October 08, 1990|By Mark Silk | Mark Silk,Atlanta Constitution

ATLANTA. — IN THE OCTOBER ''Spike Lee'' number of Spin magazine (and, last week, on the New York Times op-ed page), the celebrated African-American playwright August Wilson justifies his ongoing effort to get Paramount Pictures to hire a black director to film his play ''Fences.''

In Mr. Wilson's view, a white director is not up to the job ''not on the basis of race but on the basis of culture.'' Black Americans are simply too different from white Americans in manners, style, language, religion, aesthetics. Not that black culture is unique in this respect.

''Let's make a rule,'' he proposes. ''Blacks don't direct Italian films. Italians don't direct Jewish films. Jews don't direct black American films.'' And, presumably, none of the above directs White Anglo-Saxon Protestant films, whatever they are.

This is not a new proposition. As the literary historian Werner Sollers points out in his book ''Beyond Ethnicity,'' it has become common since the ethnic revival of the 1970s to stress that an unbridgeable gulf separates Americans of different ethnic backgrounds. Americans, he says, are constantly saying to each other, ''You will never understand me. Don't you understand?''

In fact, our ethnic exclusivism masks a degree of ethnic interaction unthinkable in most other multiethnic societies. ''It is, ironically, because Americans take so much for granted among themselves that they can dramatize their differences comfortably,'' Mr. Sollers writes.

To be sure, Mr. Wilson does not claim his plays are inaccessible to non-black audiences, only that he is entitled to a director who possesses the same ''cultural responsibilities'' as the characters in his play. Artists, however, have generally not understood their cultural responsibilities in this way.

Consider the case of the German composer Richard Wagner and his opera ''Parsifal,'' which retells the medieval tale of a pure Christian knight's search for the Holy Grail, Jesus' cup at the Last Supper. By Mr. Wilson's standard, the production ought to have been put in the hands of someone who shared Wagner's Christian cultural responsibilities.

Yet despite his virulent, public anti-Semitism, Wagner was anxious that the opera be directed by the Munich conductor Hermann Levi, a Jew. (Wagner did attempt to get Levi to convert to Christianity, but when Levi declined, he backed off.) ''Parsifal,'' greatest of Christian operas, was given its Beyreuth premiere by a Jew -- because, in the composer's view, his talents outweighed his ''ethnic disability.''

None of this is to say that cultural background is meaningless, that Spike Lee might not be able to do better by ''Fences'' than, let us say, Steven Spielberg. But racial or ethnic exclusivism is sword that can cut different ways. Here, for example, is the noted African-American author Charles W. Chesnutt, speaking in 1905.

''We are told that we must glory in our color and zealously guard it as a priceless heritage. Frankly I take no stock in this doctrine. It seems to be a modern invention of the white people, to perpetuate the color line. It is they who preach it, and it is their racial integrity which they wish to preserve. . . . Are we to help the white people to build up walls between themselves and us, to fence in a gloomy back yard for our descendants to play in?''

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