Throughout the history of American theater, the desire for a separate Black theater tradition has raised challenges and contradictions. Over the past decade, as many Black Theater institutions have stumbled and failed, revived and evolved, the question has arisen far too often, “Do we still need ethnically specific theaters?” Manifesto after manifesto has been written; critics, scholars and artists have debated; headlines have declaimed the question. Now at the new millennium for a new generation, we still wrestle with issues of cultural identity, political correctness, ethnic and gender politics all in an effort to correct the history of bigotry, oppression and segregation that has led generation after generation to this quandary in the first place.
art: Negro Unit of the Works Progress Administration. Lafayette Theatre, New York, 1936
Regional theaters present August Wilson plays regularly as a gesture. I’ve been told that there are directors on the regional theater circuit who are considered August Wilson “experts” and whenever a theater wants to do one of his plays, they get hired. But let’s face it, August Wilson is basically Ibsen with Negroes instead of Norwegians, and these directors could just as well direct anything else in the canon. Do they get hired to do that? Or are they only deemed good enough for directing Wilson?
Andy Horwitz, at Culturebot
art: illustration by Jordan Isip for August Wilson’s Jitney.
…the reimagining of Heathcliff, that “dark-skinned” “gipsy”…as a black man…Brontë’s Heathcliff was repeatedly evoked as “dark,” and culled from the slums of Liverpool (a port fraught with immigrants). But in movies and theater, he has always manifested as white, from Laurence Olivier to Tom Hardy. Brontë may not have intended Heathcliff to have been a full-on African—which in the 1700s meant being a slave—but Arnold’s coup turns the old story around, from a wicked love-lost tragedy into a crisis of a society suffering the guilt and ghosts of slavery.
“Shakespeare in the Park is great…but that only reaches a tiny percentage of people for whom Shakespeare is already important…we’re seeking out these marginalized groups and telling them, ‘Yes, the most important writer in the English language wrote for you, this is yours.’”
…in the case of “A Streetcar Named Desire” on Broadway which…set Tennessee Williams’ play in New Orleans with a cast entirely of color, you can have a variety of views about that show, and I liked it a little more…than most. But I do think it completely set to rest the notion that Tennessee Williams’ writing belongs to, you know, white folks…it absolutely worked perfectly…to have a cast of color doing that play. Williams is…kind of like Shakespeare these days. He’s a poet who I think as time has gone on is more and more transcending race. It seemed the most natural thing in the world…to have Stella and Stanley and Blanche to be….played by actors of color, and indeed to be characters of color…iit was it was kind of a populist show. The night I was there the audience kind of cheered when…Blair Underwood took off his shirt…everybody went crazy around me. It was like that play had been…reclaimed by a different audience, a…broader audience who wanted to see stars on Broadway and wanted to be entertained….That was a very positive moment, a moment when you said Okay, a play does not belong to anyone group on Broadway anymore.
—Chris Jones, chief theater critic for The Chicago Tribune.