Theater Pros Debate Multi-Cultural Casts -- Speech By Playwright August Wilson Ignites A Controversy At Conference

PRINCETON, N.J. - August Wilson is best known as one of the most successful and respected playwrights of our time.

But the Seattle-based author of the current Broadway hit "Seven Guitars," and many other dramas of African-American life, also proved himself an impassioned polemicist and provocateur when he addressed 500 theater colleagues gathered recently on the Princeton University campus.

In his keynote talk for the 11th biennial conference of the Theatre Communications Group, a national network of nonprofit drama institutions, Wilson declared he had come to "make a testimony" about "the ground on which I stand."

Stressing the image of staking out common and separate turfs, Wilson's controversial speech reflected on such subjects as the central role of race in cultural identity, the importance of "the brilliant explosion of black arts and letters" engendered by the Black Power movement of the 1960s, and the casting of black actors in Shakespearean or other roles originally created for white performers.

Wilson's vigorous repudiation of the latter practice threw a rhetorical bombshell into an otherwise placid gathering.

Many of the assembled directors, writers, designers and administrators, including representatives from more than half a dozen Seattle theaters, were audibly surprised to hear Wilson slam the entire notion of "non-traditional casting" - at least as it affects non-white actors.

The widespread policy, adopted by dozens of large and small theaters in recent decades, has been a means to give ethnic minority actors broader stage oportunities, and to conjure a more authentically diverse dramatic landscape for modern American audiences. It has made inter-racial casting of actors in Shakespeare plays (including black TV actor Andre Braugher in a current Central Park version of "Henry V") almost commonplace.

But the issue is apparently far from settled. The debate over Wilson's polemic simmered and flared throughout the four-day TCG event, held June 26 through 29. And it spilled over into other conference events, including a forum on "Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk," the popular Broadway musical that surveys African-American sociocultural history through tap dance, rap and song.

The casting issue grew so combustive that when a white theater artist asked "Noise/Funk" director George C. Wolfe about his views on non-traditional casting (he endorses it), the questioner was vigorously applauded by some in the crowd - and loudly castigated by others.

Other conference issues

If the thorny ongoing struggle to define and implement racial diversity in American theater dominated the conference agenda, it was by no means the only topic of concern.

As TCG executive director John Sullivan observed, American theater companies are "spending a lot of time just justifying their existence" as the century draws to a close.

Crossroads Theatre artistic director and TCG board president Ricardo Khan referred to the "mass demoralization" of the American arts world, noting that the Republican Revolution "has really done a mind-job on us."

Over the last few years, arts workers have protested but failed to avert the drastic cutting of the National Endowment of the Arts budget. And since the recessionary early '90s, many have seen their ticket sales shrink.

They also have fought censorship battles over nudity, frank language and plays with homosexual themes. And they've witnessed the demise of some two dozen nonprofit theaters around the country, and the precarious financial condition of many others.

Some also are adjusting to a talent drain of top artistic leadership. Such prominent artistic directors as Daniel Sullivan of Seattle Repertory Theatre and Arvin Brown of Connecticut's Long Wharf Theatre are choosing to step down, to pursue film and TV opportunities.

An upbeat mood

Yet despite the crises facing theater in an era of wildfire electronic media saturation and evaporating government support, the mood at the TCG event was generally upbeat. It was as if a band of shipwreck survivors had shaken off their initial shock and trauma, scanned the horizon and found the determination to build rafts and stay afloat on their own muscle.

Avidly searching for new paradigms for economic survival, the conference presented management forums devoted to re-inventing institutions, promoting arts-funding advocacy in a presidential election year and pursuing the unholy but potentially lucrative alliance between not-for-profit theaters and commercial producers.

Guest speaker John Ralston Saul, a Canadian novelist and social philopher whose books include "The Unconscious Civilization," claimed we are living through an era of raging "corporatism," but that theater will be an important factor in creating a more humanistic future.

In his conference appearance, British actor-author Simon Callow bemoaned the current "bleak" state of arts support in England. But he also inspired his American colleagues with tales of Sir Laurence Olivier's stage brilliance and the greatness of the Victorian-era playwright and man of letters, Oscar Wilde.

The role of technology

Inevitably, there was also a "Theater in Cyberspace" panel. However, the seminar did not posit a future in which "virtual" online theater replaces live bodies on an "actual" stage. Instead, it featured presentations on how to use advanced computer technology to create and transmit scenic designs, better market theater tickets, and keep in contact with patrons.

There was also information on how to find and recruit black, Latino, Asian and other ethnic minority actors through an online service run by the Non-Traditional Casting Project.

The instruction seemed rather ironic, given the hullabaloo set off by Wilson's opening speech.

Some black artists at the conference, including outgoing Group Theatre artistic director Tim Bond, urged that Wilson's incendiary remarks about casting not be plucked out of a larger context.

They should be heard, some argued, as part of a broader protest Wilson was lodging over the failure of funders to support the small, community-based theater companies that rose out of the ethnic-pride movements of the 1960s and 1970s to develop works by fledging minority writers. Many of those institutions have since closed or, like Seattle's Group Theatre, are struggling financially.

Even Wilson's own Broadway-bound plays are now co-produced by the largest nonprofit theaters around the U.S. But he castigated "mainstream" playhouses for "keeping blacks out of the theater" by giving their well-heeled subscribers season discounts, and charging higher single-ticket prices for "those who can least afford it."

While many listeners concurred with that criticism, they strongly disagreed when Wilson called "color-blind casting" an "aberrant idea." In several voluble, hastily called discussion groups, white theater directors defended the advantages of inserting inter-racial casts into works once reserved only for white actors. Some black artists retorted that a much broader inclusivity was needed to turn theaters into truly multicultural institutions.

It was obvious this dialogue will continue well into the 21st century, and that it reflects a more widespread public discussion of the role of race and ethnicity in social change. As more than one participant noted, the representation of minority theater workers at the TCG conference had grown markedly since the 1980s, and mirrors a wider diversity in the field at large.

Others noted, with some relief, that while racially divisive issues remain, they are now aired with more honesty and mutual respect. Wilson, too, ended his galvanic talk on a note of solidarity and uplift.

"All of art is a search for ways of being, of living life more fully," he said. "We who are capable of those noble pursuits should challenge the melancholy and barbaric, to bring the light of angelic grace, peace, prosperity and the unencumbered pursuit of happiness to the ground on which we stand."