BACK STAGE WEST
May 14, 1998
August Wilson Convenes Town Hall on African-American Theatre
by Rob Kendt
When August Wilson gave his now-famous speech, "The Ground on Which I Stand," at the Theatre Communications Group's national conference in June of 1996, it was immediately controversial for his stated opposition to non-traditional casting.
"To mount an all-black production of a play conceived for white actors," Wilson said, obviously referring to Joseph Papp-style casting of the classics, "is to deny us our humanity, our own history, and the need make our own investigations from the cultural ground on which we stand as black Americans."
That speech led to his even more famous debate later that year with director/critic Robert Brustein, who came down on the side of "colorblind" theatre. Even the majority of theatre practitioners of color, who have become accustomed to working in multi-racial casts and crews, differed with Wilson's rigid views, even if they agreed with his general point about the road left to travel toward a more level playing field.
Overlooked by many, though, was the second part of his message: Instead of colorblind casting, he said, "We need those misguided financial resources to be put to better use." Wilson extended his most urgent challenge not to "white" theatre institutions but to black theatre aritsts, calling them "to meet each other face to face" about forging a "self-determining, self-supporting" black theatre.
Dartmouth professors Victor Leo Walker II and William Cook answered his challenge--in their words, "heard the call"--and worked to create the National Black Theatre Summit in March of this year. A closed-door session between 300 black artists and professionals from outside the arts, the summit's mandate, as defined by Walker and Cook, was to create long-term partnerships to work on strengthening black theatres and arts institutions across the country.
Part of that commitment is bring this message to the whole country. Last week at the Tom Bradley Theatre in the Los Angeles Theatre Center, Wilson, Walker, Cook, summit participant Ifa Bayeza, and UCLA theatre and folklore professor Beverly Robinson outlined the summit's intentions and its progress for a packed audience of L.A. theatre artists.
The summit's main achievement thus far, apart from keeping the discussion going, is the establishment of six theatre management scholarships with Dartmouth's Amos Tuck School of Business. Walker said his research shows that between 1965 and 1977 there were around 450 black-identified theatres at all levels in the U.S., and that between 1977 and the present that number has dwindled to 118.
"We found that it was not just a lack of funding," Walker said, "but a lack of management skills." Quoting C. Bernard Jackson, the founder of L.A.'s Inner City Arts, Walker said, "The African-American community is plagued by flair and spectacle, which, once it's gone, leaves no substance behind."
There are also plans to publish a quarterly journal and/or a popular monthly about black performing arts. Crucial to the summit's efforts has been funding from the Ford and Rockefeller foundations, various Dartmouth departments, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Getty Research Institute for the History of the Arts and Humanities, which has apparently told summit leaders to consider the Getty their West Coast home. And L.A. Cultural Affairs Department general manager Adolfo Nodal, in a brief statement to last week's gathering, said simply, "This is your theatre. Take it over."
Clearly, there is much general good will toward the notion of strengthening black theatre and extending greater opportunities to black theatre artists. But there were lingering tensions on display last week, as well. Bayeza put a positive spin on cultural and social differences among black Americans, calling it "diversity within the Diaspora."
Others, like L. Kenneth Richardson, who runs the Mark Taper Forum's Blacksmyths program to develop black playwrights, argued that black playwrights who get produced appeal to a narrow bourgeois audience, not to the mainstream black community--which is why plays that do address that community, the popular light musicals on the so-called "chitlin circuit," draw such huge and loyal audiences.
Beverly Robinson, who is herself directing a large-scale musical called Calling All Saints at the Wiltern Theatre this month, objected to the "nomenclature of oppression" in the phrase "chitlin circuit," preferring the term "urban circuit." But Richardson's comments seemed a thinly veiled attack on Wilson's own award-winning plays, which have all been well-made period dramas produced by "white" theatres whose priorities Wilson claims to disdain.
Indeed, Wilson's separatist special pleading seems to be the real problem with the summit's agenda. For one, many of Walker's impressively thought-out plans for strengthening black theatre sound like great ideas to apply to struggling regional theatre, not to mention the performing arts, in general. Perhaps creating long-term partnerships across color lines may be a more productive plan for an American theatre in which, say, George C. Wolfe can stage a hit Broadway phenom like Bring in 'Da Noise! Bring in 'Da Funk! as well as a multiracial Macbeth.
And when a question came about the Cornerstone Theater Company's historic 18-month Watts residency, which climaxed with Lynn Manning's The Central Ave. Chalk Circle, a brilliant adaptation of Brecht's Caucasian Chalk Circle, the emptiness of separatist logic was exposed. Where, the question asked, did such a production fit into the context of African-American theatre?
Bayeza tried nobly to suggest that of all European playwrights, Brecht's peculiarities and politics make him among the most adaptable to a contemporary, multi-racial interpretation. But then Wilson piped in with his well-rehearsed, one-note agenda: "If it promotes, preserves, and perpetuates the values of European theatre, it does not fit into African-American theatre, which promotes, preserves, and perpetuates the values of my ancestors."
Artists of color in Los Angeles know that it is a more complicated equation than that. Black theatre in L.A. consists mainly of the Towne Street Theatre, the new Unity Players Ensemble, The Robey Theatre Company and the 24th Street Theatre; all are under Equity's 99-Seat plan, and none currently produce regular subscription seasons. The Cultural Affairs Dept. has announced plans to rebuild the Ebony Showcase Theatre in Inglewood by the fall of 1999.
If L.A.'s black stage artists plan to create their own version of East West Players or the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts, they may learn more from these companies' nuanced, sophisticated, and, yes, multicultural aesthetic and operational strategies than from the single-minded focus of Wilson and his Dartmouth colleagues.
On the other hand, if the Ebony can get one of those Tuck scholarship students to help with the books, it wouldn't hurt, either.