August Wilson: Cultural Power and the Case for Black Theater

Revolutionary Worker #893, February 9, 1997

From the RW Arts Correspondent

NEW YORK JANUARY 27: On an icy evening over 1,500 people vied for tickets at New York City's Town Hall to hear a debate on "Cultural Power." August Wilson--the Black playwright who is one of the most celebrated writers in the U.S. today (author of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," "Fences", "The Piano Lesson," "Seven Guitars" among many other plays)--faced off with Robert Brustein--the theatre director and critic who has held top posts at Yale Drama School and as artistic director for the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard's Loeb Theatre and writes for the neo-conservative magazine New Republic. The person who pulled together this important debate and moderated it was Anna Deveare Smith, an actor known for weaving a tapestry of provocative portrayals of the participants in some of the great political events of our time, like the L.A. Rebellion.

At issue was the question: Should significant resources of this society go to support and develop major Black theatres--where Black artists, actors, writers and directors can develop theatre "by, for, about, and near" Black people (to cite the criteria first laid out in 1926 by the revolutionary nationalist W.E.B. DuBois)?

Wilson is fighting for this position. Is he right?

Yes. That is our short article.


But Wilson's proposal has touched off a storm of controversy in different quarters. Wilson has been accused of being "separatist" and criticized for politicizing theatre. And it has also revealed a situation of deep inequality in the arts.

At the very time that important theatre works from Black artists like Wilson's own plays and extraordinary productions like "Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk" are winning awards on Broadway--indicating a broad and deep interest in such works--the independent Black theatres are languishing, starving for lack of resources.

In June 1966 Wilson rocked the theatre world by addressing the problem in a major speech, "The Ground on Which I Stand," at the Theatre Communications Group National Conference at Princeton University. Describing himself as one who was fired in the kiln of the Black Power movement of the '60s, Wilson made a deep and impassioned argument for Black theatres where the culture of Black people can flower. "The ideas of self-determination, self-respect and self-defense that governed my life in the '60s I find just as valid and self-urging in 1996.... Those who would deny black Americans their culture would also deny them their history and the inherent values that are a part of all human life."

Wilson pointed out that, "In terms of economics and privilege, one significant fact affects us all in the American theatre: of the 66 LORT theatres [LORT = League of Regional Theatres, an organization made up of major professional not-for-profit theatres across the country--RW], there is only one that can be considered black. From this it could be falsely assumed that there aren't sufficient numbers of blacks working in the American theatre to sustain and support more theatres. If you do not know, I will tell you that black theatre in America is alive.. it is vibrant... it is vital... it just isn't funded."

As this controversy has unfolded, it has come to light that in recent years, while some funds have gone to regional theatres for the specific purpose of "diversifying their audiences," Black, Latino, and Asian theatres have suffered.

For example, in 1991, as government arts funding was getting drastically cut in the fall-out from the censorship wars, one private funding agency, the Lila Wallace-Readers Digest Fund allocated $25 million mainly to the larger regional theatres to produce plays by Black, Latino, Native American and Asian American artists.

The effects of these grants have been contradictory. On the positive side, works by Black artists and others have been produced at these venues. And the culture of the oppressed has been shared with the largely white audiences who frequent these theatres--often for the first time.

But at the same time, Black theatres have not gotten anywhere near the kind of funding that these theatres, which mainly feature Euro-American culture, have received to do Black plays. So Black theatres have gone under, few new theatres have arisen. And there has been a bleeding of Black playwrights and actors out of Black theatres and into these other venues. Most Black theatres cannot afford to pay their actors enough to even qualify to be part of the regional theatre association, LORT, so they're not even in the running for many of the grants.

In many ways, this situation is just another indictment of the whole social set-up that is founded on national oppression.

A key issue here is how the resources of this society are allocated and how inequality is perpetuated in the cultural arena. It is a stunning exposure of how deep national oppression runs in the U.S. today when one takes a look at just how little of society's resources go towards Black arts and other oppressed nationalities. The vast amount of resources flow to venues where the stage is dominated by plays that reflect the history, experience, and culture of European Americans. And the result is that--despite many good intentions--inequality persists and deepens.

