When questioned on the identity of one Christopher Marlowe, Hallie Flanagan, then director of the Federal Theatre Project, said “Put in the record that he was the greatest dramatist in the period immediately preceding Shakespeare.”
Well, put it in the record that August Wilson was the greatest American playwright at the turn of twenty-first century. A bold claim, I know, but one I stand behind. The latest of America’s greats, he belongs in the hallowed halls along with Miller, Hansberry, and Williams. The two-time Pulitzer Prize winner (Fences, The Piano Lesson) became famous for a series of ten plays known as the Pittsburgh Cycle, or alternatively as the American Century Cycle. Each one played on the stage of black life in America and American life in general in each of the decades of the twentieth century. Wilson captured the spirit of African-American existence and ambition in ways previously unattempted and unmatched in quality. His works are as much plays as they are staged ethnographies of the black experience, invigorating to those who could identify with them and illuminating to those who could not. He passed away in 2005.
Beginning at the end of this month and proceeding through September, The Greene Space will host the production and recording of the entire ten-play cycle. Actors and directors involved will include Phylicia Rashad, S. Epatha Merkerson, Jesse L. Martin, Anthony Chisholm, and Marion McClinton, all of whom have previously acted in or directed a Wilson play. A fuller description of the events and the Pittsburgh Cycle can be found here. Briefly:
Wilson’s ten-play cycle, according to Greene Space, “chronicles the African American experience in the 20th century with each play set in a different decade. The cycle begins in the early 1900s, when wounds from slavery and The Civil War were still fresh, and closes in the 1990s, when even a large and increasingly influential black middle class would not escape persistent racial tensions.
The Greene Space will immortalize works which convey Wilson’s deep understanding that the African-American experience is defined by racism, the struggle for an individual identity, and the ethos of attempting to locate our place in history as African Americans. When I met Wilson in 2005, he was presenting his one-man autobiographical show at Millersville University. Two sentences that he spoke, the same two that were so meaningful to Times correspondent Stephen Kinzer in 2003, I believe define his entire viewpoint on blacks in theatre: “We are an African people. We have our own history and we are not black by the accident of our birth.”
“Not black by accident” is the fulcrum on which August Wilson’s ideas about race and casting turn. An outspoken opponent of colorblind casting, the practice of casting roles without regard for the ethnicity of the character, Wilson saw it problematic, degrading and assimilationist. His speech at the 1996 Theatre Communications Group Conference, “The Ground on Which I Stand,” articulates his desire for a tradition of African-American Theatre, one defined by black actors and black playwrights, not “a social milieu that has denied him his gods, his culture, his humanity, his mores, his ideas of himself and the world he lives in.” He regarded colorblind casting as part of a nonsensical “post-racial” nihilism of art, one ultimately oppressive and dismissive of the stories of people of color (a term he abhorred), and specifically damaging to the goal of African-Americans to establish their own distinct sustainable place in American theatre.
Theatre is part of art history in terms of its craft and dramaturgy, but it is part of social history in terms of how it is financed and governed. By making money available to theatres willing to support colorblind casting, the financiers and governors have signaled not only their unwillingness to support black theatre but their willingness to fund dangerous and divisive assaults against it.
I’ll let you read the rest of his opinions from his speech; he articulates those ideas more effectively than I ever could, genius that he was. I prefer instead that we engage with the concept of colorblind casting on our own. Do we need colorblind casting? Ostensibly, it is designed to give actors of color additional opportunities in a theatre scene primarily written by and for whites. Without colorblind casting, blacks, Latinos, Asians, and other actors of color might find it impossible to get work or to escape from a consistent tokenism in writing and casting. Certainly, this establishes better representation in the arts and broadens the options of actors of color. What could be wrong with that?
Perhaps you heard about Moises Kaufman’s 2012 staging of the The Nightengale, a musical adapted from the Hans Christian Anderson story. To a fair amount of controversy, the play, set in China, featured a staggering dearth of Asian talent. For many Asian-Americans, actors, activists, designers, what have you, this was “cause for dismay and disgust and confusion.” This casting fiasco came on the heels of a report from the Asian-American Performers Action Coalition (APAC) indicating a serious decline in acting opportunities for Asian-American actors. Take a moment and read it; it’s enlightening. What’s the issue here? As actress Erin Quill puts it, there are “NO CHINESE PEOPLE IN A SHOW SET IN CHINA…this is a professional theater with a budget and access to any and every Asian American Actor in the country.”
In short, the problem with colorblind casting is that it subscribes to the “I don’t see race/I don’t see gender” school of progressivism. As an argument, it is well-meaning but stillborn. The presumption that inequality will cease to be if it is merely ignored, that prejudice will disappear if it goes unaddressed, is surprisingly pervasive, but nonsensical. It is not enough to say “any actor can act in any role regardless of their ethnicity” and call it a day. Such policies are lovely in theory, but in practice they may very well deprive actors of color of opportunity. From playwright Chuck Mee: “Directors should go very far out of their way to avoid creating the bizarre, artificial world of all intact white people, a world that no longer exists where I live, in casting my plays.”
It’s time for a new dominant strategy toward equality in casting. I’m not arguing that less-talented actors of color be given roles simply on the basis of their race/ethnicity. Bad acting makes me want to crawl out of my not-black-by-accident skin and die, and I don’t want to do anything to encourage it. But if a system designed to provide opportunity instead denies it, isn’t time to consider something new?