Two of Drama's Greats Feud Over Black Theater in America

Public debate raises key questions about race in society

In one of August Wilson's plays, "Two Trains Running," a black character named Hambone shouts each morning at the door of a white shop owner, "I want my ham. He gonna give me my ham."

Promised a ham nine years ago in exchange for painting a fence, Hambone was offered a chicken instead. He refused to accept it. Each morning since then, Hambone shouts at the shop owner.

The ham became something of a cultural metaphor on Monday night in New York's Town Hall theater. In a widely anticipated debate with drama critic Robert Brustein over how to create more black theater in the United States, Mr. Wilson, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, said in essence he wants the "ham" delivered now.

Wilson's "ham" is the struggling black theaters of today that need to be supported and subsidized in order to flourish alongside white, mainstream theaters, says Wilson.

Mr. Brustein, drama critic for The New Republic and artistic director of the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., charges Wilson with calling for "subsidized separatism" and chides him for a tone of "victimization." Integration should be the goal, says Brustein, suggesting that Wilson has "the greatest mind of the 17th century."

Wilson fits Brustein into the category of a "cultural imperialist."

Before a sold-out audience of 1,500 theater professionals and members of the public, the debate, moderated by actress Anna Deavere Smith, was a continuation of the sparring match two of drama's stellar spokesmen have been conducting over race issues for months in American Theatre Magazine.

What the debate did, according to several people in the audience, was to clarify some of the issues, but it failed to lift the discussion to a new level. "This is a coming together of blacks and whites that is at least out in the open," says Ricardo Khan, the co-founder and artistic director of the Crossroads Theater Company in New Brunswick, N.J.

"They were both fairly repetitive of what they had said before," says Harry Weintraub, general counsel of the League of Resident Theaters (LORT) in New York, "and in a sense they could have given their opening statements and gone home."

But the issues raised reflect larger racial questions in American society: Is black culture so different from white culture that only all-black theaters, playwrights, and actors can depict it accurately? Should theaters adopt "colorblind" casting? In an era of diminishing funds for nonprofit organizations, how will any theater survive whether led by African-Americans, whites, Latinos, or Asians?

The heated part of the dialogue between Wilson and Brustein began last June when Wilson delivered a rousing speech at Princeton University calling for increased financial support for black theaters. It was reprinted in American Theatre Magazine.

Brustein, having previously criticized Wilson's plays from an artistic standpoint, chided the playwright for being divisive and "ungrateful" for his treatment in theaters as arguably the stage's most successful black playwright.

"Isn't there some kind of statute of limitations on white guilt and white reparations?" Brustein asked.

Lost in the heat of the written exchanges was Wilson's comment that his words were meant "not (as) a complaint," but as an "advertisement" on behalf of the uniqueness of black theater. "Black theater is vibrant," he says. "It just isn't funded."

He mentioned the Crossroads Theater Company as the only black-led theater company in LORT, a national organization made up of 67 of the leading nonprofit theaters in the country. Membership criteria in LORT are based partially on the ability to pay a minimum salary of $610 a week in the top theaters. Smaller theaters, of whatever mission, have trouble sustaining this level of payment.

Even with black leadership, and a budget of about $2.5 million a year, Crossroads exists in a mixed-race reality that many drama professionals say Wilson wants to change. Wilson objects to "colorblind" casting, calling it "aberrant" and an idea of "assimilation." But many actors argue that such casting offers them the greatest opportunities given the funding struggles common to black theater.

But according to Mr. Khan, Crossroads plays to mixed audiences, has an ethnically mixed board, and offers plays with racially mixed casts.

Even though most plays are written by black playwrights at the company, Khan says, "Much of our history as African-Americans is connected to white Americans, and I can't imagine that we would always have all-black casts if we are telling our histories."

Still, Khan agrees with Wilson. "I do know that we also have to have our own institutions where black culture is not a diversity item on the agenda, but is instead something that is celebrated as part of the whole," he says. "It's not that we are all black here, but our mission places black culture at our center."

In Los Angeles, Luisa Cariaga, managing director of the East West Players, says the questions of race Wilson raises are not just black and white.

"We are not just Japanese-Americans or Chinese-Americans here," she says. "We tend to be Chinese-German-Americans, or French-black-Americans, or some other mixture. Our most successful plays may be culture and ethnic specific, but the themes are universal."

Nearly all theaters today, except for some regional theaters with high subscription support, scramble for funds to stay alive.

"I think what Wilson is saying," says Kenny Leon, artistic director of the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, Ga., "is that African-American artists in this country got left behind because black artists and institutions were underfunded. Wilson says there are so many voices we are not hearing."

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