Six months in the making, after gallons of press ink, much anticipation and a last-minute crush for entry more typical of rock concerts than high-minded debates, "On Cultural Power: The August Wilson-Robert Brustein Discussion" certainly was one of the more left-field events of the winter theater season. But despite some fine gauntlet-tossing opening statements, the debate, alas, had some second-act problems. Unfocused and meandering, the discussion added little, if anything, to the brickbats tossed by Wilson and Brustein in the pages of various publications since Wilson fired his first volley at a theater conference in June. An audience of media heavy-hitters and theater industry toppers filled New York's 1,500-seat Town Hall to watch the playwright and the critic go mano-a-mano over the hot-button issue of multiculturalism in theater.
Too loosely moderated by playwright-actress Anna Deavere Smith, the debate got off to a promising start when Brustein, relaxed and looking every bit the academic in red turtleneck and gray blazer, assailed political correctness as “freedom from speech” and dismissed “political art” as a “persuasive form of melodrama.” Brustein, the artistic director of the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., and critic for the New Republic, condemned the notion of using art to achieve power since “power is the enemy of truth.”
Wilson (“Fences,” “The Piano Lesson,” “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” among others) reiterated his damning statistic that 65 of the nation’s 66 LORT theaters are white-operated (the exception being the Crossroads Theater in New Brunswick, N.J.), and said that African-Americans need black theaters to create a cultural art. “I am not an advocate of separatism, as Mr. Brustein maintains,” he said. “Rather, we are seeking to be included.” Responding to the charge that “black theater” is a limiting concept, Wilson snapped, “It is never said of playwrights like David Mamet or Terrence McNally that they are confined to their culture by pursuing white themes.”
Despite the brick-wall stances, the debate prompted fewer sparks than might have been expected. Some exceptions: Wilson’s emotional invocation of his African heritage — “Inside all blacks is a heartbeat fueled with the blood of Africa” — and Brustein’s shot, “To represent yourself as standing on the ground of the slave quarters is to represent yourself as a 350-year-old man.”
But the first sign that blood wouldn’t be spilled was when the critic said the playwright has “the best mind of the 17th century” and Wilson failed to take the bait. Wilson, seeming ill at ease, rarely rose to the incendiary levels he reached during his speech at the Theatre Communications Group’s national conference in June. At that time, he decried colorblind casting as an “aberrant idea” that worked to the detriment of developing original black theater pieces. He didn’t even touch on the subject during his opening segment of the debate and, when pressed by Smith during a Q&A session about whether he supports black actors performing in Chekhov’s plays, said simply, “I would not embrace them doing that.” An audience member’s yell of “Fascist” went unanswered.
Brustein received his share of hisses, never more so than when he objected to “Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk” on the grounds that it ignored the contributions to tap dancing made by non-black cultures — Irish and German, specifically — and fondly recalled the racial harmony of the tap community of the 1930s “when Bill Robinson danced with Shirley Temple.” An audience member’s yell of “Get a clue!” went unanswered.
In the end, both Brustein and Wilson conceded that they were pleasantly surprised by each other’s temperaments (having met only once previously, briefly), but said that neither had learned more about the other’s philosophical position (nor budged from his own) as a result of the debate. That, at least, is something everyone present could agree upon