Playwright August Wilson and director Robert Brustein took their ongoing debate about race in American theatre to the stage of New York's Town Hall Theatre Jan. 27 for a two and a half hour faceoff moderated by another playwright, Anna Deavere Smith.
The men explored some of the sorest spots in the relations between black and white America, and how the cultural and political power is managed.
"James Baldwin," Smith began, "once wrote of the illusion of safety. We create the illusion to feel safe, but we also know the safety is just an illusion." Making clear that race would lie at the heart of the Wilson/Brustein debate, Smith also referred to Louis Farrakhan's speech at the Million Man March on Washington DC, at which he chided the Constitution's phrase, "in order to form a more perfect union." "`If it's perfect,'" Smith quoted, "`how can it be more?'"
"We are shaky," Smith admitted, yet she expressed hope that the discussion between the Wilson, who yearns for the creation of more specifically black theatre, and Brustein, who views such thinking as a idea that undermines a basic artistic aesthetic, would find common ground in their words and expressions. "Both men speak in metaphors," Smith said, "and metaphor is, perhaps, fatter than argument."
* Sustained applause greeted Brustein and Wilson, who, pro forma, emerged from opposite sides of the wide stage. The debate's structure gave each 15-20 minutes for his (written) thesis, "On Cultural Power," followed by a 30-minute discussion with Smith. During the intermission, audience members could write down questions that Smith would ask the gentlemen during the evening's second part.
To Wilson, Pulitzer-winning author of Fences and The Piano Lesson, whose plays employ almost uniformly black characters, non traditional casting smacks of assimilation, a subsuming of one's personal heritage to the demands of the dominant culture. "I would not support the idea of black people doing Chekhov," Wilson would explain in the second half debate -- nor does he condone men playing women and vice versa.
The author of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Joe Turner's Come and Gone and Seven Guitars made clear with his counter-argument that America's social system, and not an idealized, culturally unspecific (e.g., white and Western) definition of "art," was at the heart of his argument. "My ancestors came over in chains, on slave ships. Inside all blacks is at least one heartbeat that beats with the blood of Africa."
"This argument," began Brustein, founding director of Yale Rep and American Repertory Theatre, "boils down to a philosophic dispute about the basic function of dramatic art." According to Brustein, Wilson's position on the creation of purely "black" theatre, has a political motive - a way of giving African-Americans more power in the entertainment industry, and by extension, in America. Wilson, argued Brustein, may think a separately functioning black culture will lead to inclusion, but isolation and hostility would be the real end-products. "Almost all efforts to improve human conditions through a political system have been sour ones," said Brustein. "Ionesco once said, `all revolutions burn the libraries of Alexandria.' Instead we must, as Milan Kundera once wrote, `speak the truth to power.'" Brustein then defined "truth" as devotion to a human being, rather than to a cause.
One of the more surprising aspects of the Brustein/Wilson conflict, which began when Wilson responded, publicly (at a Theatre Communications Group conference), to opinions Brustein expressed in his column in "The Nation," is that Wilson is the one who opposes non-traditional casting, that is, casting plays without worrying whether the race and/or sex of the actor corresponds to that of the character. Answering Wilson's charge that he has racist tendencies, Brustein told the audience that he has championed color-blind casting at both Yale Rep and American Rep. Brustein then read off a long list of actors, directors and playwrights he's employed in his 30-year career as artistic director (to some audience hisses). "We fought against the [Samuel] Beckett estate to have black actors in Endgame. And in all the stagings we've had of my own Shlemiel The First, the best Shlemiel we ever had was a Gentile, and the best Jewish wife was played by a black woman."
Wilson used this opening to explain why blacks and whites "cannot share the same value system. The dominant culture is not our culture. When a little Japanese child is handed a Samurai doll before he goes to sleep, that's a connection to his heritage. You don't take the doll away and replace it with a G.I. Joe. With black theatre, we wish to champion our own values, our own culture."
