Light in August


PLAYWRIGHT AUGUST WILSON calls himself a "race man" and a child of the Black Power movement. As such, he's been perceived as an embittered, retrograde racialist by many whites--foremost among them, New Republic theater critic Robert Brustein. The national theater scene is still feeling the aftershocks of the New York debate the two men held several months back over the state of African American theater (following a series of pitched print polemics); Wilson inflamed actors of all colors with his stand against nontraditional or "colorblind" casting. ("Our bodies are not for rent," he memorably wrote.) With Fences, the Guthrie Theater has granted resources and artistic control to Penumbra Theatre, ending the former St. Paul resident's long and conspicuous absence from the Guthrie stage. For this, Artistic Director Joe Dowling and his staff deserve a standing ovation. Still, Wilson asserts, African American theater deserves more.

CITY PAGES: Besides learning that Brustein's a nice guy, as you both said at the end of your debate, did you take away anything else from that whole brouhaha?

AUGUST WILSON: I'm sure I must have taken something away, though I'm not sure I can articulate it. I'm formulating in my mind and trying to understand what it is. I was surprised, however, at the entrenchment of white attitudes. Any gain by blacks is seen as an encroachment on white territories.

CP: Have you and Brustein talked much since then?

WILSON: No, we haven't talked. I guess we don't like each other that much [laughs].

CP: You approved a recent production of Fences in China, with Chinese actors. So to some extent for you, casting is a matter of social context. If this were a perfect world--if there were plenty of healthy black theaters and playwrights getting their work done and lots of roles available--do you think you would change your feelings about colorblind casting?


CP: Do you want to say anything more on that?

WILSON: I think that says it all.

CP: The arrangement between the Guthrie and Penumbra on Fences strikes me as an ingenious temporary fix for the problem of getting audiences to see Penumbra's work. On a purely symbolic level, though, it's a bit problematic.

WILSON: I think we would have a much healthier theater if the Guthrie would share some of their resources with the Illusion and some of the other theaters as well as Penumbra--why can't it work that way also?

CP: Is there any sense of, "Why do I once again have to put myself in a dependent position and be the beneficiary of your generosity so that I can have a chance at your audiences?"

WILSON: This is why I think Penumbra Theatre should become legitimized. If you were to take the Guthrie Theater and give that physical facility over to a black theater, that whole building, that space, that everything, you would immediately legitimize the black theater. This is what has to happen, on this scale. Then it's not a question of paternalism, it's not a question of anything.

CP: So you're talking about a very practical, physical kind of change: i.e., you want Penumbra to have a nice, big theater?

WILSON: Yes, I think Penumbra deserves to have a facility in which they can become legitimized in the eyes of the community.

CP: What's your definition of "legitimized"?

WILSON: One, obviously, the Guthrie has a long history and relationship with funding sources. Penumbra may be a legitimate theater and they've been around for 20 years and people say that, but they don't have the relationship to funding sources--the same way that blacks don't have the relationship to banking capital that whites have.

CP: In your fantasy, what would the landscape of American theater look like?

WILSON: What we have now is an American theater that is skewed, if you will, towards the values of Western European theater. That's the foundation of American theater--it's the foundation of society and probably should be the foundation of the theater. What you do not have is other ethnic groups contributing to the development of the values on which a truly American theater can be made. We need to empower [these] groups as white groups are empowered, so that eventually we'll have a theater that is American theater, and would then be a mixture of white European values, Asian values, black values, and all the other things that make up American society. That's obviously ideal. I think the ideals of the founding fathers--the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and all that stuff--is likewise ideal. We should strive toward that.

CP: Are you more interested, then, in ultimately seeing a theater like the Guthrie having an integrated staff and season of plays, or in seeing Penumbra become bigger and have bigger audiences?

WILSON: I think Penumbra should become bigger. The two theaters have different mission statements, and I think they are both equally valid. It's just that one is empowered and one isn't. But I would love to see Penumbra get bigger and maybe one day host one of David Mamet's plays. (Kate Sullivan)

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