August Wilson’s keynote address at the TCG Conference in late June, later published in these pages as “The Ground on Which I Stand,” was greeted with a standing ovation by the various resident theatre people attending, though some found it divisive and disturbing. Since I was not present at the conference, I was hardly in a position to express my own reactions, though word leaked back to me that chief among the malefactors identified in Wilson’s broadside—his “snipers” and “naysayers” and “cultural imperialists”—was myself. I frame th reply not just to defend and clarify a personal position which I believe to have been misrepresented but also to debate some of the more troubling general issues raised in his speech.
Wilson’s rambling jeremiad is essentially an effort to accentuate the achievements of black theatre, which he claims to be supreme today though “often accomplished amid adverse and hostile conditions.” “Black theatre is alive, it is vibrant, it is vital,” he says. But not all its practitioners are worthy of praise. In the same speech, Wilson manages to express his disdain for black “crossover artists” who, “like house slaves entertaining the white master and his guests,” manage to “slant their material for white consumption.” He rebukes white foundations for failing to create and subsidize black theatre companies. And he characterizes the idea of “colorblind casting” as “a tool of the Cultural Imperialists”—“the same idea of assimilation that black Americans have been rejecting for the past 300 years.”
If you hear echoes in this of 1960s radicalism, particularly the language of Black Nationalism, your ears are not deceiving you. And Wilson is hardly reluctant to admit his militant inheritance. Testifying that the Black Power movement was “the kiln in which I was fired,” he proclaims that its concern with “self-determination, self-respect and self-defense” are the values that govern his life. He claims that “I am what is known, at least among the followers and supporters of Marcus Garvey, as a ‘race man.’” He announces that the ground on which he stands was pioneered “by Nat Turner, by Denmark Vesey, by Martin Delaney, Marcus Garvey and the Honorable Elijah Muhammed”—rebels or separatists all, some proponents of a return to Africa. Conspicuous by its absence is the name of Martin Luther King, among many other honored black Americans for whom the idea of integration has not been considered anathema.
The foundation of this long tirade is Wilson’s insistence on black culture, particularly black theatre, not only as an unparalleled achievement but also a singular and discrete experience of life. It is an experience that cannot be fully absorbed or understood by white people, much less criticized by them: “We cannot allow others to have authority over our cultural and spiritual products,” he says. “We need to develop guidelines for the protection of our cultural property, our contributions and the influence they accrue.” Whites and blacks can occupy the same country, but they cannot occupy the same ground. “Where is the common ground in the horrifics of lynching? Where is the common ground in the policeman’s bullet? Where is the common ground in the hull or the deck of a slave ship…?” He describes “black conduct and manners as part of a system that is fueled by its own philosophy, mythology, history, creative motif, social organization and ethos.” He deplores the presence of a black actor in a non-black play, standing on the stage “as part of a social milieu that has denied him his gods, his humanity, his mores, his ideas of himself and the world he lives in….” Indeed, he considers the very idea of an all-black production of Death of a Salesman to be “an assault on our presence…an insult to our intelligence.”
This is the language of self-segregation. At times, it is true, Wilson is willing to concede that blacks and whites breathe the same air and partake of certain “commonalities” of culture. Among these “commonalities” he mentions food, though even that admission is weirdly exclusionary. Black people have had to be satisfied with the leavings of the pig. Yet, blacks and whites “share a common experience with the pig as opposed to say Muslims and Jews, who do not share that experience.” (Black Muslims? Reform Jews?) It is also true that, in the rolling cadences that bring his speech to its climax, Wilson concedes the American theatre’s power to “inform about the human condition, its power to heal, its power to hold the mirror as ’twere up to nature, its power to uncover the truths we wrestle from uncertain and sometimes unyielding realities.” Even this boilerplate rhetoric, however, for all its afterthought references to the unifying nature of the theatre, fails to compensate for the divisive nature of his remarks. Perhaps some future student of syntax will analyze how Wilson’s vacillating use of the word “we” in the same paragraph (first inclusive: “We have to do it together,” then exclusive: “We are brave and we are boisterous”) betrays his ambivalent sense of American identity. This ambivalence makes for some confusing assertions. “We are black and beautiful….We are not separatists.… We are Africans. We are Americans.”
