Recent issues have brought our readers a diversity of international theatre, incorporating various cultures, aesthetic traditions, historical and political contexts. While we continue that trend this month with accounts of John Dillon’s touching experience directing an American classic in Japan and Nicaraguan director Allan Bolt’s recent visit to the States, this issue’s cover story finds us coming home—to examine America’s own diverse, indigenous culture.
Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun is firmly ensconced as an American classic and represents a watershed in American drama that stimulated the development of a whole body of new black dramatic literature. Not only did Raisin open doors that promised a bright future for black American playwrights, actors and directors, but it paved the way for similar developments in playwriting that later began to mirror the lives of other American cultural groups.
Today the Negro Ensemble Company not only performs in New York but tours nationally and internationally, bringing new black plays to audiences worldwide. There are also theatres devoted to the production of Hispanic-American, Asian-American and Jewish-American plays. The Arts Endowment recently awarded grants for special projects ranging from a play about Hopi Indians to one on the legends of Micronesia to be developed by the Honolulu Theatre for Youth. All this, and more, represents American culture.
This season promises to be a virtual festival of Asian-American drama—a new production of the Sondheim musical Pacific Overtures was transferred by the Shuberts from the nonprofit York Theatre to Off Broadway last month; this month Seattle’s Intiman Theatre opens The Dance and the Railroad by David Henry Hwang, whose work will be seen later in the season in Minneapolis and Los Angeles; Theatre of the Open Eye will stage Philip Kan Gotanda’s new play The Dream of Kitamura in New York; and Michael Cimino is reportedly shooting a film version of Frank Chin’s play The Year of the Dragon. East West Players in Los Angeles and New York’s Pan Asian Repertory Company each continue to offer a full season of plays specializing in Asian-American themes.
Yet in spite of the many successful “ethnic” plays produced in recent years, it is still the ethnic companies themselves that promulgate the majority of the work. Other institutional theatres have only begun to integrate America’s cultural diversity into their ongoing repertoires, despite demographic indexes that reveal profound changes in the composition of the population—and, therefore, of potential audiences.
It was a miracle that Raisin was produced at all, for the only stage available in 1959 was the commercial stage, and no audience for black plays had yet been identified. Today, we are fortunate to have a decentralized theatre created to serve communities nationwide and a theatregoing audience sophisticated enough to take a chance on adventurous projects.
“In an age of terrific implications as to wealth and poverty, as to the function of government, as to peace and war, as to the relation of the artist to all these forces, the theatre must grow up. The theatre must become conscious of the implications of the changing social order, or the changing social order will ignore, and rightly, the implications of the theatre.” Hallie Flanagan wrote that in the ’30s when she headed the Federal Theatre Project, but it is equally apt today.
Recently, Yale Repertory Theatre artistic director Lloyd Richards echoed her warning: “We need a greater sense of the multi-national nature of our society” he said, urging more sensitivity to what is going on around us.
What is going on around us? This month we will go to the polls to vote in a presidential election in which Jesse Jackson, a black man, played a major role. Two major American cities recently elected black mayors. By the year 2000, the Hispanic population of the United States will have almost doubled and will constitute our largest single cultural group. In communities on the West Coast already significant Asian American populations were recently swelled by the influx of “boat people,” refugees from a war in which America herself was a major participant. These new immigrants are coming home to America.
Hansberry said that in order to create the universal, you must pay great attention to the specific. The specifics of her play universally touched Americans. One has only to read the moving sidebar account of one young man’s first encounter with her play as an audience member in Detroit to realize its impact. Would Woodie King, Jr. have grown up to be an important champion of cultural diversity in the American theatre if that play had not been written—or produced?
Hansberry wanted to “make new sounds.” All the co-mingling cultures in our nation are making new sounds—sounds that can reverberate artistically on America’s stages; sounds that can be heard by a diverse audience from the seats in our theatres. A vast body of American dramatic literature has been built over the past quarter-century since Raisin illuminated a new understanding of people and art; the raw materials to chronicle all of our multifarious cultures are available to us. No country in the world has so many resources right at its fingertips.
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