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Black in a white theater world

Quartet of playwrights exchange ideas on future, fallacies of race on stage

Tuesday, April 06, 1999

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Critic

"I came to do this show to be surrounded by men I always admired," says actor-playwright Keith Glover. "I had to come re-energize myself."

  On the set of Pittsburgh Public Theater's "Fences," from left: Keith Glover, Marion McClinton, August Wilson and John Henry Redwood. (Bill Wade, Post-Gazette)

It is an unusual concentration of remarkable men, these four African-American playwrights at work at the Pittsburgh Public Theater.

First is August Wilson, who ranks at the top of all American playwrights, of any color. The 53-year-old is spending a month in his hometown for the first time in years, working simultaneously on a screenplay ("Fences"), a new play ("King Hedley II") and a serious hunger for good cigars.

Meanwhile, directing the revival of "Fences" that opens for previews Thursday, is Marion McClinton, previously director of Wilson's "Jitney" and "Seven Guitars" at the Public, but also author of the searing "Police Boys" that played at the Public in 1995. Tackling the lead role of Troy in "Fences," as he did at the Public in 1989, is John Henry Redwood, known also to Public audiences as the author of "A Sunbeam" (1991) and "The Old Settler" (1998). And playing Troy's older son, Lyons, is Glover, new to Pittsburgh, with impressive playwriting credits.

The four have a network of previous shared work. One of the leading Wilson directors, McClinton also directed Glover's "Dancing on Moonlight" in New York. And Glover and Redwood have acted in many Wilson plays.

It already seemed like a playwriting summit. So the Public supplied a table for the four men to sit around on a recent morning to talk about what it's like to be a black playwright in America at the end of the millennium.

The discussion went on for two hours, breaking only because it was time to get back to rehearsal for "Fences." Billy Jackson of Community Media videotaped it for the Public's archives. Listening in were artistic director Eddie Gilbert and other Public staffers.

Occasionally it seemed that one or another of the four talked past those at the table to that other audience, representing as they did the white professional regional theaters where the four have done much of their work. The Public is one of the national League of Regional Theaters (LORT) that set the agenda for non-Broadway professional theater. The African Grove Theater referred to was America's first black theater.

Black and white was a constant theme.

Some excerpts:

On directing ...

Redwood: Every playwright would like to see a play done as he wants it done, not the way someone else interprets it.

McClinton: The IRS wants me to keep directing. They keep calling, saying, "How we doing this year?" That's where the work is coming now. What I really want to do is retreat more into writing.

Wilson: I don't want to direct at all. If I directed, it'd be someone else's play. I've had some good examples of what not to do.

Glover: I follow my father, a jazz musician, with the sensitivity where you write a piece and then get with a band and step outside it and look at it objectively.

Redwood: Ultimately, the play is the thing. It's not about the director or actor, it's about the play, conveying the message of the playwright. I know directors who aren't concerned with the play.

Wilson: The director is an interpretive artist and I'm willing to let him interpret, because ultimately it has to be on the page, self-contained. I've seen wild interpretations [of my plays] and I love them, even if it doesn't work.

Glover: But with black plays in regional theater, it's always shotgun weddings. Some directors are chosen because they work for the institution. They're not going to fight for the play.

McClinton: Black directors on the regional circuit, there's a whole lot of insecurity. Because if the wind changes, you're out, because the wind had to change for you to get in. Being inclusive is not part of the theater's mission - it's just a way of getting funding, broadening the audience base.

So where are you more powerful - as playwrightor director?

McClinton: As a playwright, because I can take my play and go home. As a director, I walk into the room with no money. I don't have the power.

Redwood: Once you publish a play, it's out of your hands; they don't even talk to you.

Redwood [to Wilson, who seems ready to disagree]: You and I have to realize we're on different levels, right from the jump start!

McClinton: August is Michael Jordan at this table.

Redwood: August should be sitting over there somewhere. ... There have been a couple of theaters I've said, "No, I don't want that director." [But once my play is published] it belongs to the publisher.