Wilson argued, "We are a society that suffers from a failure of the imagination, and we don't admit to having a problem . . . It's like office buildings that are superstitious about the number '13,' so the elevator goes from the 12th floor to the 14th floor. But everybody knows, there's something over 12 . . . Two years ago, Time Magazine ran a piece about the 'renaissance' of black art in America. The idea of that article was that black art is finally making it because it moved out of the community into the mainstream. The art transcended its blackness. As if writing for a black audience were somehow a lesser profession. You don't ever hear people asking David Mamet or Terrence McNally, `hey, how come you only write plays for white people?' "
Brustein zinged Wilson in response, saying, "August Wilson is one of the greatest minds . . . of the 17th century. You may call yourself African, but Wole Soyinka wouldn't agree with that. You're an American, like I'm an American. My parents came over from Poland, I wouldn't call myself Polish."
"But that's you," replied Wilson. "I came from slavery, my father and mother, their parents . . . When you look at me, that is what you see."
Moderator Smith -- famous as author and performer in Fires In The Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 -- then brought up the issue of Ebonics, a black street "language" that some educators are considering recognizing as a legitimate dialect, in order to help teach kids who use it proper English as well. Brustein viewed Ebonics as a natural extension of Wilson's separatist philosophies, thus fostering exclusion of other cultures; Wilson countered that Ebonics grows out of the community and should be respected and dealt with as such.
Ultimately, as all theatre arguments do, this one got around to money. Both Wilson and Brustein criticized how subsidies are handed out, with Wilson noting that, "the government will pay $500 million for a bomber, and only $100 million for the arts. And black art is not funded the way white art is. Where are the black theatres?" Brustein then bemoaned the cuts in grant and foundation money for his own A.R.T., and said that he certainly mourned the loss of the New Federal Theatre and the Negro Ensemble Company.
"But why do you need Broadway?" Brustein charged, "you could help black theatres by giving them one of your premieres. Or you could start one."
"I'm a playwright, I'm not a producer," Wilson replied. "And what black theatres are there?"
Although Wilson champions the idea of theatre by and for black audiences, he refused to comment on the so-called "chitlin' circuit," of plays such as Mama, I Want To Sing and The Beauty Shop, mentioned by Smith.
The second act audience Q&A led to some lively discussions about the state of race in current theatre. While Wilson praised the works of Lloyd Richards and George C. Wolfe (both of whom were in the audience), Brustein objected, on a certain level, to the content of Bring In `Da Noise, Bring In `Da Funk, for it still promotes the stereotype of blacks as slaves and victims by using tap dance -- ironically, one of the few fields where black were not excluded and marginalized.
Also spotting in the audience: columnist Frank Rich, Rent director Michael Greif, critic John Simon, newsman Mike Wallace, actress Helen Mirren, director George C. Wolfe, and playwrights Paul Rudnick and John Guare.
Ultimately, Wilson and Brustein's positions were best expressed by comparisons made to, of all people, Plato and Aristotle, who were seen as opposite sides of the politics/art issue. Asked if there is a new, "third" position, Brustein cited Brecht and Ibsen as presenting an ambiguous world view. "The Good Person Of Sezchuan ends with the word `help,' yet Brecht knows that art doesn't change society."
Wilson replied, "Art changes people who change society."
Applause and handshakes capped this heady if unresolved evening of discourse, which John Sullivan, executive director and publisher for Theatre Communications Group, called "an exploration of the political and aesthetic underpinnings of that melange we call American culture."
The event began three hours earlier with a near free-for-all outside the Town Hall doors. Rain and sleet pushed the crowd unusually close to the theatre. Dozens of people needing to pick up their reserved tickets pushed to get in through the same doors that ticket-holders needed to exit. The resulting stand-still resulted in angry words, exasperation, confusion, and an audience soaked with freezing rain. The discussion, held in the over heated, but acoustically good confines of Town Hall, began a half hour after the scheduled starting time.
For more background on the big debate, please see Playbill On Line's article, Wilson and Brustein Will Debate Race in Theatre Jan. 27."
--By David Lefkowitz