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  • Brustein-Wilson Debate

On 26 June 1996, August Wilson delivered an address entitled "The Ground on Which I Stand" to the 11th biennial Theatre Communications Group National Conference at Princeton University. The speech was published in the September 1996 edition of American Theatre. In this provocative speech, Wilson addressed the inequities in funding for African American theatre in America and the need for separate black theatres instead of black theatre artists being incorporated into traditionally white theatres in the name of multiculturalism. In addition,Wilson labeled the practice of "colorblind casting" as "an aberrant idea." In the course of his speech and in the context of these issues, Wilson called Robert Brustein, artistic director of the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and theatre critic for the New Republic (and Lloyd Richards's predecessor as head of Yale Drama School), "a sniper, a naysayer, and a cultural imperialist." Brustein responded in an article published in the October 1996 issue of American Theatre, inferring that Wilson's attack on him was in retaliation to Brustein's earlier, unfavorable reviews of Wilson's otherwise highly acclaimed plays. Brustein argued that Wilson's separatist ideal for black theatre would mean steps backward in race relations and racial equality. He stated:

I don't think Martin Luther King ever imagined an America where playwrights such as August Wilson would be demanding, under the pretense of calling for healing and unity, an entirely separate stage for black theatre artists. What next? Separate schools? Separate washrooms? Separate drinking fountains?


Brustein's response, in turn, triggered a counterresponse from Wilson, published in the same issue. Brustein then counterresponded, and other theatre notables entered the fray with their own responses, which American Theatre published in its November and December 1996 editions. Richard Schechner was one of the respondents, taking particular issue with Wilson's attack on "colorblind casting." Schechner argued that, "to always cast according to type—racial type, especially—is a stupid, short-sighted and inartistic thing to do" (1996:59). As a result of the Wilson-Brustein feud escalating into a broader public debate in print, a town hall in-person debate called "On Cultural Power: The August Wilson/Robert Brustein Discussion" was held on 27 January 1997 in New York, moderated by the docu-dramatist and actor Anna Deavere Smith.



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