LAST summer, before his play ''Ma Rainey's Black Bottom'' opened on Broadway as the first hit of the season, playwright August Wilson spoke to a group of critics about his role as an emerging black playwright. ''I write out of the black tradition,'' he said. ''I try to unveil those things peculiar to that tradition.'' But when asked by his audience if he, as a black writer, must confront current political issues in his work, Wilson replied, ''It is enough to be a storyteller.''
It is a statement that reveals as much about the playwright as it does about the state of black drama today. As an art form that has been marked as much by political circumstance as personal achievement, black theater in America continues to mature. It is a process earning mixed reviews. Although black playwrights are broadening their political and thematic circumferences and the number of black actors and directors proliferates, black theatrical institutions operate under increasingly adverse financial circumstances.
An American stage art whose roots can be traced to the African slave ships of the 17th century, black theater has traditionally reflected not only the energies and talents of its participants but also the nation's racial politics, from Jim Crow policies to black separatist movements. For instance, the '20s saw the flowering of Harlem and numerous black theaters; the placid 1950s were earmarked by such mainstream domestic dramas such as ''Raisin in the Sun''; the turbulent '60s saw an explosion of the so-called black hate plays.
Now, in the mid-1980s, black playwrights are wrestling with yet another set of political, economic, and artistic criteria. Unlike the previous decade, which was earmarked by a profusion of black Broadway musicals including the ''The Wiz'' and ''Bubbling Brown Sugar,'' black theater today is reembracing serious drama, but with a political difference.
''During the '60s much of the work being done was hostile,'' says Edward Smith, playwright, director, and professor of theater and African-American Studies at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo. ''But that is getting erased now. We're still confronting social issues, but the. . .tone is more of love.''
With the current Broadway success of Wilson's ''Ma Rainey'' and the international theatrical tour and release in film version of the 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning ''A Soldier's Play,'' by Charles Fuller - two plays that address black concerns in a historical context - non-musical black drama, rich in perspective but lacking overt political polarization, seems to be surfacing and finding an audience. It is a trend that many heads of black theaters are greeting with cautious optimism for its effect on the black theater industry as a whole.
''We seem destined to be considering whether black is in or out,'' says Lloyd Richards, director of ''Ma Rainey'' and head of Yale University's drama department. ''We've gone through periods of cultural guilt on a national scale, and then ethnic theater does well. But then the pendulum swings back. But this has nothing to do with creativity,'' he cautions. ''It has to do with what's popular.''
''People are excited to see something black that's not song and dance,'' says playwright Wilson. ''So seldom does that get done on a Broadway stage.''
''Musicals have always contained elements of superficiality to them,'' says Losten Mitchell, author of ''Bubbling Brown Sugar'' and currently an instructor of playwriting at SUNY Binghamton. ''We're living in some very exciting times, and I'm intrigued by the number of serious straight plays that are opening.''
According to Mitchell, the significance of both ''Ma Rainey'' and ''A Soldier's Play'' lies in their role as ''heritage plays.'' By addressing black concerns within a historical context - a black blues band in Chicago in 1927 (''Ma Rainey'') and a black Army barracks in World War II (''A Soldier's Play'') - the plays perform a ''historical straightening out'' of the American black experience, says Mitchell. It is this ''bubbling over of various ethnic experiences that makes for good drama,'' he says.
As playwright Wilson explains it, ''I'm trying to explore those things in the black experience common to all cultures. The trick is finding them, but they are there. (Blacks) wrestle with the same questions that man has been wrestling with since the beginning of time.''
Despite the critical and commercial success of ''Ma Rainey'' and ''A Soldier's Play,'' many observers remain less than impressed by the current health of black theater. It is commonly acknowledged that black theater financially flourished under the federal largess of the Johnson administration 20 years ago. At one point during the '60s, nearly 300 regional black theaters, including those run by universities, existed, fueled largely by federal subsidies and a sympathetic public. Today, only a handful exist - most observers put the number at fewer than two dozen nationwide.
Operating almost exclusively in the not-for-profit arena, these hardy survivors, including the Negro Ensemble Company (NEC) and the New Federal Theatre in New York and Philadelphia's Freedom Theatre, remain caught between static government subsidies and rising production costs. Also, the lack of a sharply defined political ideology, while thematically liberating to playwrights , dampens critical and public attention. As a result, fewer new productions are being mounted, and unemployment among black actors remains high. A recent informal poll among black theaters found more works by the white South African playwright Athol Fugard being performed than those by black American dramatists.
''The only way (black theater) survives is through government funding,'' says Mr. Smith, who says that, historically, ''salvation for black theater was found to come from the government.''
Smith and other observers point to the federally funded black WPA theaters of the depression era and the more recent proliferation of black theaters during the '60s as two cultural zeniths in black theater history.
John Houseman, the original director of the Lafayette Theatre, one of the largest of the WPA theaters, although now defunct, says the federal impetus during the '30s profoundly influenced the future success of black drama. ''While it might have gone underground for a while, the accomplishments of the Harlem theaters, both artistically and socially, (were) extremely important,'' he says. Houseman contrasts that impact with the current federal role, which he describes as not ''particularly creative or activist . . . .''
''Many not-for-profit black theaters got propped up by federal outlays during the late '60s,'' says John Allen, artistic director of the 18-year-old Freedom Theatre. ''But when the funding dried up, they fell on hard times. With unemployment rates as high as they are now, culture is one of the first things that goes.''
