Media Circus: Theater Wars

When black playwright August Wilson called for a separate black theater, he ignited the latest, and one of the oddest, chapters in America's ongoing culture war

Published January 29, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

on a slushy Monday night, Manhattan's Town Hall sold out with bulky middle-aged women and theater guys in white T-shirts and suit vests and lots of skinny-lapelled vintage leather coats, earnest bookreaders willing to pay $10 for a cultural grudge match between the New Republic's obsessively anti-PC theater critic, Robert Brustein, and the acclaimed black playwright and self-described "race man" August Wilson. Up until that evening they'd only crossed swords in print. With playwright and performer Anna Deavere Smith moderating, acting as a kind of marriage counselor for two people with lots of crusading hurt and sarcasm between them who weren't really discussing the same thing at all, at least by the end they seemed to have arrived at a certain kind of mutual affection, even to the point of near-physical affinity. Brustein even called Wilson a "teddy bear."

People booed when he did.

All this started because, back on June 26, Wilson gave a speech before the theater establishment at Princeton University where he said, among other things, that black actors playing white roles is abhorrent "mimicry" and that real black plays, ones that are born out of black experience and aesthetics, can only develop when there are government-funded black theaters. He singled out Brustein, who is a Harvard professor and runs the prestigious American Repertory Theater (and who, possibly not coincidentally, has been notably unimpressed with Wilson's plays) as holding Eurocentric views.

Harvard's pop revisionist Henry Louis Gates Jr. writes about the controversy in this week's New Yorker -- taking Wilson gently to task for his "romantic" separatism and pointing out that a genuine black theater already exists in the "Chitlin Circuit," a wildly profitable, audience-pleasing popular theater that may traffic in low-culture clichis but isn't beholden to white foundation funding.

But when Brustein brought up the "Chitlin Circuit," Wilson snapped, "That's not what you or I'd call legitimate theater. It's irrelevant to this discussion."

Brustein, an upper-caste academic in a gray suit and Harvard crimson-colored turtleneck, had a habit of positing things like, "The community of tap dancing in the '30s didn't recognize race ... the community of Bill Robinson and Shirley Temple," which caused a sarcastic eruption of "Right! ... Get a clue!" from the pro-Wilson faction in the divided audience. He said the light-skinned Wilson, whose father is white, wouldn't really be considered black by most blacks, and accused him of posing as a "350-year-old man" talking about slavery when there had been so much racial progress in the last 30 years. He talked about the "universal" in art, which was undermined by what he called "tribalism."

While Brustein tossed off his faculty dining club bon mots with full confidence in his aesthetic standards and practices, slouching elegantly in his chair, legs crossed and wrist dangling from the armrest, Wilson sat up straight, his foot tapping with unconsolability. If Brustein seemed at times to verge on paranoia, saying the playwright's demand for black-run theaters meant reverting to white-imposed segregation and the ideological art of "Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia," Wilson was just as often a bit silly. At one point in his opening remarks he spoke of watching a 7-year old Japanese-American boy being bought a Samurai doll by his mother, and how that connected him with Japanese history and allowed him to define himself. "There are some who say he should buy a GI Joe doll," Wilson said, but that wouldn't help him identify himself when "people see him as Japanese."

Wilson, who has won all manner of official-culture awards and had several successful runs on Broadway, said he found his identity in the black side of his family, in the blood of the slaves that ran in his veins. His inspiration came from black power, he proclaimed, not from his ability to fake appreciation for Shakespeare. High-end black theater, in Wilson's view, should speak to the black experience. There was a note of lonely fear in Wilson's jeremiad, a dread of wasted talent, of black experiences that would never be expressed. Having George Wolfe, who is black, in charge of the Public Theater in New York wasn't enough to guarantee a truly black theater, Wilson said, because that wasn't the Public's mission. And Wilson pointed out that only one of the 66 legitimate theater companies in the country is black.

Still, he said he was not going to start a theater himself. "I'm a playwright," he said to Brustein's sarcastic challenge.

Upon which Smith, who quoted one of Louis Farrakhan's knotty little wordplays in her introductory remarks to the debate -- "a more perfect union? If it's perfect, how can it become more perfect?" -- and spent the rest of the night fixing the participants with a look of pop-eyed surprise, asked them what they thought of ebonics. Their responses were not surprising.

Actually, little of the discussion was. The great Theater Wars faceoff ended up being more or less a battle of established cultural types --the grumpy representative of pure aesthetics who believes fundamentally in the wise goodwill of his fellow ruling tweedy elites against the angry self-identified outsider who fashions himself as bumping up against these people-who-signify and wants independence from them.

EXTRA! Frequency clear

Dan Rather is finally free to transmit on any frequency he wants. You may recall that incident a decade ago, now immortalized in an R.E.M. song, when the CBS news anchor was attacked by someone screaming "Kenneth, what's the frequency?" Rather has now identified the man as one William Tager. Tager, presently in jail for the 1994 killing of an NBC technician, "contemplated doing worse harm than he did" to Rather, according to psychiatrist Park Dietz, who spoke with Tager after his arrest. "Tager, 49, was convinced that the media had him under surveillance and were beaming hostile messages at him," the Associated Press explains. "During the encounter, Tager demanded that Rather tell him the frequency being used to transmit the messages." How Dan became "Kenneth" we're still not sure.

By Carl Swanson

Carl Swanson writes regularly for the New York Observer.

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