Gordon Davidson’s Life in Theater Celebrated at Ahmanson

At the Center Theatre Group’s celebration of Gordon Davidson’s life Monday at the Ahmanson there were testimonials, poems and songs sung to honor the man who built up regional theater on the West Coast. Davidson, 83, died Oct. 2 in Los Angeles.

Michael Ritchie, CTG artistic director, kicked off the events, describing how, 12 years ago, he was picked to be Davidson’s successor. It was a “distinct honor and daunting task to follow Gordon Davidson,” he said, knowing it could go “two ways.”

Among the speakers were former Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who related how “Ronald Reagan walked out,” at the Mark Taper Forum’s 1967 opening of the controversial play “The Devils.”  The Catholic Church was horrified and his predecessors on the Board of Supervisors were terrified. But Davidson stood firm.

Testifying to the highlights of Davidson’s career were the artists he nurtured, including Charlayne Woodard, Andrea Marcovicci, Lillias White, and Keith David who sang, accompanied by pianists Shelly Markham and Bill Cantos.

Playwright Michael Cristofer described how Davidson helped take his “Shadow Boxer” to Broadway, fighting the producers who wanted to shut it down. Luis Valdez, whose “Zoot Suit” is returning to the Taper next month, talked about how his company entered the mainstream when Davidson staged the play. Davidson had asked Valdez about updating “Zoot Suit,” which the playwright initially saw no reason to, telling Davidson, “It’s done.” But then he realized there was more to say.

Culture Clash’s Richard Montoya talked about the staging of “Chavez Ravine” and introduced Ric Salinas and Herbert Siguenza, who re-created the Bud Abbott and Lou Costello classic bit “Who’s on First.”

Many of the artists spoke of how Davidson “saw something in me” that they themselves were unaware of, and how his help changed their professional lives. On a lighter note, speakers also mentioned his habit of nodding off during a show. But at the same time, he would give notes that made them wonder if had been awake all along.

Not all the speakers were playwrights or actors. Manager Jonathan Barlow Lee and director Tom Moore brought the house down with his descriptions of working with Davidson. Whenever something went wrong, Davidson would ask, “How could this happen?,” Lee said.

A few videotaped testimonials were presented, including one from Tony Kushner, who spoke about Davidson’s early backing for “Angels in America.”

Actor Harry Groener; director Tom Moore; Oskar Eustis, artistic director of New York’s Public Theater;  Davidson’s daughter, Rachel; and his wife, Judi, spoke emotionally about the private man.

“I would have treated him better if I’d known how important he was going to be,” quipped Judi Davidson. On a more somber note, she said Davidson had thought he’d been forgotten, but seeing the full house Monday night he would have realized that was not the case.

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