Glover: As a playwright, I've not felt powerful unless I've had a personal relationship with the director.

McClinton: The precarious situation of black directors is why we need a major black LORT theater. You could put one in D.C., Chicago, L.A., New York. ... This is America. The power is where the money lies. Look at this glass of water: I have access to the bottom part of it: One slot each year. I've got to wait for somebody else to drink their part before I can get to mine. If Martians land, we could be replaced: "That's the Martian slot, now."

I've let "Police Boys" be produced only four times, but not if I got a whiff they were more interested in the topic, gang violence, than the play. Steppenwolf called, "We have this director." "Well I have my play!" I'd rather it not be messed up in a dangerous way.

Redwood: Theaters will not do more than one black play in a season. "Oh, we like 'Fences' and 'Blues for an Alabama Sky,' " they say and try to decide which. Do both of them!

Glover: I won't have my plays done in February. [Because it's Black History Month?] Black history happens every month. No, it's a commercial decision. It's the shortest month of the year, the coldest month and everybody's broke after Christmas. Also, that's a slot where money is running out, so production values get shorter: "Well, we can't build that because we spent so much on our 'She Stoops to Conquer.' "

Wilson: As an artist, you do whatever's necessary. Which is why in my next play [needling the Public staffers listening], I have rain, 12 characters ...

Why don't black audiences exert more power?

Glover: It's a fallacy that we won't go to theater. We pay for theater all the time if it's good and reflects something we're interested in. I'll be honest: If I have to see another "Three Sisters," I would blow my brains out. It's done in the same way, it's boring, and it's not reflective of the world outside.

McClinton: A theater has to open its doors and say, "Come on in." And how does the audience know it's welcome? They see what you're doing. If someone invites me to dinner and serves lutefisk, I'll take a rain check. If you do work that welcomes them, the black audience will show up. It did at Center Stage, Baltimore.

But foundations give all this money for diversity to people who've not done it before. In American society, when you get to race, logic goes out the window. When I hire a baseball manager, he's going to have managed before. But you have black, Asian, Hispanic theaters already doing work on a shoestring - why doesn't the money go to them?

Glover: White theaters try to pimp black audiences. They say, "We open our doors to you" - in February, when you ain't going nowhere. It's the same thing we go through as actors: You're not considered part of the theater.

McClinton: The press has some culpability. The whole theater community is responsible for opening the doors that have been locked for a long time. On TV, people say the black audience is only going to see WB products. That's the only thing being offered on network. But HBO is offering artistic films for black audiences, and 40 percent of their audience is black.

What about the touring comedies that get big black audiences, like "Beauty Shop"?

Wilson: They rent the Benedum for a weekend, and people say, "This is ours," and they feel welcome. And they don't have to sustain a month's run or a whole season. Audiences are starved, and they'll take anything. But when we did "Seven Guitars" at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles, the black audience did not come, because for years that was a place where they weren't welcome.

Glover: Shows like "Beauty Shop" allowed me entry into theater. They're responsible for us being out there. Their funk is what brought me to theater, reaching across the footlights.

What about color-blind casting? Would you let a high school theater stage "Fences" with a white cast?

Wilson: I'm not sure I'd object to that.

Glover: I think they'd get a lot from it.

McClinton: They'd have to come to terms with what they don't know. They'd have to do research. But they're going to think what they know about their own lives is valid enough.

Glover: They'll start saying, "Can we cut this out?"

McClinton: When I was doing color-blind acting, I was always told not to be black: "He's not really black." OK, what is he? Martian? Who's the blond woman? Is she white? She can bring who she is into the role, but you're asking me to act with my hands tied behind my back? I call it Cyclops casting: It's color-blind in one eye.

Glover: My phone was always ringing when it was time for color-blind casting, because I did a lot of Shakespeare, and who was I going to play? The murderer! Or the servant. In "Merchant of Venice," I was Morocco or Lorenzo, but never Bassanio. If you want to desexualize me, cast me as a sidekick. I played Lorenzo in college and we had a great time until Jessica's mother and father came, and that night she said, "Can we cut out the kiss?" Hel-lo!