Wilson also criticizes the content of some works supported by these grants as a form of "cultural imperialism"--where the casting of Black actors in roles originally written for European Americans has become a substitute for really developing Black theatre--especially new works. He argues that casting Black actors in plays "conceived for white actors as an investigation of the human condition through the specifics of white culture is to deny us our own humanity, our own history, and the need to make our own investigations from the cultural ground on which we stand as black Americans. It is an assault on our presence, our difficult but honorable history in America; it is an insult to our intelligence, our playwrights, and our many and varied contributions to the society and the world at large....

"In an effort to spare us the burden of being `affected by an undesirable condition' and as a gesture of benevolence, many whites (like the proponents of colorblind casting) say, `Oh, I don't see color.' We want you to see us. We are black and beautiful.... We are not ashamed, and do not need you to be ashamed for us. Nor do we need the recognition of our blackness to be couched in abstract phrases like `artist of color.' Who are you talking about? A Japanese artist? An Eskimo? A Filipino? A Mexican? A Cambodian? A Nigerian? An African American? Are we to suppose that if you put a white person on one side of the scale and the rest of humanity lumped together as nondescript `people of color' on the other, that it would balance out? That whites carry that much spiritual weight? We reject that. We are unique, and we are specific."


The debate at Town Hall brought Wilson face to face with his longtime opponent Robert Brustein.

Brustein opened the debate by saying that his difference with Wilson is not so much about race but is a "philosophical dispute over the basic function of dramatic art." He opposed what he calls "ideological art" and denied that art can change society--to which Wilson correctly retorted, "Art changes individuals and individuals change society. All art has to serve the politics of someone..."

But for all Brustein's talk about the pre-eminence of "artistic criteria" he himself has clearly used "sociological criteria" in making his own assessment of Wilson's art: " choosing to chronicle the oppression of black people through each of the decades, Wilson has fallen into a monotonous tone of victimization..." Here Brustein reveals his bias both in terms of sociological and artistic criteria. Would Brustein accuse Shakespeare of writing a boring series of plays on the kings of England?

Those who have come to know Wilson's rich range of characters, the beauty and power of his language, and his ability to transport and enlighten know that he definitely meets the criteria that, as Mao said, while life is the source of art, art is "higher than life." In a 1992 article in the New York Times, Wilson described the path which led him to the "series of plays that could be laid end on end to comprise a dramatic tracing of the black American odyssey through the 20th century.... Since I was not a historian but a writer of fiction, I saw as my task the invention of characters. These personal histories would not only represent the culture but illuminate the historical context both of the period in which the play is set and the continuum of black life in America that stretches back to the early 17th century."

Brustein also accuses Wilson of "separatism" for making the claim that Black theatre arts cannot fully develop in the context of the current line-up of regional theatres.

At the TCB convention Wilson said: "We cannot develop our playwrights with the meager resources at our disposal. Why is it difficult to imagine nine black theatres but not 66 white ones? Without theatres we cannot develop our talents, then everyone suffers: our writers; the theatre; the audience." At the debate he added, "...Imagine if the Black artist could have Black theatres in which to practice and develop their craft, places where your visitors' pass does not expire, as it does for us now, usually on March 1 right after Black History month."

Once again, as in the debates over affirmative action and more recently ebonics, the issue of "color-blindness" and merit--in this case "artistic standards"--have been raised to deny the oppression of Black people and dismiss the just demands for equality.

In an article called "Subsidized Separatism," Brustein wrote: "Funding agencies have started substituting sociological criteria for aesthetic criteria in their grant procedures, including that `elitist' notions like quality and excellence are no longer functional."

Wilson: "To suggest that funding agencies are rewarding inferior work by pursuing sociological criteria only serves to call into question the tremendous outpouring of plays by white playwrights who benefit from funding given to the 66 LORT theatres.

"Are those theatres funded on sociological or artistic criteria? Do we have 66 excellent theatres? Or do those theatres benefit from the sociological advantage that they are run by whites and cater largely to white audiences?

"The truth is that often where there are aesthetic criteria of excellence, there are also sociological criteria that have traditionally excluded Blacks. I say raise the standards and remove the sociological consideration of race as privilege, and we will meet you at the crossroads, in equal numbers, prepared to do the work of extending and developing the common ground of the American theatre."

At Town Hall this exchange, which has developed in the pages of American Theatre magazine, the New Republic and elsewhere, got a bit more pointed:

Wilson to Brustein: Is your theatre (American Repertory Theatre) separate from the Black community in Boston?

Brustein: What do you mean, it does all kinds of theatre.

