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.  

          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.

          I should, the arguments go, resist my gut feelings and basic instincts to "protect" the accumulated accomplishments of black contributions in music and literature by continuing to advocate that the presentation and interpretation of that music and literature is best done in culturally specific organizations. And claiming that the people about whom and ( I hope) for whom this literature and music is created should receive a degree of the psychological and economic benefits to which they are heir by presenting that music and literature in their institutions and in their community. It is my contention that we (in culturally specific institutions), when studied and informed, understand the work more deeply and are capable of providing the context, the rhythms, the musicality, and the gestures that are the intent of the African American artist and playwright.

          My "protection" has, in the past, taken the form of speaking out about the motives and responsibilities of those major regional institutions who seek to admit, and thereby interpret the African American experience for the public.

          Perhaps, I have been overzealous. Excuse my mistrust when I look at the affect upon black institutions when white institutions have "discovered" the relevance, beauty, and economic rewards in brokering black creative, economic, or educational impulses. This "discovery" most often leads to the debilitation and eventual impotence of black institutions. The present state of the black community, after availing itself to the benefits won by fighting for an unsegregated society and full participation in American politics should be most instructive. The attraction that held atomized efforts and lives together became dissipated and drained. The community which inherently held the power to reinforce and rejuvenate its own endeavors gradually began to look outside of itself for definition, guidance, and help. I perceive the result to be both spiritual and economic dependence. This dependence is directly related to the debilitation inside the black community.

          The artistic interpretation of the African American experience by white institutions deserves specific attention since this is where I most often find myself at odds with the established white theatrical community. Most of the stereotypical constructs under which my community labors are ones created by white institutions. Should black institutions now, because white institutions have "discovered" its art, surrender the stewardship of that art and literature so that it might be shared with a broader audience? Personally, I find it difficult to trust these institutions' interpretations or their motives. Their "discovery," intentional or not, has the cumulative effect of creaming and greening the cultural history and creative impulses of those they seek to admit. In fact, one might go so far as to argue that admittance or assimilation of black art benefits mostly those seeking to admit it. And that somehow that art or literature becomes more relevant or accessible because it has been "discovered." In this scenario, Picasso makes African art relevant by incorporating it into his motifs, white jazz musicians make jazz relevant by inviting it into Carnegie Hall and Lee Brewer makes black gospel music relevant by tacking it onto his Sophoclean yarn. Who benefits from "discovery?"

          In my view, the multicultural efforts of major regional organizations often have the effect of destroying black artistic institutions. They create an open world out of which some of the most accomplished artists and thinkers in the African American theatrical community bleed. The body which nurtured and sustained these artists is rendered anemic as its resources flow into the vacuum which these institutions create. The result, so far as I can see, is the degradation and decay of African American institutions. Even more damaging to artists seeking to have their craft exhibited is the affect of uninformed bestowal of merit and/or criticism. Major regional theaters have enough influence to create a system where black artists begin to believe that the approval of these institutions is relevant or even necessary. This, in effect, places those institutions and those who maintain them as "value arbiters" for the black community. I now am witness to talented black writers who register concern about the "ghettoization" of their work by production in black theaters because major institutions have offered the possibility of production. I view the behavior of these institutions as detrimental to the development of black theatre art. If black artistic institutions were afforded the funding support they deserve, they would be able to reward and support artists who they deem to be accurate, compassionate, talented, and insightful.  

          I tend to view the major institutions' forays into this arena as colonialist. Quite often they are guided by those who, because of their privileged position, occupy and extend their control over my art. They tend to place value on facets of my existence without understanding that existence in totality. When these institutions become arbiter and interpreter, they even skew my perception of myself. They, by virtue of their privilege, foster the idea that those whom they choose to admit are more accomplished or more talented because those artists chose to accept their "color-blind" invitation. Even more damaging are the preposterous statements these artists are forced to make in these scenarios. Many times they most deny their own history and culture. Willie Lowman's black brother's relationship with diamonds in South Africa in the Guthrie production of Death of a Salesman is indelibly etched in my mind. Such an insensitive and misleading representative of the truth! I witnessed white theater-goers holding their hands over their eyes and saying "See, they are exactly like us." After being subjected to this misrepresentation, I've even overheard blacks arguing stupidly that there are some blacks who have benefited by the economic rape of the African continent!

          Even in the most positive scenario, these institutions have an "averaging" influence upon the art and literature we create. What happens when black definition and self determination fly in the face of what these institutions espouse? Perhaps artistic directors running organizations like those mentioned earlier should get used to a different kind of reaction to their invitations to "play in the big house." Perhaps, now that August has provided a national forum, we will begin to hear black artists saying things like: "No, thank you! I don't want your help. Your help has been the undoing of most things I hold dear. Your help skews, stretches, and distorts my values and my art. I will not facilitate your cultural and artistic imperialism."

          Black communities and institutions are languishing, in my estimation, largely because they have become conditioned to look outside of their own milieu for criticism and approbation. Funding and support of major regional theaters, without recognizing and ensuring the health of black theaters, is a continuation of that conditioning. If black theatre is to realize itself and continue to make artistic and cultural contributions to American theater, it must be supported to the degree that it can take chances and do what people in the corporate world call "research and development." When we nurture, or discover, a talent which has the voice, insight, craft and courage to scale new artistic levels, we should be healthy enough to provide technical, dramaturgical, marketing, critical, administrative, financial, and audience support necessary to allow that talent to realize itself. In short, we should be capable of gratifying our own interests.

          I have both facilitated and participated quite substantively in the development of craft in a number of black theatrical artists who are making outstanding contributions to American theater. It seems obvious that Penumbra is doing "something" right. "Something" right for Penumbra and right for the nation. Yet, because of a national atmosphere that does not choose to reward that talent until it has been recognized by "the majors," I now have to fight to keep Penumbra from becoming a "farm team" where well-funded artistic directors come to do "one-stop-shopping" for new ideas, talent, and craft.

          Lou Bellamy is founder and director of the Penumbra Theatre.

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