Two of Drama's Greats Feud over Black Theater in America Public Debate Raises Key Questions about Race in Society

Article excerpt

In one of August Wilson's plays, "Two Trains Running," a black character named Hambone shouts each morning at the door of a white shop owner, "I want my ham. He gonna give me my ham."

Promised a ham nine years ago in exchange for painting a fence, Hambone was offered a chicken instead. He refused to accept it. Each morning since then, Hambone shouts at the shop owner.

The ham became something of a cultural metaphor on Monday night in New York's Town Hall theater. In a widely anticipated debate with drama critic Robert Brustein over how to create more black theater in the United States, Mr. Wilson, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, said in essence he wants the "ham" delivered now. Wilson's "ham" is the struggling black theaters of today that need to be supported and subsidized in order to flourish alongside white, mainstream theaters, says Wilson. Mr. Brustein, drama critic for The New Republic and artistic director of the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., charges Wilson with calling for "subsidized separatism" and chides him for a tone of "victimization." Integration should be the goal, says Brustein, suggesting that Wilson has "the greatest mind of the 17th century." Wilson fits Brustein into the category of a "cultural imperialist." Before a sold-out audience of 1,500 theater professionals and members of the public, the debate, moderated by actress Anna Deavere Smith, was a continuation of the sparring match two of drama's stellar spokesmen have been conducting over race issues for months in American Theatre Magazine. What the debate did, according to several people in the audience, was to clarify some of the issues, but it failed to lift the discussion to a new level. "This is a coming together of blacks and whites that is at least out in the open," says Ricardo Khan, the co-founder and artistic director of the Crossroads Theater Company in New Brunswick, N.J. "They were both fairly repetitive of what they had said before," says Harry Weintraub, general counsel of the League of Resident Theaters (LORT) in New York, "and in a sense they could have given their opening statements and gone home." But the issues raised reflect larger racial questions in American society: Is black culture so different from white culture that only all-black theaters, playwrights, and actors can depict it accurately? Should theaters adopt "colorblind" casting? In an era of diminishing funds for nonprofit organizations, how will any theater survive whether led by African-Americans, whites, Latinos, or Asians? The heated part of the dialogue between Wilson and Brustein began last June when Wilson delivered a rousing speech at Princeton University calling for increased financial support for black theaters. It was reprinted in American Theatre Magazine. Brustein, having previously criticized Wilson's plays from an artistic standpoint, chided the playwright for being divisive and "ungrateful" for his treatment in theaters as arguably the stage's most successful black playwright. …