AS a consequence, many black playwrights simply do not have sufficient theaters to produce their work - an especially damaging development, since, as Smith says, ''Many of the recent black plays, 'A Soldier's Play' and '(For) Colored Girls (Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enough),' came out of those theaters. What's missing is the money to establish good professional theaters for blacks.'' Of those theaters now operating, many, including the New Federal Theatre and the Freedom Theatre, succeed financially largely because of their separately funded community-outreach programs.
As the federal role continues to diminish, black theater, like most nonprofit theater, is forced to become more self-sufficient, competitively tapping both the private sector and its audience for financial support. In each case, the prospects for black theaters are not bright.
''Hey, unless a show has some sort of track record, name stars, or (it is) English, serious Broadway shows are in trouble, white, black, green, or purple, '' says Douglas Turner Ward, founder and current artistic director of the Tony Award winning Negro Ensemble Company, the largest black theater in the country and the producing company of ''A Soldier's Play.'' ''Black shows have an extra (audience) limitation that makes (success) even more shaky,'' he says.
While the talent pool of black writers, directors, and actors has never been considered stronger, many artistic directors say economics remains the bottom line. ''From 1969 to 1978 if we did a play and the New York Times said it was great, we could get the (production) money like that,'' says Woodie King Jr., artistic director of the New Federal Theatre and producer of Broadway's ''Colored Girls'' in 1976. ''Now if we get a great review . . . it would still be difficult to raise it.''
According to Mr. King, not only have the contributions of traditional theatrical investors not kept pace with rising production costs - Off Broadway shows can cost roughly three times what they did a decade ago - but also the private sector, including black-owned businesses, has not yet demonstrated an ability to make up the difference financially.
''Black businesses, if they're successful, are not more than two generations away from poverty,'' King says. ''They are not that sure of their wealth . . . and do not, in general, invest in black theater. It's a lot easier to go to the Nederlanders and Shuberts (organizations) and make a traditional deal.''
YET even with sufficient backing, whether from traditional producers or the mainstream private sector - Citicorp recently made a $100,000 contribution to the NEC, the largest in the theater's history - the audience for black theater remains a fundamental question in face of a traditionally white theatergoing public.
''The great taboos have been gotten rid of, and in that sense (black theater) is not what it was in the '20s and '30s,'' says Houseman. ''But how much of an audience there is today among blacks for black theater is in a way the crucial question.''
''Black is not exotic now, and black playwrights have got to earn their own way,'' says Lloyd Richards of ''Ma Rainey,'' who directed the 1959 Broadway production of ''Raisin in the Sun.'' ''But black plays are still in a special category, they are still judged on that basis. I see many of the same attitudes now that were present when we were trying to get 'Raisin' on Broadway 25 years ago.''
Most black theater directors, including the NEC's Mr. Ward, insist that it is the black audience rather than traditional white theatergoers who must be pursued if black theater is to succeed.
''It has been shown that a non-musical, black-theme show on Broadway has a finite white public,'' Ward says. ''Maximize the black audience, which is what saved us with (the Broadway productions of) 'The River Niger' and 'Home,' and it will sustain you.'' Ward cites the audience figures for the national tour of ''A Soldier's Play'' as further evidence.
''If we had started with a 70-30 white-black audience in a half (full) house, generally by the time we got to last week it had turned 70-30, black to white,'' he says. ''The white audience had stayed the same, but the black numbers had quadrupled and the house had filled.''
''The audience is there, but it has to be promoted to,'' says King, who insists that broad-based critical attention and hefty advertising budgets are intrinsic to the life of black shows. Most observers agree, however, that Broadway ticket prices, though formidable to a majority of the theatergoing public, remain a particular hurdle for black audiences.
''Ticket prices for traditional musicals run $35 and $45 a ticket. For black audiences, paying $70 to $80 a night to see a show is hard,'' King says. ''So we must produce works that appeal to a more liberal white audience.
Despite this financial necessity of attracting the widest possible theater audience, most black artistic directors prefer to avoid an emphasis on black cultural events that ''cross-over'' racial lines, as evidenced by black performers Michael Jackson and Eddie Murphy.
''What is happening is that a series of black events, whether commercial or noncommercial, is viewed by audiences as being similar,'' says King. ''Michael Jackson's success in the record business causes some to say there is a black audience for black theater, when those two events are not related at all.''
''Even if there is 'crossover,' it's only happening to a few,'' says Ward. ''Michael (Jackson), Prince, and maybe Lionel Richie. But to throw that into a formula thing - for 90 percent of the people it's going to flop.''
Others say that an emphasis on obtaining a white public for black cultural events ultimately compromises the integrity of black artists. Dr. Maulana Karenga, a black ''cultural nationalist'' during the 1960s and currently director of the Institute of Pan-African studies in Los Angeles and visiting professor at San Diego State University, insists that blacks develop their own audiences and critical communities. The alternative, he says, is to be ''creatively held hostage to whites.''
''(Black) artists have to begin to organize themselves, build respect for their profession,'' Dr. Karenga says. ''We've got to educate ourselves. Why not? European-Americans do it through music and art appreciation courses.''
In line with this, some observers insist that the significance of regional nonprofit black theater goes beyond cultural enrichment. ''It is the last platform for the average (black) person to be represented,'' says John Allen at Freedom Theater. ''This is not a service performed by television, films, or even Broadway. . . . We must be the ones to do it.''