AUGUST WILSON 1945-2005
Just one more openly blatant example of just how insidious and pervasive American racism actually is and aggressively continues to be. In other words: "Same O, Same O" or as we've been saying since the day we arrived on these lowdown dirty shores: Same shit, Different day...
P.S. The real question is as always: What are we gonna do about it?
Race an Issue in Wilson Play, and in Its Production
By PATRICK HEALY
April 22, 2009
New York Times
In life, the playwright August Wilson had an all-but-official rule: No white directors for major productions of his work, which was one reason that a film was never made from his 10 plays about African-American life in the 20th century. “Fences,” one of the two awarded the Pulitzer Prize, foundered in Hollywood because of his insistence on a black director.
Yet in the years since Wilson died in 2005, an increasing number of white directors have staged his plays, and last week came a milestone: “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” which opened on April 16, is the first Broadway revival of a Wilson play since his death and the first ever on Broadway with a white director, the Tony Award-winning Bartlett Sher.
The selection of Mr. Sher by the producer, Lincoln Center Theater, has prompted concern and even outrage among some black directors, who say this production represents a lost opportunity for a black director, for whom few opportunities exist on Broadway or at major regional theaters. Wilson himself felt that black directors best understood his characters, and he saw his plays as chances to give them high-profile work. Wilson’s widow, Constanza Romero, however, approved Mr. Sher as director.
This production of “Joe Turner” also stands as an unusual collaboration, and by all accounts a happy one, between a white director and an almost entirely black cast on Broadway, a rarity itself. At times the actors were directing the director, as they discussed the ways that black Americans relate to one another and to their white neighbors and nemeses.
“I’ve learned more from this cast than any group that I’ve ever worked with,” said Mr. Sher, who won a Tony for “South Pacific.” “But I also learned an enormous amount about the lack of opportunity in theater today. More Ibsen should be directed by black directors. More Shakespeare. More Chekhov.”
Several black directors, in interviews, raised the same issue, but also expressed sharp disappointment in commercial and nonprofit producers for failing to create those opportunities.
“Straight up institutional racism” was how one black director of Wilson’s plays on Broadway, Marion McClinton, described Lincoln Center Theater’s selection of Mr. Sher, to a Minnesota newspaper this winter. In an interview this week, Mr. McClinton said choosing white directors for Wilson plays not only denied opportunities for black directors, but also reflected a double standard because so few black directors were chosen for major productions of canonical works by white playwrights.
Kenny Leon, the Broadway director of the last two works in the 10-play Wilson cycle — “Gem of the Ocean” and “Radio Golf” — said Broadway lacked “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,” said Mr. Leon, who earned a Drama Desk directing nomination for his one other outing on Broadway, “A Raisin in the Sun” in 2004.
Several other black directors have written or called André Bishop, the artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater, expressing similar concerns, Mr. Bishop said. “It’s not so much about Bart, but about wanting to work,” he said. “This experience has started a conversation about opportunities for black directors, and I’m taking it very seriously.”
This revival of “Joe Turner,” originally produced on Broadway in 1988, started with Mr. Bishop’s looking for another play to do with Mr. Sher, who became resident director at Lincoln Center Theater last year. Mr. Bishop said he was drawn to the play not only “as a magnificent piece of writing,” but also as a match for Mr. Sher. Just as Mr. Sher’s “South Pacific” mixes xenophobia and powerfully symbolic characters like Bloody Mary with deep emotion and a naturalistic environment, so is “Joe Turner” rich in both racial and social metaphors.
At the same time, Mr. Bishop said he “thought a lot” about whether to hire a white director. “Obviously I was very aware that the Wilson estate might say no, and I also didn’t want to risk offending people,” he said. He added that Mr. Sher was the only white director he would have chosen. It fell to Mr. Sher to seek the rights to the play, and here he had some advantage. He had been artistic director of the Intiman Theater in Seattle, where Wilson lived; the two had met on a few occasions, and Mr. Sher had become close to Wilson’s widow, Ms. Romero, the executor of his estate.
“I called Constanza and told her I wanted to direct ‘Joe Turner,’ and the only thing I asked was that she not answer me for three days,” Mr. Sher said.
“I wanted to give her time to think it all through,” he said.
Ms. Romero, who was born in Colombia, said in an interview that she and her husband had talked about who should direct his work. Wilson was widely known as a passionate advocate for blacks in theater and film; in the 1990s, he and the director and writer Robert Brustein sparred at length in print and in person about the role of race in everything from a playwright’s vision to casting.
“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,” Ms. Romero said.
“My work is to get these stories out there,” she said, “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.”
Mr. Sher’s experience on “Joe Turner,” set in a boarding house in Pittsburgh in 1911, has been an object lesson in this regard. His cast and Ms. Romero offered advice and insights on everything from the kind of coat that a central character would wear to the staging of the juba, an African dance at the end of Act I.
“When they told me Bart was directing, my first response was, ‘But isn’t he white?’ — so I was intrigued,” said LaTanya Richardson Jackson, who plays the boarding-house matron Bertha. “And from the start he was so collaborative. He would say, ‘I know this,’ and we would say, ‘Yeah, but you don’t know this.’ ”
“As directors go,” she said, “he was an amazing listener.”
Still, the choice of Mr. Sher has set a precedent in the eyes of some veterans of Wilson’s plays — a precedent that they believe the playwright would not like.
“August told me himself that the reason he did not want white directors was because if one ever had a chance to do one of his plays on Broadway, it would be very unlikely that a black director would ever be chosen again to direct his plays on that level,” said Charles S. Dutton, who starred in the original production of “Joe Turner” at Yale Repertory Theater in 1986. “We’ll see what happens now that Mr. Sher is being lauded as a major new interpreter for August’s work,” Mr. Dutton added.
It is up to Ms. Romero to sign off on future productions of Wilson’s work, on Broadway and off, and she said she had no plans to apply a racial litmus test to directors.
“It’s the quality of the work that matters now,” she said.