Furthermore, Wilson’s insistence on the strength and uniqueness of a proud black culture is oddly inconsistent with his notion that blacks are “victims of the counting houses who hold from us ways to develop and support our talents.” This inconsistency grows more glaring when Wilson directs his biblical fury towards some of these “counting houses” (that is, the funding agencies) and concludes that “the economics are reserved as privilege to the overwhelming abundance of institutions that promote and perpetrate white culture.” He notes that of the 66 LORT theatres only one can be considered black. And in an impassioned if curious appeal for subsidized separatism, he sees no contradiction in demanding that white foundations take the responsibility for founding as well as funding black theatres, as if theatre companies were the creation of philanthropic agencies rather than the indigenous outgrowths of dedicated artists and supporting communities.
I’m not at all certain anymore what constitutes a “black” or “white” theatre. Both the now-defunct Negro Ensemble Company and the thriving Crossroads Theatre fit Wilson’s exclusive definition clearly enough. But how does one describe the New York Public Theater and Atlanta Alliance Theatre under the black artists George C. Wolfe and Kenny Leon? Or the Yale Repertory Theatre and Syracuse Stage when they were led by such black directors as Lloyd Richards and Tazewell Thompson? Most American theatres today, like many American cities—indeed like many Americans are racially mixed. Are black actors now to perform only black parts written by black playwrights? Will James Earl Jones no longer have a chance to play Judge Brack or Darth Vader? Must we bar Andre Braugher and Denzel Washington from enacting the Shakespearean monarchs? Is Othello not to be an acceptable opportunity for Morgan Freeman or Laurence Fishburne? Will Athol Fugard be told he cannot take a colored role in his own plays? No more Voodoo Macbeths or all-black Godots? No more efforts on behalf of nontraditional casting and integrated theatre companies? Must history be rolled back to the days of segregated theatres?
I fear Wilson is displaying a failure of memory—I hesitate to say a failure of gratitude—when he charges nonprofit resident theatres with using “sociological criteria” in choosing seasons that “traditionally exclude blacks.” All of his own plays were originated and produced by a large consortium of mainstream institutions, including the Yale Repertory Theatre, the Huntington, the American Conservatory Theater, the Goodman, the Mark Taper, and so on. Wilson’s pervasive tone of victimization, in fact, is oddly inappropriate for a playwright whose six LORT-generated plays, after completing the resident theatre circuit, all found their way to Broadway, where they won two Pulitzer Prizes, five New York Drama Critics’ Circle awards, and I don’t know how many Tonys, besides generating enormous box-office income for the playwright (from white and black audiences alike). Is a man who has garnered such extraordinary media attention (not to mention every conceivable playwriting fellowship) really in a position to say that blacks are being excluded from the American theatre or that these institutions only “preserve, promote and perpetuate white culture”? Has he read any foundation reports lately? Does he have any idea of the proportion of grants, both public and private, that are exclusively reserved for inner-city audience development and multicultural activities in resident theatres?
I am the only villain identified by name in Wilson’s speech. He makes reference to my article “Diversity and Unity,” but there are also hidden allusions to what I wrote in “The Options of Multiculturalism,” my unfavorable review of his play The Piano Lesson, and my Times op-ed piece on coercive foundation funding. Wilson specifically attacks what he calls my “surprisingly sophomoric assumption” that the present funding climate is characterized by confused standards and sociological rather than aesthetic criteria. I confess to believing that most foundations (by their own admission) no longer make artistic quality their primary consideration. But I categorically deny I ever said that “the practice of extending invitations to a national banquet from which a lot of hungry people have been excluded” (my phrase, uncredited) establishes (his phrase) “a presumption of inferiority of the work of minority artists.”
Wilson’s charge, with its nasty imputations of racism, is intended to characterize a review of two minority playwrights who, in my estimation, met the highest standards, and without being exclusionary. “Drenched in their own cultural juices,” I wrote, “they are nevertheless capable of telling stories that include us all, thus proving again that the theatre works best as a unifying rather than a segregating medium.” I was talking about transcendence, about recognizing that the greatest art embraces a common humanity.
Although Wilson might dismiss such playwrights—the younger generation of black writers like Anna Deavere Smith and OyamO and Suzan-Lori Parks—as “crossover artists” entertaining the slave owner and his guests, my article was a plea to minority playwrights like himself to acknowledge, without any loss of racial consciousness, that they belong, as artists, to the same human family as everyone else.
