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Matrix Producer Joe Stern Tests the Comfort Zone in New Play, 'Neighbors'
(Originally printed in the Palisadian-Post, Sept. 9, 2010)

By Libby Motika
Photo: Rich Schmitt

Joe Stern can't be trusted. The veteran producer of theater, film and TV can't be trusted to navigate in tame waters. In a conscious from-the-gut decision, the award-winning Stern has made a 180-degree turnabout in his focus and programming at The Matrix, the theatre he has operated on Melrose Avenue since 1976.

Long considered a great white-bread bastion of good theater, The Matrix over the years has produced a remarkable catalogue of award-winning plays, including Becket's 'Waiting for Godot,' Pinter's 'The Birthday Party' and George M. Cohan's 'The Tavern,' all starring top-notch professional actors.

'The mission of the Matrix has always been staging classical work using great actors,' Stern explains in prefacing his change of direction.

Somewhere around 2005, the Pacific Palisades resident began to feel the need to branch out, to widen the scope of material to reflect more of the ethnic diversity and issues that concern race, immigration and assimilation in Los Angeles. After all, he had braved the conservative culture of television during his three seasons of as executive producer of 'Law & Order' and six-year run of 'Judging Amy.'

'In my three years at Law & Order, I had minorities playing lawyers and white-collar professionals. I was breaking down racial stereotypes and tore down the conditioning of the audiences.' In 'Judging Amy,' he altered scripts in terms of gender and race to provide more opportunities for actors.

Determined to see more colors in the audience, Stern achieved a certain satisfaction with the staging of Lydia R. Diamond's 'Stick Fly' in 2009, the first production to reflect his change in orientation.

The story, set in the Martha's Vineyard summer home of an upper-middle class African-American family, explored parental expectations and sibling rivalry amidst the intertwining issues of class and race.

The play was a success, enjoying sold-out performances throughout the entire run. 'It was thrilling to see another race in the audience,' Stern recalls.

Buoyed by the enthusiastic response to the play, Stern took on the decidedly controversial Branden Jacobs-Jenkins play 'Neighbors,' which he liked for its re-examination of race that reflects the view of younger African Americans.

'Neighbors,' currently on stage at The Matrix, looks at the unraveling of an upwardly mobile mixed-race family when confronted with the new next-door neighbors, the sort of ghetto brethren that assimilated African Americans disdain at a deep emotional level. In the play, college professor Richard uses the N-word when he first sees the uncouth family of black actors, who perform in black face. Fact or simply Richard's prejudiced projection, the feelings of repulsion, fear and guilt hit both black and white audiences profoundly.

According to director Nitaki Garrett, we look at a group of people who might embarrass us in certain situations and we think to distant ourselves.

'Many people think this play is old hat,' Stern says. 'Older generation African Americans say 'Enough is enough. Why are we dragging this stuff out?' I don't think so. I don't think any of it is old hat. Other critics think that the sexuality and satire that borders on the grotesque is not funny.'

Indeed, when 'Neighbors' was first workshopped at the Matrix last December, and subsequently mounted by New York's Public Theater in February, it touched off a firestorm, Stern recalls.

When the play opened at The Matrix last week, 'the KPFK reviewer walked out before the end,' Stern says. 'He said that he was repelled by the white audience laughing at blacks. I think the thing is that these 'liberal whites' think that they're the conscience bearers.'

Stern, who was born in Los Angeles and graduated from Fairfax High and UCLA, aimed to become a professional Shakespearean actor. He auditioned at Joe Papp's Public Theatre and was hired there'his first paid acting job.

'I did six plays for Joe,' Stern says, adding that after he turned Joe down for the company's first cross-country mobile tour in 1971, Joe held it against him. 'He was a pretty abrasive guy.'

Soon after, Stern was cast in a network series, which brought him back to Los Angeles. He was fired from the show, which led to soul-searching and an honest assessment of his talent. 'I was just a working actor,' Stern says. 'I never wanted it bad enough.'

Nevertheless, Stern has always been a champion for actors and now more than ever thinks that they are an endangered species. 'The culture doesn't support them. There is no respect. This is due to a number of factors: the technological age, busted unions and runaway production. A lot of actors are retiring. Many producers think that actors are interchangeable. They're not!'

Stern has always cast his plays at The Matrix, just as he insisted on final say for his television and film projects. He enjoys a great deal of flexibility at the 99-seat waiver theater, with no board of directors to please, and more recently no subscription series, because his projects materialize over an indeterminate time frame. Of course, this freedom also carries with it the burden of funding the theater, which so far he has managed from ticket sales and his own pocket book.

In 1993, Stern and his late wife, Peppy, moved to a house perched overlooking Las Pulgas Canyon with a sliver of an ocean view. Peppy became a force in Pacific Palisades and a stalwart at Kehillah Israel, serving as president from 1983 to 1990. She died in 2002 at 62, after 38 years of marriage.

Stern is now married to photographer and filmmaker Karen Bellone and is enjoying his new life. 'She's a bohemian, animal activist. Here I am almost 70 and I have never had a pet, and now we have two dogs.' Karen's daughter, Sophia Hedgecock, just entered seventh grade at Wildwood and is in the same class as one of Stern's grandchildren. Stern has two grown sons and four grandchildren.

Stern is confident that the conversation about race continues to be important in our lives. 'It's just as needed as ever because people think that we're OK now because we're elected a black President.'

Interestingly, he encountered several surprises in casting 'Neighbors.'

Some actors didn't audition because they thought black face was demeaning. Others didn't want the job of Richard because they thought it an unsympathetic and demeaning role. 'It takes a lot of courage to put on black face,' Stern admits. 'When the actors came out into the lobby after the play, people didn't recognize then. Recognition is key for an actor.'

Stern knows that he's onto something and while he has yet to settle on a more cohesive 'season,' he wants to continue the exploration.

'I believe that we're moving forward with being color blind and becoming more tolerant. But, in the end, the truth is that people don't like to be uncomfortable. That's why we can't look at homeless people.' And that's why at the end of 'Neighbors,' the black-face cast stands staring at the audience, silent, expressionless, leaving us hanging.

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