About + By + For + Near = Diversity (Part 2)

Douglas Turner Ward
Douglas Turner Ward

This is the second part of a seven-part series on Todd London’s recently published book An Ideal Theater: Founding Visions for a New American Art, published by Theatre Communications Group. My intention is not to “review” the book, but rather to use it as a point of inspiration, a leaping off point for thoughts about the situation of the current American theatre. My hope is that others will be inspired to do the same – to find those things in his book, or any other book for that matter, that set off mental fireworks.
My introduction to this series inspired by London’s book is here.
Read: Part 1
| Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7

The second chapter of Todd London’s An Ideal Theater, entitled “About Us. By Us. For Us. Near Us.” is both inspiring and depressing. Inspiring because, as in the first chapter, one can be reinvigorated by the energy of passionate artists who believe in the power of the theater to change the world; depressing, because much of what they say about the world of theater hasn’t changed in the multiple decades since they wrote. This seems to be a pattern for London’s books — reading his 1993 The Artistic Home, for instance, leads one to marvel at how, 20 years later, we continue to have the same damn discussions, the same longings, the same frustrations, like some sort of theatrical Groundhog Day. If An Ideal Theater does nothing else, it should give those of us who are impatient for change ammunition when those in power inevitably tell us to calm down and take it slowly. Frankly, if things changed any more slowly they’d be going backward.

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Douglas Turner Ward
Douglas Turner Ward

Case in point: Douglas Turner Ward’s 1966 essay “American Theater: For Whites Only?,” with an added reference to social media, sounds as fresh as any blog post of recent vintage:

Tirelessly, predictably, almost repetitiously on cue, theater critics and other Jeremiahs deplore rampant commercialism, the monopoly of escapist musicals, frothy comedies and the inadequacy of experimental ventures. They also leave the impression that a little minor surgery would work wonders, that palliatives could restore health. No matter how severe their prognosis, pundits seldom question the basic structures or assumptions of the theater….

Michael Kaiser, are you listening? Or:

American theater, even at its most ambitious seriousness, is essentially a theater of the Bourgeois, by the Bourgeois, about the Bourgeois and for the Bourgeois. A pretentious theater elevating the narrow preoccupations of restricted class interests to inflated universal significance, tacitly assuming that its middle-class, affluent-oriented absorptions are central to the dominant human condition. A theater rarely embracing broader frames of reference or more inclusive concerns. A theater — even if it tried — incapable of engaging the attention of anyone not so fortunate as to possess a college diploma or a five-figure salary. More specifically, a theater in its lofty modern niche — Broadway, Off Broadway, Off-Off Broadway, Happenings-land, wherever — overwhelmingly riddled with works of in-group concerns, belles-lettres pomposity, instant despair, stultifying boredom, humorless humor, hasty-pudding hijinks and pseudo-absurdity. A Theater of Diversion — a diversionary theater, whose main problem is not that it’s too safe, but that it is surpassingly irrelevant.

Wow. I feel as if most of my posts here and on Theatre Ideas merely embroider on these half-century-old themes. The difference, though, is that such criticisms were actually heard in the 1960s: less than a year after Ward’s essay appeared in The New York Times, he was rewarded with a $434,000 seed money grant from the Ford Foundation to cover all the expenses associated with the first year of the Negro Ensemble Company, and over the first three years he received a total of $1.2 million.

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What foundation today would commit such sums to a start-up venture in the first years of its existence?

A page or two later, Ward provides what might have been the first draft of August Wilson’s 1996 speech, “The Ground On Which I Stand,” as well as a response to Robert Brustein’s infamous review of Wilson’s play, The Piano Lesson, in which he wrote,

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This single-minded documentation of American racism is a worthy if familiar social agenda… [which] as an ongoing artistic program … is monotonous, limited, locked in a perception of victimization.

Ward wrote, 30 years prior:

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The stage establishment, like Hollywood, consigns even the most innocuous Negro subject to an ogre-category of problem drama. Even sympathetic advisers constantly bug the dark craftsman to shun racial themes and aspire to that pantheon of Olympian universality which all white playwrights, ironically enough, can enter by merely getting themselves born.

What does Ward want? The same thing Wilson wanted — more African-American theaters:

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But for the Negro playwright committed to examining the contours, the contexts and depths of his experiences from an unfettered, imaginative Negro angle of vision, the screaming need is for a sufficient audience of other Negroes, better informed through commonly shared experience to readily understand, debate, confirm or reject the truth or falsity of his creative explorations. Not necessarily an all-black audience to the exclusion of whites but, for the playwright, certainly his primary audience, the first persons of his address, potentially the most advanced, the most responsive or most critical. Only through their initial and continuous participation can his intent and purpose be best perceived by others.

August Wilson
August Wilson
Photo by David Cooper, 2004 / via

Thirty years later, when Wilson suggested that the American theater needed less color-blind casting and more African-American theaters (pointing out that only one of the 67 LORT theaters were African-American), the theatrical establishment howled in rage, as if such a suggestion was (literally) beyond the pale. And now another 17 years have passed, and Wilson has died. Has anything changed? At HowlRound, Rebecca Stevens, in an essay posted last May entitled “Does the American Theater Have the Same Problem as the GOP?,” comments on”the fascinating 2010 report by Janine Sobeck on diversity in the new play sector entitled “Defining Diversity” [which] states, “Overall, the large LORT theaters were seen [by conference participants] as ‘white institutions who talk and talk and talk and talk and talk about [diversity]’ but, even though they receive a lot of attention and money for the discussions, they don’t actually change.”

