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‘Colorblind’ Casting Has Wilson Seeing Red

Don Shirley is a Times staff writer

Black actors in “Death of a Salesman”? Or in any other play conceived for white actors? Forget it, says August Wilson, America’s most prominent black playwright: “It is an insult to our intelligence . . . we do not need colorblind casting; we need some theaters to develop our [black] playwrights.”

These were among the opinions expressed by Wilson in “The Ground on Which I Stand,” a speech he delivered at a Theatre Communications Group conference in Princeton, N.J., on June 26.

It was, Wilson said in a phone interview last week, “the proudest moment of my life.”

The speech appears in the just-released September issue of American Theatre magazine. Not surprisingly, Wilson’s manifesto has become a flash point in the nonprofit-theater world.

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At the conference itself, it stimulated two ad hoc sessions organized by director Benny Sato Ambush (“Jar the Floor” at South Coast Repertory), in which nearly 100 theater pros thrashed out the issues Wilson raised.

The one person Wilson chided by name--critic and American Repertory Theatre artistic director Robert Brustein--wasn’t at the conference, but he used his column in the Aug. 19-26 issue of New Republic for a detailed rebuttal to Wilson’s speech, which American Theatre plans to reprint in its October issue. Wilson is writing a response to Brustein’s rebuttal for the same issue of the magazine.

In his speech, Wilson labeled “colorblind” casting--a term often used to describe using minority actors in roles originally written for whites--"an aberrant idea that has never had any validity other than as a tool of the Cultural Imperialists who view American culture, rooted in the icons of European culture, as beyond reproach in its perfection.

“To cast us in the role of mimics is to deny us our own competence . . . colorblind casting is the same idea of assimilation that black Americans have been rejecting for the past 380 years. For the record, we reject it again.”

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Even some of the conference participants who generally cheered Wilson, including some of the African Americans, reportedly rejected his absolutist attack on colorblind casting. Ambush, who called Wilson’s speech “magnificent,” said that he especially appreciates “the historical underpinnings of his assumptions and his arguments.” Nonetheless, Ambush believes that minority actors should be able to play roles designed for whites--as long as it’s “color-conscious” or “culture-conscious” casting instead of “colorblind.” According to this policy, which Ambush said was endorsed by many of the participants in the ad hoc sessions he led, directors can cast “nontraditionally” but shouldn’t pretend that an actor’s race doesn’t matter.

But Wilson confirmed last week that he opposes casting any blacks in roles written for whites--"it detracts from the humanity of the actor. Likewise, I would be opposed to casting whites in my plays.”

Benjamin Mordecai, who produces most of Wilson’s plays, acknowledged that Wilson’s opinion “is truly a minority view among black theater artists.” Mordecai said that one of the actresses in Wilson’s recent “Seven Guitars” told him that without some form of nontraditional casting, “she couldn’t have a career in the theater.” Mordecai, who is white, said he didn’t agree with all of Wilson’s remarks, “but I admire his courage in talking as candidly as he did.”

Nowadays, many nonprofit theaters use at least some colorblind casting in classical roles. Wilson argued that “by making money available to theaters willing to support colorblind casting, the financiers and governors have signaled not only their unwillingness to support black theater but their willingness to fund dangerous and divisive assaults against it.”

Of 66 theaters that belonged to the League of Resident Theatres (LORT) at the time of the speech, Wilson said, “there is only one [Crossroads Theatre Company in New Jersey] that can be considered black.” (Alliance Theatre Company, a LORT member in Atlanta, has a black artistic director, Kenny Leon, but is not specifically black-oriented. The New York Shakespeare Festival is run by George C. Wolfe, an African American, but it is neither black-oriented nor a member of LORT.)

Nevertheless, black theater “is vibrant, it is vital--it just isn’t funded,” Wilson declared. It “doesn’t share in the economics that would allow it to support its artists. . . . The economics are reserved as privilege to the overwhelming abundance of institutions that preserve, promote and perpetuate white culture.”

Brustein and others find irony in the fact that Wilson’s own plays are usually produced at general-audience theaters, including Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson and the Old Globe Theatre, not at black-specific theaters. Mordecai, Wilson’s producer, agreed that just about any LORT theater would be glad to present the next Wilson play. Wilson “deeply appreciates” the support of those theaters that have produced his work, Mordecai said, “but he was not expressing his thanks in that speech.”

Indeed, a reader of his speech might conclude that Wilson plans to turn to black theaters for future productions of his own plays. Not so, Wilson insists. “I have very carefully worked out a relationship with various theaters that have supported my work.” He said he doesn’t plan to change that relationship.

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Asked why mainstream theaters are so eager to produce his plays, if--as he believes--they generally ignore black writers, Wilson credited “the merit of my plays. It’s not a case of benevolence.” He also pointed out that because theaters often prefer revivals, “there aren’t that many available opportunities for playwrights to have their work done, period.” Established names like his often take precedence over newcomers in the competition for available slots.

“I’m aware very often that I’m the only black playwright working at a theater,” Wilson said. “In Oklahoma, that works fine,” he said--"theaters have to serve their communities.” But in big cities with large black populations, “I don’t think it works.”

This is why, he said, upcoming black playwrights need black theaters. Although some of his plays have been produced at black-specific theaters, generally speaking “the problem is that there aren’t any black theaters” with sufficient resources.

Instead of helping black theaters, funding agencies support colorblind casting, Wilson charged. “But once our visitor pass expires, it doesn’t change the mission of the institution.”


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