Although Remington defends the prerogative of a white director to attempt any production she sees fit, he believes that the only way for such artists to discover the "true issues" in a black piece is to do the work. "I think white people have to study. What does it really mean to be black in this country? What does it mean when you go to rent an apartment in the Twin Cities in a certain area, and as soon as they find out you're black, there's no vacancy--but if you happen to go with a white women and you send her in, she gets the apartment... What does it mean to go into a store and be followed around?"
He extended this argument when Branner proposed a Latino director--Carlos Murillo--for Branner's play, Homos in the House. Remington expresses "disappointment" that the direction of the show, which was to be a co-production with Walker Art Center, could not be amicably resolved. "We thought it contained a lot of important things that needed to be said, Remington allows. "I'm not saying that to the undiscerning eye it wouldn't be good theater, but I think that... to evoke the entire truth of what the experience is--to be black in America, number one, and then to be black and gay--I don't think anybody other than a black director could do that."
"I would have loved to find a black director," says Djola Branner, "and I respect the work that Ralph has done. Historically, black directors have been denied access... It's important to understand a piece within a cultural context and within a historical context. It's important to understand the intent of the writer. This play deals with homophobia--a subject in the black community that we've only started to deal with." Branner believes that Murillo--a playwright and director whose work Branner admired--was game to tackle such concerns, and ultimately decided that Murillo's "innovative" aesthetic made him "the best choice for the piece." "I could have let it go," he says, "but just because a director is black doesn't mean the play has to be good."
Branner implies that the comparatively small size of Minnesota's communities of color amplifies disagreements that might not register elsewhere, and further, has promoted a somewhat limited aesthetic. "I moved from the San Francisco area two years ago," he notes, "and when I got here, I noticed that a lot of the theaters are still presenting works about the downtrodden and disenfranchised black man.... People are stuck in this mode. We see the same old stories over and over again. I mean, I like them, but we have Big White Fog and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and City of Dreams.... Now, racism is a reality. Class is a reality. But one of the things about Pomo Afro Homos [the performance troupe Branner co-founded] was that not everything had to be a tragedy."
What all this means to the numerous local and national theater companies embroiled in that great messy experiment called, for lack of a better term, "multiculturalism," is not entirely clear. But Branner, for one, seems ready to subordinate questions of taxonomy to a commitment to create new art.
"We have to have a discussion about the work that we want to produce," he says. "The white audience is going to perceive what the white audience is going to perceive.... What is black theater? It's difficult to define. It's like deciding what is queer theater? What is black theater? Probably everything you can imagine." CP
Thoughts on an African-American Art
by Lou Bellamy
The following is an excerpt from a letter sent to the Star Tribune on August 9 in response to August Wilson's speech to the annual Theatre Communications Group Conference.
I think that the greatest travesty in American theatre today is that, in spite of the voluminous amounts of talent and craft evident at every level in the black theatrical, musical, and artistic communities, we--as a nation--have not found it necessary to institute and support a major regional black theatre.
Furthermore, I view the efforts of the major regional theaters (translation: white,since those are the only ones in existence) to be antithetical to that end. Perhaps the following will help you to understand my position. By examining these specifics, I should be able to shed light upon a national condition which, as August Wilson is advocating, must be rectified.
Both August and I have, because of the tremendous resources the major regional theaters possess, allowed our craft to be exhibited in those venues. Some of those closest to me, and whose opinions I hold in high regard, counsel me to find ways to work with these major institutions. They argue quite persuasively that by sharing precious resources we could mount projects that could be to our mutual benefit. After all, these organizations have taken up the multicultural mandate and, like it or not, they are now "in business." I am advised to assume a position which would lessen many of my negative comments concerning the recent efforts of these organizations and the effects of those efforts upon my organization. I should, I am told, offer constructive criticism and partnership rather than polemical arguments which only serve to widen the chasm between our organizations.