Playwright August Wilson On Race Relations and the Theater

At a lively town meeting, convened in downtown Los Angeles last Friday as a follow-up to the March National Black Theatre Summit, playwright August Wilson told his audience, "It's our fault that we don't have the theaters we need." He added that the goal of the newly formed African Grove Institute for the Arts (AGIA) is to build new relationships with the major funding institutions in the country.

After the event was over, he reflected privately on the possibility of those changes and how the state of race relations in America today may affect the ability to make the necessary changes. Mr. Wilson, who aspires to present a play for each decade of the 20th century, says the lessons of history need to be read in order to understand today.

"You have to look at the Reconstruction era to understand the sort of assault that is going on now. It's the same as then," he explains, referring to the notion current after the Civil War that the work on race relations was over with the elimination of slavery. Everything from the dismantling of affirmative-action quotas in higher education and government work to the elimination of bilingual programs reflects a denial of the genuine problems of racism, he adds.

Wilson's plays, starting with "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," and including "Fences" and "The Piano Lesson," for which he won the Pulitzer Prize, illuminate both the individual and societal problems created by racism. Although he has affiliated himself with radical causes through the years, ultimately, he says, he writes for himself, not for a political purpose. But he also maintains that theater plays a vital social function simply by illuminating the real story, by telling the truth.

"That's the role of theater," he observes, "to make sure the story is told. Write about the history, and the truth will be clear."

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