Laaaaaadeees and gentlemennnn! Announcing Jan. 27's main event, sponsored by American Theatre Magazine, a publication of Theatre Communications Group.
In this corner, boasting such plays to his credit as Seven Guitars, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and Fences, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson. In that corner, founding director of Yale Rep and American Repertory Theatre, author of 11 books on the theatre, and drama critic for the New Republic, Robert Brustein.
Joking aside, the two men will face off on one of the central issues facing America -- and American theatre -- today: race.
Wilson and Brustein will go head to head at New York's Town Hall Theatre. The topic: "On Cultural Power: The August Wilson/Robert Brustein Discussion." It will be an extension and elucidation of a high-power sparring match between the two men, conducted on rostra, and in the pages of American Theatre magazine, since summer 1996.
Wilson, a black American dramatist, took issue with some of the things Brustein was writing in his New Republic column. Wilson responded to those points in his address to Theatre Communication Group's National Conference -- a response reprinted in American Theatre. Wilson called his speech, "The Ground On Which I Stand." In it, he decried the inequities in funding African-American artists but also condemned the concept (long a thorn in his side) of "color-blind casting." He also challenged regional theatre's reliance on subscription audiences, which foster "mediocrity of tastes and . . . keep blacks out of the theatre where they suffer no illusion of welcome."
Not one to mince words, Wilson identifies himself as "a race man" and calls for African art and cuture to be celebrated specifically as such.
Brustein bounced back, questioning whether there shouldn't be "some kind of statute of limitations on white guilt and white reparations." In his article, "Subsidized Separatism," Brustein defended the Western world aesthetic and pointed out the dangerous trend towards separatism inherent in a multi-cultural agenda.
Leaping into the American Theatre fray with their own views were New York University professor Richard Schechner, Boston Globe critic Patti Hartigan and Penumbra Theatre artistic director Lou Bellamy, who brought up such questions as whether the "melting pot" has dissolved into a collection of exclusionary self-interest groups, or whether artistic individuality is just a code word for the further fragmentation of society.
Sharpening Brustein and Wilson's contretemps is the fact that Brustein has been battling with Wilson's mentor and collaborator Lloyd Richards since Richards was brought in to replace Brustein as dean of the Yale Drama School in 1980. Brustein has been especially bitter in his denunciations of the idea of using not-for-profit regional theatres for what he sees as de fact tryout houses for Broadway.
Nearly all of Wilson's plays that later went to Broadway were developed at Yale Rep, of which Richards was artistic director, and co-produced commercially by Benjamin Mordecai, while Mordecai was still business manager of Yale Rep. All Wilson's mature plays have been directed by Richards.
None of that is to say that the two supremely articulate writers don't feel to the roots of their souls about the issue at hand. Their debate could be a defining moment, not only in theatre, but in all of 1997's public discourse.
Moderating the bout will be Anna Deavere Smith, a black woman who is one of the superstars stage monologuists. She showed America at war with itself in Fires In The Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, both of them piercing examinations of black/white relations in America. Perhaps her ability to show -- even to incarnate -- both sides of the issue made her the ideal candidate to keep the peace here, as the two heavyweights grapple with the politics of diversity, multi-culturalism and American identity.
Tickets cost $10-$20. Call TicketMaster, (212) 307-7171.