As if providing evidence, just a few months ago, Clayton Lord harrumphed to the defense of the California Shakespeare Theater, who HowlRound critic Lily Janiak rather tamely criticized for being pretty old and white, with the following words [emphasis in bold]:

…between 2011 and 2012, Cal Shakes’ overall audience went from 87% white to 86% white. Between 2011 and 2012, they saw an overall 2% increase in their African-American attendance in the course of 1 year from 3% to 5%. While it is unclear whether these shifts are permanent, they are incrementally positive. What is frustrating is that, when I was given these numbers, it was with the pessimistic caveat that “we’re not going to win any debates” with them-which is a huge part of the problem. When a company can essentially double their African-American audience in a year, they should be celebrated and encouraged to try and do it again in another year. Not dismissed. Change takes time, and comes in small increments.

I suspect Ward would suggest that those increments are even smaller than Lord thinks, and certainly not worth celebrating. However, it must be said that Ward would also not be looking to the likes of the California Shakespeare Theater for a solution to the problem. “Any future hope for the Negro playwright,” Ward declares,

depends on whether or not this miniscule, singular, all-too-infrequent experience of seeing a Negro play performed for a Negro audience can be extended, multiplied and made permanent. As long as the Negro playwright remains totally dependent on existing outlets, he stands to continue as a pauper begging sustenance, never knowing from day to day, year to year, whether a few scraps will be tossed his way.

Those who would defend the glacial pace of change might argue that Ward was simply ahead of his time, and taking a couple decades to incrementally catch up is reasonable. But if that person were reading An Ideal Theater, he or she would then encounter this [emphasis added in bold]:

The Negro is already in the theater and has been there for a long time; but his place there is not yet thoroughly normal. His audience is mainly a white audience and the Negro actor has, for a long time, been asked to entertain this more or less alien group. The demands and ideals of the white group, and their conception of Negroes, have set the norm for the black actor…. For this reason, a new Negro theater is demanded and its is slowly coming….The plays of the real Negro theater must be: One: About us. That is, they must have plots which reveal Negro life as it is. Two: By us. That is, the theater must be written by Negro authors who understand from birth and continual association just what it means to be a Negro today. Three: For us. That is, the theater must cater primarily to Negro audiences and be supported and sustained by their entertainment and approval. Four: Near us. The theater must be in a Negro neighborhood near a mass of ordinary Negro people.

W E B DuBois
W. E. B. DuBois

Who said that? August Wilson? Douglas Turner Ward? No, that quotation is from W. E. B. DuBois’ essay about the founding of the KRIGWA Players which appeared in — wait for it — 1926. Yeah, history’s a bitch. Forty years before Ward put pen to paper, 70 years before Wilson confronted the gathered leaders of TCG, DuBois was calling for an increase in the number of African-American theaters. So today we’re approaching nine decades of asking for the same damn thing: theaters that aren’t white, upper middle-class and urban. One might find oneself asking, along with the writers of the Psalms, “How long, O Lord, how long?”

How long will we continue to produce homogeneous, bourgeois theater that is not about, by, for, or near anyone in particular, that has no roots in a place, in a people, in a shared experience? How long will we create theater rooted not in a place, but in a marketplace? How long will we believe America is better off on a regular diet of stories about strangers told by strangers?

This section of London’s book isn’t about race, per se, but about diversity of all kinds. The fact is that, viewed as a whole, America appears far more homogeneous than is actually the case. Many communities reflect a unique gathering or mix of races, classes, religious backgrounds, education levels, sexual orientations, ages, life experiences or any other way you’d like to group people. I and many, many others would argue, along with Du Bois, that a theater created by, for, with, and near a particular community not only creates better art, but creates greater artistic diversity as well. Playwrights can write directly and powerfully out of the shared experience of a community, without having to tailor their words to appeal to a so-called mainstream, white, wealthy, urban audience who, as Ward writes, considers its own preoccupations of universal significance. The dynamic creativity of the theaters London highlights in this section of his anthology were each focused on a specific community — the Yiddish Art Theatre, the KRIGWA Players, the Negro Theatre Project of the Federal Theatre Project, the Free Southern Theater, El Teatro Campesino, The Negro Ensemble Company, and the National Theatre of the Deaf — and each goes a long way toward disproving the old bugaboo that being rooted in a community somehow leads to parochialism and deadliness. On the contrary, it leads to dynamism and connection.

Which is why London’s book is so important: it reminds us how long some issues have been around, and provides ammunition against those who would argue that impatience is unjustified and change incremental. It also, and perhaps more importantly, reminds us of what it means to have the courage as an artist and a leader to say in no uncertain terms that the emperor has no clothes, and that it is long past time to stop talking and do something. Sometimes such statements may seem rude, disrespectful, even unpleasant, but as Martin Luther King said in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (written three years before Ward’s essay),

History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.

Or quickly, for that matter.

Chapter Two of An Ideal Theater reminds us that there were once alternatives to the homogeneity that is now regarded as inevitable. It wasn’t always thus, and if a local theatre existed once, it can exist again.

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