Integration of theater hasn't led to equality

February 02, 1997|By Glenn McNatt

FOR MY 10th birthday, my father gave me a Kodak Brownie camera. The first pictures I took were of my parents, aunts and uncles, cousins and playmates growing up in Harlem during the 1950s.

The adults in my family were all avid snapshooters and passionately devoted to the presence of loved ones in pictures they themselves made.

Only later did I realize that for black people of my parents' generation, the camera was an empowering tool. It was a way for them to make their own, loving images of one another to set against the demeaning, dehumanized images of blacks manufactured by the culture around them.

I was reminded of the power of images and the struggle over who controls them by the spirited debate that took place in New York last week between August Wilson, the prize-winning author of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," "The Piano Lesson" and other plays, and Robert Brustein, the distinguished critic, author and director of the American Repertory Theater.

The debate grew out of an address Wilson delivered at Princeton University last summer, in which he demanded the establishment of separate black theaters to combat what he termed "cultural imperialists who seek to propagate their ideas about the world as the only valid ideas, and who see blacks as woefully deficient not only in arts and letters but in the abundant gifts of humanity."

Wilson went on to denounce federal funding policies that give only token support to black arts groups, the trend toward "colorblind" casting in regional theaters that enables black actors to perform traditionally "white" roles, and efforts by foundations such as the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund to diversify theater audiences by attracting more young people and minorities.

All such efforts, Wilson charged, are simply tools of the "cultural imperialists who view American culture, rooted in the icons of European culture, as beyond reproach in its perfection."

The reaction of the mostly white nonprofit theater community initially was one of shock. Hadn't Wilson's own plays been honored with two Pulitzer Prizes, five New York Drama Critics Circle awards, several Tonys and lavish productions at the country's most prestigious venues?

Hadn't so-called "colorblind" casting enabled countless black actors to perform roles from Shakespeare to Arthur Miller that previously had been denied them?

Hadn't audience diversification programs brought thousands of non-theater-going minorities to theaters across the country?

To many, Wilson's remarks seemed a gratuitous attack on the very policies aimed to make theater more inclusive -- a particularly egregious example of biting the hand that feeds you.

Opposing article

Opposition to Wilson was summed up in an article by Brustein published two months later in American Theater magazine.

"Is a man who has garnered such extraordinary media attention (not to mention every conceivable playwriting fellowship) really in a position to say that blacks are being excluded from the American theater or that these institutions only 'preserve, promote and perpetuate white culture?' " Brustein asked.

Wilson's speech was a "melancholy testimony to the rabid identity politics and poisonous racial consciousness that have been infecting our country in recent years," Brustein declared.

"Such sentiments represent a reverse form of the old politics of division, an appeal for socially approved and foundation-funded separatism.

"I don't think Martin Luther King ever imagined an America where playwrights such as August Wilson would be demanding, under the pretense of calling for healing and unity, an entirely separate stage for black theater artists. What next? Separate schools? Separate washrooms? Separate drinking fountains?"

In the months that followed, the debate only grew more shrill, culminating in Monday's debate moderated by playwright and performer Anna Deavere Smith.

The event was a curious pastiche that seemed part college seminar, part campaign rally and part prizefight.

On stage, Wilson and Brustein squared off by essentially reaffirming their previous positions. Rejecting Brustein's characterization of his ideas as separatist, Wilson charged that of the 66 theaters belonging to the League of Regional Theaters, only one is black, the Crossroads Theater in New Brunswick, N.J.

"We have sought to be included from the beginning," he said. "We are fighting now to be included in the making of theater in America."

"If Mr. Wilson knows a worthy black theater that isn't being properly funded, he could give it instant recognition by rewarding it with one of his world premieres," Brustein retorted.

And so it went. In the end, the evening seemed oddly inconclusive, with the two men only agreeing to disagree.

It was a pity Wilson and Brustein spent most of the time talking past one another. Brustein, the quintessential '60s liberal, simply couldn't comprehend Wilson's rejection of a "mainstream" that, in his view, had bent over backward to accommodate black actors and playwrights.

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