Terry Teachout, one of my favorite drama critics, and author of the influential theater weblog About Last Night, has weighed in on LCT’s choosing director Bart Sher to direct August Wilson’s JOE TURNER’S COME AND GONE. He writes, in the WSJ on Dec 20th:
Sometimes nontraditional casting works, sometimes it doesn’t, and there are no hard-and-fast rules that are universally applicable. That’s the nature of theater: It’s an empirical art form whose rules are made up from scratch each time a group of actors comes together to put on a show. But as for the alleged institutional racism of Lincoln Center Theater, I don’t buy it for a second. My guess is that Bartlett Sher will do at least as well by “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” as he would by “The Iceman Cometh” — and if he doesn’t, I doubt that it’ll be because he’s white.
I don’t doubt that this is true, at least in the respect of Sher’s excellence. He is an extraordinary director. Unfortunately, I still wish Wilson’s wishes about having black directors direct his work were being respected.
I stand by the principle that copyright is not a good thing for playwrights, and that directors and producing institutions should have greater freedom in their productions. Now, here are the consequences of that principle. I have argued elsewhere against respecting playwrights’ wishes when it comes to all sorts of things – casting, edits, stage directions, even the text. It seems to me that the sooner that living playwrights become dead-and-uncopyrighted playwrights, the better for their plays. But Wilson is not long dead, and this conscious disregarding of his adamant preference simply doesn’t feel respectful. It’s too soon, and the American theater landscape still has far, far, far too few opportunities for directors of color. (Don’t even get me started on women directors…)
No matter how you look at it, by choosing Sher to direct this play, Lincoln Center is going against August Wilson’s explicit wishes, or what they were in his lifetime. That startles me, and I have trouble believing it’s true. On the other hand, to be fair, LCT and Sher have the approval of Wilson’s widow, Constanza Romero, in this choice. (Via BroadwayWorld.)
The remarkably small amount of outcry over this director casting means only one thing – August Wilson’s popular plays, which are frequently performed all over this country and the world, are going to be directed by more and more white directors from now on. Why? Because more directors are white, and more producers are white, and more successful, well-known directors are white. The easiest casting choice, when a white producer chooses a director, is – another white director. I have seen this proved over and over again in practice in the field.
Now that LCT has done this, anyone can. Where one of the country’s most prominent theaters leads, the smaller institutions will follow. This, more than anything, is what I wish wasn’t true, because there are many great black directors in this country who made their careers on August Wilson when they weren’t getting hired for Shakespeare and Chekhov.
Ultimately, this turn of events means that another avenue for black directors to advance in American theater has been narrowed.
Here’s another interesting article: Brendan Kiley’s take on the whole thing, in THE STRANGER’s SLOG blog.
If one has faith in Wilson’s work and theater audiences, one expects Beijing directors to be working with his scripts in 2687. So whey-faced Sher directing him is only a baby step in what will be Wilson’s long, universal legacy.
Kiley goes on to quote actor James Williams and agree with him that the most disturbing thing about LCT’s choice is “not the whiteness of Sher, but the blinding whiteness that surrounds him”: in other words, the fault is with what Williams calls “the dominant culture,” white culture, not with LCT and Sher in particular.
I suppose that’s true, but if the particular is not to be held as an example of the culture, then everyone can always blame the culture as opposed to themselves.
(Addendum: I was not aware of one fact mentioned in the Teachout article, which was that Gordon Davidson had recently directed Wilson’s JITNEY for the Kennedy Center staged reading festival of Wilson’s work earlier this year. )