June 26, 1996—20 years ago this year—August Wilson ascended the stage at the national conference of Theatre Communications Group, the national service organization for professional theatres, to deliver the keynote lecture. Wilson had long been one of the nation’s most eminent playwrights, and the audience of theatre community members from across America were looking forward to his address. But instead of a congratulatory speech or a discourse on theatre’s power, Wilson dropped a verbal bomb, condemning the condition of professional black theatre in America and addressing hot-button issues of race, culture, identity, politics, and funding.
I believe that race matters, he declared. Wilson went on to dismiss “color blind” casting, where black actors play characters originally written as white; to criticize funders for not giving adequate support to black theatres; and to assert the importance of working toward a more inclusive American theatre.
“That speech blew the conference up,” said Benny Sato Ambush, a director and artistic director who has worked at both black and white theatres around the country, and who is currently Senior Distinguished Producer in Residence at Emerson College and 2016 Artist in Residence at New York University. “I remember quite distinctly that after it was over, people were scurrying about, moving fast, and chattering loudly almost immediately. It was a burst in that auditorium.”
Ambush did not agree with all of the points Wilson had made, but he recognized immediately that people needed to engage in a dialogue about them. Clusters of like-minded people were talking amongst themselves, but not with people of different perspectives. Ambush organized an open forum the next day to do just that. “We had a session underneath a tent,” he said. “And man was it crowded. And we talked for at least three hours. Nonstop.” A second three-hour session followed.
In a theatre magazine later that year, Ambush wrote:
Juggling disparate viewpoints, we managed to achieve—if only for a little while—a non-judgmental atmosphere of communal revelation, an empowering act for many of us. Results and answers meant less than the process of stumbling toward honest engagement across racial, cultural, class, geographic, gender, and generational divides…Although we are far from solving the problems of race and inclusion in theatre, we took important steps toward a free dialogue working toward possible solutions.
Ambush believes that Wilson’s speech continued to reverberate through the theatre world well after the conference ended. “I have to believe it had a ripple effect,” he said. “Anybody who was there in that auditorium during that address was affected by it in one way or the other. It was that kind of catalyzing address.”
The address also earned Wilson pushback, most notably from Robert Brustein, a theatre critic and the founding director of Yale Repertory and American Repertory theatres. Brustein and Wilson sparred in the press before facing off at a sold-out event in New York City moderated by actress Anna Deavere Smith. Brustein’s main point of contention was that Wilson’s perspective—and his desire to make theatre political—undermined “the basic function of dramatic art.”
Writing about the debate shortly after, Ambush noted that it offered the theatre community another opportunity for self-assessment:
Over issues of who should speak for whom, who should have authority and custodianship of whose art, who gets to define whom, and who gets to play what parts on stage, the two men’s beliefs represent diametrically opposed viewpoints that can serve as guideposts for the rest of us to gauge where we stand.
So where, exactly, does American theatre stand today when it comes to the questions of race and culture that Wilson grappled with two decades ago? We haven’t solved all the problems Wilson presented, said Ambush. But we have made progress. “The inclusion of our different culturally specific racial and ethnic points of view is better than it was,” said Ambush, noting that the proof is in the wide range of plays being produced at regional theatres around the country today. However, “funding is [still] disproportionately low and unequal” for black and ethnically specific theatres.
“We have to be vigilant because this is America, and racism abounds, and there’s a blindness there in many people,” said Ambush—an observation that the #BlackLivesMatter and #OscarsSoWhite campaigns, and the events that preceded them, carry out. But American theatre—and global theatre—is almost certainly better for August Wilson and the issues he brought to light, said Ambush.
“I suppose like any of us, all artists, he was not without his contradictions, but he spoke clearly about where he stood, unapologetically,” said Ambush. “I appreciate him for that, applaud him for that, and if nothing else, he got us talking about things. I don’t know if he intended to blow up that conference, but it got us somewhere else than where we were before he gave that address.”