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
Wilson fits Brustein into the category of a "cultural
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,
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. …