotlight as a performer and a member of the board, right from the beginning almost 15 years ago.
Bridgeman recalled how the 99-seat theater started out as a private business founded by Emily and Jacques Thiroux, and ultimately evolved into the nonprofit organization it is now.
She also "tested" the audience's memories of musicals by singing, a capella, a few measures from three or four shows. Just about all of us got the songs from "Oklahoma" and "Annie Get Your Gun," but I doubt that anybody scored 100 percent.
Darling said plans call for three more productions after "The Fantasticks" in a season that will extend through 2014. The shows are "Fiorello," "Miracle on 34th Street" and "Ragtime."
Black history at BCT
In planning their observance of Black History Month at Bakersfield Community Theatre, Drew Hallum and Kenneth Whitchard put out an unusual casting call --unusual, that is, for a show that focuses on the lives of black people.
"When I announced to the public on Facebook that ANYONE was allowed to audition, a few people were confused," Hallum said in an email. "White people can audition for a black play? Yes, I said; why, yes, they can."
Hallum went on to say that he and Whitchard had a certain vision about the style of the show. In other words, it was meant to celebrate black history, that these interviews and stories would be told, and skin color didn't determine who read which monologues.
"I was surprised and pleased to see the reactions from the (people) of Bakersfield toward this production," he said, "and the message we were trying to get across."
As he and Whitchard anticipated, black as well as white actors will appear in "The Slave Narratives." In addition to the producers, the cast includes Savannah Bush, Tim Fromm, Camie Comer, Abby Coggins, Karalee Webb, Malcolm Patterson and Jo Anne Coston.
Material that will be read has been drawn from various published sources and represents recollections of people who were slaves themselves or had ancestors who were in bondage.
Running time is about 90 minutes; the show will be performed this weekend only. A black-box style of theater is being used, so the stage essentially will be bare.
Harlem and Beyond Finale
To wrap up this year's Harlem and Beyond programs, a number of singers, musicians, writers and actors will join together for a final celebration on Saturday at Rising Star Baptist Church.
Also on hand will be two former Tuskegee Airmen who are in their 80s: Buford Johnson, an airplane mechanic, and Rusty Burns, a fighter pilot.
Both will talk about their experiences serving in the segregated Army Air Corps as it was called during World War II.
Burns, 87, will show a PowerPoint presentation that relates the history of the Tuskegee Airmen in pictures, paintings and historic documents.
"I've wanted to fly ever since I was 7 or 8 years old," he said in a phone conversation. "Back then it was something to see a plane up in the sky, seeing it remain up there -- that was exciting."
Although Burns graduated and got his pilot's wings, he never flew in combat.
"That was in March 1945 and we were supposed to be sent to the Pacific but the war was just about over," he said. "Ours was the first (Tuskegee) class not to go overseas."
The training was tough and so were the circumstances, he recalled, adding that nothing was easy for blacks in those days.
"The country was mired in segregation," he said. "There was discrimination and (we were) trying to live up to the separate-but- equal laws. It's just in the last 30-40 years that there's been a movement toward civil rights."
After leaving the service, Burns operated a flight operation business based at the Compton Airport for about 20 years. Nowadays he doesn't fly much.
"I'm content to have survived 57 years of flying without a scratch," he said. Then with laughter in his voice he added, "The only kind of planes I fly now are radio-controlled models like this one I've got right here on my desk."
Hurley plays in Tehachapi
Singer-songwriter James Hurley will perform a concert on Saturday at Fiddlers Crossing in Tehachapi.
The acoustic guitarist describes his work as a blend of jazz, blues, rock, pop and folk music. His last appearance in Tehachapi was several years ago when he played at the now-defunct Mama Hillybeans.
In biographical material provided by Fiddlers Crossing owner Debby Hand, Hurley says he loves songs with "stories I could get lost in."
As an example, he cited "the imagery of Merle Haggard singing, 'First thing I remember knowin' is a lonesome whistle blowin' completely captured my imagination. I could listen and watch as the entire movie played inside my mind. I think that's when I figured out that you could say things in a song that can't be expressed in language alone."