McClinton: Color-blind casting turns the non-white actor into a prop. The same people who are not going to see my color on stage are definitely going to see it when I walk toward them on the street. Or if I'm on an elevator with them. No one's color-blind then. Get on an elevator with me at 11:30 at night. All I'm doing is coming home from work, tired, but that's not what they're going to see. Art's supposed to be reflective of society? That's not reflective of society.

Wilson: I'm opposed to it until there can be some equality. If we had 25 theaters doing five black plays a year, and after we admit each other's humanity and cultural values, then you can have color-blind casting, if it's not put to the service of dominant European-American culture.

Won't this cost black actors jobs?

McClinton: There are not that many black actors in it to begin with. You're talking twos and fews. I've been told by theaters a black slot was filled, and I saw it was a play by a white playwright with a couple of roles color-blind cast. They equate that with putting my experience on stage? So it really hurts black writers. Or "Great White Hope" - it's not a black play.

Glover: Or "Miss Evers' Boys."

McClinton: That's the prime example. I told the author, you're investigating the moral dilemmas the doctors went through. I don't care about them - they were torturing these men. I don't care about the moral dilemma of Martin Borman, either.

Would you write white characters? Or white playwrights, black?

Wilson: I don't need them in the telling of the story. But if I did, I'd write them. I'd try to.

Glover: It's a fallacy that we can't write white characters. I go where the story leads me.

McClinton: I'm interested in looking from my perspective. People say, "Don't you want to write something universal?" Well, why isn't my story universal?

Glover: Shakespeare started this sloppiness of white writers not investigating black characters enough. Othello is a fool, totally erratic. They want us to go through this play and at the end become Martin Luther King and see past race and walk out nobly. I'm not into suffering. I won't suffer for nobody.

McClinton: Some white writers think they've done enough by empathizing with their black characters. Empathy is not investigation.

Wilson: I think ultimately the writer can only write himself.

Redwood: The only time I did not enjoy doing "Fences" was at the Youngstown Playhouse with a white director who hadn't the slightest idea about black life. It was so anemic, it just didn't work.

Has the popularity of August Wilson made it hard for other black playwrights?

Glover: No! August Wilson saved theater.

Redwood: You mean because we can't get our plays done?

Glover: August showed me there was room for the real deal on stage. Seeing August saying you don't have to lose your integrity made me get back behind a typewriter knowing that you have to be as brave as he had been.

McClinton: And when theaters make money on August Wilson, they might say, "Let's do two next year." There's been more work since the advent of August.

Glover: Then when August took that little sabbatical, they said, "We don't have an August Wilson play. So let's try the next one."

McClinton: At one time or another each of the three of us has been described as "the next August Wilson."

Redwood: I've only been compared unfavorably. But in every critique, August's name comes up.

McClinton: August Wilson has opened up avenues for other writers. But the thing about affirmative action or quotas is there's a cut-off point. There's a lot of talented young writers who can't bust through because there's a finite number of slots. As a white writer, there's no finite number.

What will the next decade bring?

Wilson: I don't know whether our objective should be a black LORT theater. Our African Grove Institute of the Arts will position itself to be advocates for whatever the people want, and we'll have a gathering of the tribes in 2002.

McClinton: King said at the funeral of the three girls, "Life is hard as steel." I think our army will be bigger to fight the war we're in now. We're going to claim our birthright.

Glover: I thought I was losing touch with why I wanted to be part of theater. It is not a frivolous task. If there is a culture war, I want to be very clear about what side I'm on. I came to do this show to be surrounded by men I've always admired. This man [Redwood] kept me from killing someone. This one [McClinton] was one of the first who told me I could be part of this. When I had gone to other black writers, they went, "Oh, no, man, you ain't coming here."

Redwood: For black people in America, it's always unpredictable how we're treated. It's not what people do to us but how we react to what people do. What I can do is continue to work, hopefully to start my own theater. We are going to persevere; we have for 400 years. We have a lot of stories to tell.

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