Watts Village Theater Company founder and Los Angeles humanitarian Lynn Manning died Monday after a quiet battle with liver cancer. He was 60 years old.
Manning was blinded at the age of 23 after he was shot by a stranger in a Hollywood bar, but he did not let his lack of sight stop him from exercising his artistic talent. He was initially a painter, but after the shooting, he entered the liberal arts and went on to become an award-winning poet, playwright and actor. At one point, he also held the title as the world champion of Blind Judo.
“In the absence of that vastness, that visual feast, I came to recognize the overwhelming distraction that sight had been,” Manning said about adjusting to being blind in a featured article by the LA Times. “I had never noticed that sound moves the way it does, or feels the way it does. And what about this pulse, this radiation that flows from all things? And the smells! Good God! The smells! Who knew such sensory lushness existed in this more immediate realm. Blind people knew. Blind people had to have known all along.”
Realizing that citizens of Watts were underserved in terms of art education, he co-founded the Watts Village Theater Company in 1996. In 2011, WVTC was honored with the American Theatre Wing National Theater Company Award and was named one of the top 10 most promising theater companies in America. The theater continues to perform live plays and offer acting and performance workshops for at-risk youth.
Two weeks ago, President Barack Obama recognized Manning’s “tremendous contribution and impact on the disabled community” at a White House event celebrating the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Friends and family say Manning’s death was unexpected, as he had just been diagnosed with liver cancer last year and kept his illness private so those around him could focus on upcoming WVTC productions.
“Lynn had a radiant passion and talent for theater,” the board of the Watts Village Theater Company said in a statement. “The WVTC community is grieving with deep sorrow. For some time, WVTC has been working with Lynn through this difficult period to ensure that we continue his legacy. Los Angeles has lost a gem and one of Watts’ finest.”