It Takes A Nation Of Millions

Local disputes
highlight a national debate about the state of black theater.

by Michael Tortorello

          In June of this year, playwright August Wilson addressed The Theatre Communications Group, the preeminent national conference of theater artists, in a keynote speech titled "The Ground on Which I Stand," a sweeping treatise on the status of black theater in this country and the impediments to its growth. As Wilson sees it, the ground upon which he stands is, by and large, not shared with the white theater establishment and the "counting houses" (read: grant foundations) that fund it. "Where," he asks, "is the common ground in the horrifics of lynching... in the maim of the policeman's bullet... in the hull of a slave ship...?" While decrying the "cultural imperialism" of colorblind casting and the continuing tradition of minstrelsy, Wilson's underlying point is a charge for more black theaters: "We [African-Americans] cannot allow others to have authority over our cultural and spiritual products... we need to develop guidelines for the protection of our cultural property, our contribution, and the influence they accrue."

          But one man's self-sufficiency, it seems, is another man's segregation. Writing in the New Republic, critic Richard Burstein, who has previously discussed the uneasy union of "aesthetic" and "sociological" evaluative standards, labeled Wilson's arguments as "divisive," and his prose as "a jeremiad" of "boilerplate rhetoric." "Isn't there some kind of statute of limitations on white guilt and white reparations?" Burstein writes. "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?"

          It is against the backdrop of this national debate over the artistic direction and control of black theater that three loosely related local conflicts have occurred. In the most publicized incident, actor Terry Bellamy quit Penumbra Theatre's production of August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. In a Star Tribune article a week later, he questioned the administrative direction of the theater--founded and headed by his half-brother Lou Bellamy--while decrying what he perceived as the practice of marketing black pain [see "Culture Quake" in last week's City Pages]. A week later, African-American actor Brian Chapman-Evans walked out on a Frank Theatre production of The America Play by black playwright Suzan-Lori Parks the night before it was to open; at issue (among other things) was the interpretive acumen of white director Wendy Knox. Finally, a play by African-American playwright and performance artist Djola Branner was canceled from the schedule of the Pillsbury House Theatre by black Artistic Director Ralph Remington after the two failed to reach agreement on an appropriate director. Branner favored a Latino director of his acquaintance; Remington vetoed the selection partly on racial grounds.

          Interviewing the involved parties, one observes a multiplicity of opinions radiating from shared aesthetics and common artistic ground; when (or if) these paths will again converge remains an open question.

          "The reason why I chose The America Play," Wendy Knox explains, "is the artistic challenge of the piece. I've known [Suzan-Lori Parks's] work for years, and I finally decided to take it on." Knox says that such experimentation has always been the mission of Frank Theatre. "I would probably not take on a piece that I thought someone else in town was going to do better than I would," Knox says. She notes that Parks and other experimental black playwrights have often attracted white directors in greater number than black ones. Knox recounts a New York workshop reading of Park's play The Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom for which the author selected an all-white cast; Parks wanted to emphasize the "poetic" value of the work as distinct from the "political" meaning it might have with black actors. To Knox, such a scenario is evidence of the complexity of race in Parks's aesthetic. "I think if I were directing this play in New York," Knox says, "there wouldn't be any question about the race issue."

          Knox declines to discuss the specifics of actor Brian Chapman-Evans's eleventh-hour walk-out--which forced the cancellation of the play's opening weekend--but measured out a few general observations: "I think the beginning of the [difficulties] came over artistic differences rather than racial differences. Unfortunately, in that mix, I think the racial differences were manipulated to serve individual egos. I think there may have been, on the part of a few cast members, a very proprietary sense over Suzan-Lori Parks as a black writer; and the assumption that as a white director I didn't fully understand her work. That's a notion I reject." For his part, Brian Chapman-Evans refused to go on record about the incident, after initially granting this writer a lengthy interview.

          "The problem that I have with many theaters," Pillsbury House Director Ralph Remington says, "is that when they produce white theater pieces, they don't hire black directors, black designers, black stage managers. The staff is lily-white. I don't know the reason for that. I think it's created a kind of artistic apartheid in the cities." Remington is skeptical of the claim that black production talent is inaccessible to white producers. "I feel quality should be the number one thing," he says. "But all too often when white people are asked why they didn't hire black people, they say 'we couldn't find any.' I'm tired of hearing that excuse." The training of professional African-American theater artists is one of the missions Remington identifies for a new, predominantly black stage planned at Pillsbury House's North Minneapolis site.

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