Some people may remember that, almost alone among white critics, I have expressed reservations about Wilson’s plays. This was an aesthetic judgment, not a racial one. While I admire Wilson’s control of character and dialogue, a lot of his writing has seemed to me weakly structured, badly edited, prosaic and overwritten. Consider, for instance, Seven Guitars, which I didn’t review (I left after four guitars). I don’t think it exposes “the values of white Americans based on their European ancestors” to believe that a conventionally realistic play needs an animating event, and that, however colorful its subject matter, it cannot ramble willy-nilly for two-and-a-half hours before establishing a line of action. My less technical objection has been that, by choosing to chronicle the oppression of black people through each of the decades, Wilson has fallen into a monotonous tone of victimization which happens to be the leitmotif of his TCG speech.
I am also disturbed by other attitudes reflected in that speech, notably that only the black experience inspires the work of black artists. In “The Options of Multiculturalism,” I suggested that, while Wilson has announced he will never allow a white director to stage his plays, a backyard drama like Fences shows the considerable influence of white playwrights, particularly Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. (It may be that Wilson’s anger over this conjecture ricochets into his ferocious attack on the New York Times for allegedly underplaying the influence of black singers on Michael Bolton—something he calls an “intent to maim.”)
It is perfectly possible that I am wrong in my assessments. And I can understand how a playwright, no matter how highly praised by mainstream critics, can smart under adverse criticism, even in a relatively small-circulation periodical such as The New Republic. It is also no doubt painful to him that Seven Guitars lost the Tony this year to Master Class. But that is no justification for wheeling out the creaky juggernaut of Black Power to roll over any critic who makes a negative judgment on his plays. Indeed, Wilson seems to suggest occasionally that the only true critical function is boosterism. For at the same time that Wilson is questioning the very idea of critical opinions (“The true critic does not sit in judgment…the critic has an important responsibility to guide and encourage…growth”), he is announcing that every African American, contrary to Du Bois’s idea of “the talented tenth,” is artistically gifted: “All God’s children got talent.” This is progressive-school nonsense. The greatest tribute that a critic can pay to a playwright such as Wilson is to judge and analyze his work by the same criteria as anybody else’s work.
Wilson writes: “I stand myself and my art squarely on the self-defining ground of the slave quarters.” Isn’t it time to acknowledge that, for all the grim uncompleted racial business in this country, those quarters have long been razed to the ground? Isn’t there some kind of statute of limitations on white guilt and white reparations? Isn’t it possible to recognize that there is a difference between losing your freedom and losing a Tony, between toting a bale of cotton and carrying around an unfavorable review? To say that whites can’t understand black culture because their ancestors were not enslaved is almost as problematical as saying that Wilson can’t understand the writings of a Jew because he hasn’t experienced life under the Pharaohs. Many brilliant black artists and intellectuals—Albert Murray, Ralph Ellison, Henry Louis Gates, Shelby Steele and others—have repudiated the “ethnographic fallacy” that one writer’s peculiar experiences can represent a whole social category. This tribalist approach, as Diane Ravitch has written, “confuses race with culture, as though everyone with the same skin color had the same culture and history.”
August Wilson is more comfortable writing plays than apostolic decrees. His speech is melancholy testimony to the rabid identity politics and poisonous racial consciousness that have been infecting our country in recent years. Although Wilson would deny it, such sentiments represent a reverse form of the old politics of division, an appeal for socially approved and foundation-funded separatism. I don’t think Martin Luther King ever imagined an America where playwrights such as August Wilson would be demanding, under the pretense of calling for healing and unity, an entirely separate stage for black theatre artists. What next? Separate schools? Separate washrooms? Separate drinking fountains?
AUGUST WILSON RESPONDS:
Truth is not an individual perception. There are 66 LORT theatres strung like pearls across this country from Maine to Alaska. Only one of them is dedicated to preserving and promoting black culture. This gives us a theatre not only skewed toward whites and the so-called classical values of European theatre, but one that impedes the development of a truly American theatre and ignores the contributions being made by others of various ethnic and racial backgrounds.
The American theatre is not the property of any one race or culture. To have a theatre that promotes the values of black Americans, our hard-won survival and prosperity, that addresses ways of life that are peculiar to us, that investigates our personalities and social intercourse and philosophical thought, is not to be outside of the American theatre or Western theatre any more than Ibsen and Chekhov’s explorations of Norwegian and Russian culture make them outsiders—or David Mamet’s insightful and provocative explorations of white American culture make him an outsider.
Yet the influence and contributions of black Americans are not recognized by any gain in material culture that would allow us to further develop our arts and establish control over their dissemination. We are being strangled by our well-meaning friends. Money spent “diversifying” the American theatre, developing black audiences for white institutions, developing ideas of colorblind casting, only strengthens and solidifies this stranglehold by making our artists subject to the paternalistic notions of white institutions that dominate and control the art.