Wilson: Is it near the Black community?

Brustein: No.

Wilson: Does it get grants? Isn't that "subsidized separatism"?


We revolutionaries are first and foremost internationalists, and in this country this means that we "train the masses of all nationalities in a self-determinationist spirit, to take up the struggle in support of the long-denied and suppressed demands of oppressed people for liberation and equality as an integral and decisive aspect of the proletarian revolution," as RCP Chairman Bob Avakian has said.

Black people need space and support to develop their culture, and everyone will benefit from this. Such a flowering of Black theatre would certainly develop with different trends--revolutionary, non-revolutionary, proletarian, bourgeois, traditional, experimental, nationalist and internationalist. And for our part, we encourage the revolutionary, the proletarian and internationalist trends--as well as collaboration with and attendance of people of all nationalities.

At the same time, we work for the development of proletarian art, which through many different forms reflects--as art--the outlook and interests of the multinational proletariat and contributes as art to our revolutionary goals.

One cannot speak of equality and inclusion unless Black people, and other oppressed nationalities, have the chance to develop their culture in an environment free from the economic, political and social domination of European-American culture. And the current debate only underscores once again that to achieve such equality would require a fundamental and revolutionary recasting of the way that resources and priorities are determined. While people must fight for such equality in every arena today, we need to see that the monopoly capitalist system is perpetuating and reinventing the conditions where the culture of Black people, and other oppressed nationalities, remains suppressed.


Typically, the charge of hypocrisy has greeted Wilson's arguments from various quarters, since Wilson's own works have appeared in major regional theatres and on Broadway where they have received many awards. This is an old story: the success of a few Black artists and intellectuals is used as an argument against Black people in general.

Wilson's arrival on Broadway was a struggle against all odds. Kicked out of high school, Wilson taught himself the playwrighting craft, and fought together with Lloyd Richards, the Black director who was at Yale in late 80s, to carve out a space for this Black theatre. Now Wilson is fighting to expand this space in a way that would benefit other Black theatre artists.

And why can't there be many August Wilsons on Broadway and in multinational venues--as well as in major Black theatres?! Certainly Wilson is not arguing that Black artists and Black theatre should not share all kinds of stages. He is clear on this: "We have sought to be included from the beginning. We are fighting now to be included in the making of theatre in America." But there should also be a space for developing Black theatre arts specifically.

Isn't it the responsibility of everyone who yearns for justice and equality to support such endeavors? To accuse Wilson of separatism, and then to suggest as Brustein did the other night that if Wilson is so interested in developing Black theatre why doesn't he start one of his own, or open one of his plays in a Black theatre--as if the whole burden of centuries of slavery and national oppression which has produced this outrageous situation with Black theatre should be laid at the feet of August Wilson, personally, to solve--these are the kinds of comments that just make Black people want to have a separate country!

All those who celebrate and welcome the works of August Wilson in the theatre--on whatever stage--should see not only the justness of his call, but also the benefit to everyone. At the same time, artists of all nationalities need to fight for the culture of the oppressed to be represented in all arenas.

This debate has raised many questions. Many artists, including radical Black artists, see the great need for a Black theatre but do not want to see all the different nationalities just head off to their national tents, never to mix it up. Most oppressed nationality people are part of the multinational proletariat. And despite the ceaseless efforts of the power structure to pit us against each other, people are searching for unity--based on respect and equality. This finds expression in the arts with such phenomenon as rappers toasting in Spanish to the beat of reggae and salsa and funk.

Many progressive artists are rightfully concerned that Wilson has one-sidely rejected non-traditional casting. While Wilson makes an insightful critique of the erroneous concept of "color blindness" in a society so marked by inequality, he seems to have one-sidely rejected the whole idea of people experimenting with gender and nationality in casting. Clearly there are situations where casting against nationality can raise provocative questions about social barriers. It can also mock the oppressed and serve to perpetuate those barriers, as in the casting of a white actor in the role of a Vietnamese in Broadway's "Miss Saigon." But there are artists who are trying do something positive with non-traditional casting, and playing with such conventions can certainly have a positive role.

Revolutionary-minded Black theatre artists have raised questions about just what Wilson's vision of Black theatre would encompass, and there are many other matters that we could not do justice to in this article.

The important thing is the debate is on; August Wilson has called attention to a great inequality in the arts and throughout society. And it might just take a revolution to really address the problem.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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