Who Are the Hittites?

Founded in 1987 during Los Angeles' "rock house wars," the Hittite Empire has its roots in drugs and violence. "Crack was takin' its toll," founder and artistic director Keith Antar Mason says. "A lot of young men we knew were winding up dead, and we didn't have a way of grieving. So the core group got together and started having these theatrical ceremonies in playgrounds and on basketball courts." It didn't take long for other black actors to hear about the Hittites. "Even though we couldn't pay them much, a lot of brothers wanted to join us. They were tired of playing gangbangers and sidekicks on cop shows."

The group's ceremonies began tackling issues such as AIDS, rape, and the Rodney King beating and cultural icons such as the Jackson Five -- in short, topics of meaning to the African-American community. In commenting on such topics, the Hittites saw themselves as fulfilling a purpose as community shamans and modern day griots, descendants of storytellers from ancient Africa. "I am a myth-maker," says Mason.

The Hittites' "performance rituals," combining raw, edgy commentary with haunting imagery, touched something deep in audiences of all cultures. In the past nine years, the group has performed over 200 multimedia events around the world, from Lincoln Center's Serious Fun Festival to the street corners of South Central L.A., with stops along the way at the Mark Taper Forum and the Solo Mio Festival in San Francisco. In their travels, the company has also made it a point to work with young black men ages 16 to 25 in other communities. These efforts have spawned groups that incorporate the Hittites' performance and activist methods in cities from Pittsburgh to Atlanta. -- M.G.

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