Doing a black play or allowing blacks to have roles not written for them does not change the nature of the institution or its mission. Blacks come and go and the institution remains dedicated to its ideas of “preserving culture and promoting thought.” Our visitor pass expires and we never have a permanent place to hang our hat, to develop our own ideas, and to provide our community with a sense of cultural worth and self-sufficiency. The damage this does to our present institutions and our already debilitated communities is evident and significant.
It is true, as Robert Brustein asserts, that theatres are the indigenous outgrowths of dedicated artists and supporting communities. No one knows that better than the people involved in black theatre. Most of the time all they have to make theatre with is their passionate dedication and loving, supporting communities. The funding is reserved as the privilege of sociological criteria for white theatres and their dedicated individuals and supporting communities.
When Brustein trumpets as universal artists whose “perceptions go beyond racial and sectarian agendas,” he is denying those artists who explore and investigate their lives as African Americans the right to occupy the ground of universality because they have values other than his, and he sees no value to their agendas. His bias blinds him to the fact that being a black artist isn’t “limiting” any more than being a white artist is limiting, and that being a black artist does not mean you have to disengage yourself from the world and your concerns as a global citizen or from the ideas of love, honor, duty, betrayal, etc., that are the concerns of all great art.
Brustein also demonstrates an irresponsibility of language, makes false and spurious accusations, categorically denies factual information (see The New Republic, July 19–26, 1993, p. 29, col. 1, line 10), mistitles his own essay and makes large and erroneous assumptions. At the very least he need not invent things for me to say. I have never said I consider black theatre “supreme.” That is not my word or my belief or my attitude.
Furthermore, I have never said I wouldn’t allow a white director to direct my plays. Having worked with Bill Partlan and Amy Saltz and Steve Robman at the O’Neill National Playwrights Conference on five separate occasions, I have had nothing but the highest praise for their work; likewise Irene Lewis’s stirring production of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone at Center Stage in Baltimore, and Howard Davies’s splendid staging of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the National Theatre in London. I approved of both those directors. What I did say about white directors is known or available to any attentive reader. To suggest that I owe a debt of gratitude to the theatres that have done my work is to suggest my plays are without sufficient merit to warrant their production other than as an act of benevolence. I reject that, as well I am sure the artistic leadership of the theatres in which I have worked would reject such blighted thought. Brustein has no way of knowing what I think of the work of OyamO, Anna Deavere Smith, Suzan-Lori Parks or anyone else. I would take exception to his characterization of their work as “crossover,” and he is emphatically wrong in saying I hold them in “disdain.” While I do believe I am correct in the two parallel traditions of black art as defined in my talk, I would never be so arrogant as to tell any artist what kind of work they should be doing. My criticism of Du Bois’s concept of a talented tenth was that it was divisive among blacks, as it set up a hierarchy that allowed its enemies to drive a wedge between the talented and untalented and obscure their assaults on the body politic of black America. Obviously, everyone is not artistically talented, but there are kinds of talent other than artistic, and here in America everyone deserves the opportunity to develop whatever talent they have to its fullest.
Brustein confuses the role of the critic with “authority,” and sees my call for the control and dissemination of black art, our spiritual product, as an attack on critics. I don’t see critics as authority, and was actually talking about others who set themselves up as custodian of the black experience and who exercise real control of the dissemination of its products. For the record: We do not ask, we do not seek, nor do we want special treatment. Inasmuch as we are part of Western Theatre, work should be judged on those terms and principles as outlined by Aristotle in his Poetics. We have never asked to stand outside of that or to have our work treated differently or judged by different standards or criteria because we are black. We have never said that white reviewers cannot understand black theatre—if you can understand Duke Ellington and Ray Charles, you can understand black theatre. We have said that critics have a valuable and important role to play in the continuing development of theatre, but we do recognize not all critics are valuable and important.
Finally, Martin Luther King Jr. was an honorable man who died on the battlefield while challenging America to live up to the meaning of her creed so as not to make a mockery of her ideals. Before Brustein gets so carried way in invoking the name of King in service of the status quo, let us remember that it is Brustein’s failure to imagine a theatre broad enough and secure enough in its traditions to absorb and make use of all manners and cultures of American life that contributes to the failure of the American spirit that permits King’s challenge to go unmet. We issue the challenge again. We cannot afford to fail.
The issues raised in this discussion will be the topic of further commentary in the November issue of American Theatre.
Robert Brustein is artistic director of the American Repertory Theatre and theatre critic of The New Republic, in which a version of this essay previously appeared.