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Bill Maxwell

White or black, the play's the thing

Arecent New York Times article indicates that nearly four years after August Wilson's death, the black playwright's opposition to whites directing his work sparks as much controversy as ever.

For the first time, a white director, Bartlett Sher, is directing a Wilson play, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, on Broadway. It opened on April 16. The producer at New York's Lincoln Center Theater selected Sher for the job.

Wilson's widow, Constanza Romero, also the executor of the estate, endorsed Sher's selection. "While August had been this heavyweight champion of black culture and the African-American experience on stage, that was his work when he was alive," she told the New York Times. "My work is to get these stories out there and to help ensure that audiences walk out of the plays with a deeper understanding for these American stories and for the ways our cultures intertwine."

Based on interviews and talks over the years and a 1990 essay he wrote for Spin magazine, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Wilson would not have allowed Sher to direct Joe Turner.

"White American society is made up of various European ethnic groups which share a common history and sensibility," he wrote, defending his rejection of a white director for a film version of his play Fences. "Black Americans are a racial group which (does) not share the same sensibilities. The specifics of our cultural history are very much different. We are an African people who have been here since the early 17th century. We have a different way of responding to the world. We have different ideas about religion, different manners of social intercourse. We have different ideas about style, about language. We have different esthetics.

"Someone who does not share the specifics of a culture remains an outsider, no matter how astute a student or how well-meaning their intentions. I declined a white director not on the basis of race but on the basis of culture. White directors are not qualified for the job. The job requires someone who shares the specifics of the culture of black Americans. … What to do? Let's make a rule. Blacks don't direct Italian films. Italians don't direct Jewish films. Jews don't direct black American films."

Opinions among black directors and actors are mixed. Director Marion McClinton told the New York Times that Sher's hiring was "straight-up institutional racism," when hardly any blacks are picked for major productions of iconic works by white writers.

Kenny Leon, who directed Wilson's Gem of the Ocean and Radio Golf on Broadway, said that for blacks, Broadway "lacks a level playing field for black directors. I have to work with my agent to remind people that, yes, I direct comedies, I do musicals, I do plays about all races of people just like other directors do."

Andre Bishop, the artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater: "It's not so much about Bart, but about wanting to work. This experience has started a conversation about opportunities for black directors, and I'm taking it very seriously."

Here in St. Petersburg, Bob Devin Jones, who has directed five Wilson plays, including Gem of the Ocean and King Hedley II at American Stage, said he understands the motivation behind Wilson's stipulation for black directors of his plays in major venues.

"I think you do need someone who is sensitive to not only the material at hand but to that whole culture," he said. "This is America, and we are many different cultures and oftentimes divided."

In theater, the racial divisions often are the result of ignorance or, more politely, a lack of exposure. Years ago when Jones was an actor in the play A Raisin in the Sun with a white director, for example, the black cast repeatedly corrected the director on the significance of contractions in black vernacular.

He said that no matter how brilliant white directors may be, many often miss essential traits of black speech and behavior: "There is proper theater, when everything is correctly pronounced. August's characters do just the opposite. It's a nuanced observation of a life, of a group and of an art. He knew the people he was intimately involved with. That was his first premise. Many playwrights don't write six-page monologues with three characters on stage.

"August's characters are verbose, and they take their luxurious time saying it. That's not your prevailing theater with short, tight sentences so that the play achieves internal rhythm. When I direct an August Wilson play, it's the rhythm of the language, not unlike Shakespeare. That's what you're trying to get. That's where the meaning is, in how these characters express themselves."

While appreciating Wilson's desire for black directors, Jones said he believes the essence of good performance goes beyond race. "I've been directing Shakespeare for 20 years," he said. "I think that at a certain point, it is just humanness you're after."

Sher, the white director, showed a lot of humility and understanding when he spoke with the New York Times about the controversy: "I've learned more from this (all-black) cast than any group I've ever worked with. But I've also learned an enormous amount about the lack of opportunity (for blacks) in theater today."

I believe theaters should look for gifted black directors first when performing a Wilson play. In the absence of a black director with the right resume and talent, however, I would hire a Bartlett Sher in a heartbeat. I have no doubt that such a person would find the humanness in the script to which Bob Devin Jones refers.

White or black, the play's the thing 04/25/09 [Last modified: Sunday, April 26, 2009 1:54am]
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