I was going to post this Playbill article a few days ago and attempt to start a discussion about the politics of a white man directing an August Wilson play on Broadway.
The Pioneer Press did it for me. And they did it better, because they were able to get some actual quotes from real live theater folks:
“If this meant that everything was fair game —- if it meant that Marion (McClinton) would get to direct ‘Cherry Orchard’ at the Guthrie, that would be one thing,” [actor James Williams] said. “But that’s not what this means. This is another way of saying that the dominant culture knows more about us than we know about ourselves.”
Personally, I don’t think the question is whether or not Bartlett Sher can direct the play. He’s a talented director, and he’ll do his homework, and they’ll have top-notch actors. It should be pretty good, and it should be worth seeing. The issue, of course, is access — if Lincoln Center won’t hire a black director to direct an August Wilson play, what will they hire a black director to do? I get that Sher is the resident director, he’s on staff, he’s done big things for them before, and I get (and kind of think it’s great) that he’d want to direct a Great American Play to follow up his Great American Musical (South Pacific) — and it’s wonderful that Wilson’s work is considered to fill that role. But if the door doesn’t open for directors here, where does it open?
This all connects to another issue that I’ve avoided here, but I’ll bring up now: the first production by Lincoln Center’s new developmental arm (LCT3) was a hip-hop play — which is great. I’m all for hip-hop theater busting through to the big time. There are too many of us who have been banging away at this for almost a decade now to continue to be shut out of big-time houses. But it wasn’t Eisa Davis, or Full Circle, Bamuthi, or well, me: it was Matt Sax. Who happens to be white.
Now look. Many of the really exciting hip-hop theater artists out there are white (Baba Israel and, of course, Danny Hoch come straight to mind). And I’m only passingly familiar with Clay — I wasn’t able to get over and check it out. I’m not saying that it’s not a worthy play — it very well could be. I have no beef with Matt Sax. He’s a young artist working with hip-hop — it’s a good thing for his work to get done.
This is hip-hop theater’s “big break?” And it’s not someone who has been part of the genre’s rise? And it’s not a person of color? LCT doesn’t have season “slots” really, but if we can’t get in with this slot, where do we get in?
That’s a bit of a digression, but it’s speaking to the same idea. The issue is access. If white folk want to direct August Wilson, that’s great. If white folks want to do hip-hop theater, that’s great. But there are tons of very talented directors (and writers and actors and…) of color who should be getting the chance to do Shakespeare or kitchen sink relationship shows or Tom Stoppard (and women doing plays by men, and…) — it’s got to go both ways.