2 decades later scholars to assess August Wilson’s shocking ‘race’ speech

Twenty years after August Wilson delivered a keynote speech some thought attacked the white theater community, McCarter Theatre and Princeton University will hold a symposium in the place where it all happened. (PHOTO: Courtesy of PBS)
Twenty years after August Wilson delivered a keynote speech some thought attacked the white theater community, McCarter Theatre and Princeton University will hold a symposium in the place where it all happened. (PHOTO: Courtesy of PBS)

Twenty years ago, at the 1996 Theatre Communications Group (TCG) annual conference at McCarter Theatre Center, Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning playwright August Wilson delivered the event’s keynote address and blew the lid off the place.

I was there covering the three-day event for the Asbury Park Press as it’s Theater Writer.

“The Ground on Which I Stand” was simultaneously cheered and booed.  I couldn’t believe the gamut of emotions from outrage to shouts of encouragement, people walking out and others nodding heads in agreement and applauding. The reactions to the speech which addressed  questions of race, diversity, and cultural identity in the American Theater broke down along racial lines.

To honor the 20th anniversary of this watershed moment, McCarter Theatre Center and Princeton University’s Lewis Center for the Arts will host a free symposium  Monday, April 18 from 1-5 p.m. at McCarter Theatre Center.

“The Ground On Which We Stand: Diversity and Opportunity in American Theater, Twenty Years after August Wilson’s Foundational Speech” will  explore the speech’s impact on race and theater during the past two decades and  where we stand today. (Complete schedule below.)

It was the talk of the 3-day TCG conference and spread nationwide,  even internationally. Unfortunately, the news editors at The Press didn’t consider the controversy breaking news coverage and I wrote about in for the Entertainment section a week later.

Many theater artists in the audience — white people — who produced works by black people on their respective stages, felt they were being attacked for doing so. Wilson said white theaters were undermining the black culture by staging black work instead of helping black theaters to thrive. He pointed out, “Of the 66 LORT  theatre (League of Resident Theatres), there is only one that can be considered black. From this it could be falsely assumed that there aren’t sufficient numbers of blacks working in the American theatre to sustain and support more theatres.

“If you do not know, I will tell you that black theatre in America is alive … it is vibrant … it is vital … it just isn’t funded. Black theatre doesn’t share in the economics that would allow it to support its artists and supply them with meaningful avenues to develop their talent and broadcast and disseminate ideas crucial to its growth. The economics are reserved as privilege to the overwhelming abundance of institutions that preserve, promote and perpetuate white culture.”

Wilson said he was not complaining. He said lack of funding was “either a glaring case of oversight, or we the proponents of black theatre have not made our presence or needs known. I hope here tonight to correct that.”

He talked about two kinds of black culture that began on southern plantations: black people who sang and danced for the white folks who lived in the Big House” and the blacks who  created songs and movements for themselves in the “self-defining ground of the slave quarters.”

The inference many attendees that day in the 1,100 seat Matthews Theatre at the McCarter Theatre complex took away was the plays by black artists created for white theaters were works done only to please the masters in the “Big House” while art done by the nonprofit Crossroads Theatre LORT theater in New Brunswick, the NYC-based Negro Ensemble Company, and the New Freedom Theatre in Philadelphia, was work true to black heritage and were for black people.

The other big question asked during the conference was that if Wilson believed all of this, why didn’t his plays premiere at black theaters — such as Crossroads Theatre — rather than white ones? His next play opened at Crossroads Theatre and like for all of his plays, it was directed by a black person.

When he was alive, Wilson had an unofficial rule: no white directors. So when it was announced that Tony Kushner had been brought on board to work with Denzel Washington on the film adaptation of Fences, one of Wilson’s most famous works, many cried foul. To read more about this, click here.

To read more about the symposium, scroll down.

To reserve tickets to this event, call the McCarter Theatre Center ticket office at 609-258-2787. Seats are general admission.

To read “The Ground on Which I Stand,”  click here.

Exterior shot of McCarterTheater in Princeton.
Exterior shot of McCarterTheater in Princeton.

A preliminary schedule follows:

1pm:      Welcome and Reading of “The Ground on Which I Stand”

2pm:      As The Ground Shifts: Tracking Seismic Changes in Race and Gender Representation

Princeton’s Dean of the College and Professor of English and Theater Jill Dolan moderates a conversation with theater professionals, reflecting on the context of Wilson’s speech and subsequent debates, examining the contemporary history of representation in American theater, and discussing what has and has not shifted in the past twenty years.

Jill Dolan is the Dean of the College and the Annan Professor in English and Professor of Theater at Princeton University, where she also directed the Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies from 2009-15.  She is the author of The Feminist Spectator as Critic (1989, reissued in a 2012 anniversary edition with a new introduction and extended bibliography); Utopia in Performance:  Finding Hope at the Theatre (2005); Theatre & Sexuality (2010); The Feminist Spectator in Action:  Feminist Criticism for Stage and Screen (2013); and many other books and essays.  In 2013, she received Distinguished Scholar Award for Outstanding Career Achievement in Scholarship in the Field of Theatre Studies from the American Society for Theatre Research.  In 2011, she won the Outstanding Teacher Award from the Association for Theatre in Higher Education and a lifetime achievement award from the Women and Theatre Program.  She writes The Feminist Spectator blog  which she won the 2010-2011 George Jean Nathan Award for dramatic criticism.

3pm:      The Ground from Which We Step: Wilson’s Legacy and Our Contemporary Conversations

Princeton University Assistant Professor of Theater, Brian Herrera, moderates a discussion with artists and theater professionals, exploring how the legacy of Wilson’s speech has impacted their own careers, considering today’s conversation around diversity, and expressing their hopes for the future of inclusion and parity in the theater.

Brian Eugenio Herrera is, by turns, a writer, teacher and scholar presently based in New Jersey, but forever rooted in New Mexico. He is Assistant Professor of Theater at Princeton University. His work, both academic and artistic, examines the history of gender, sexuality and race within and through U.S. popular performance. He is the author of The Latina/o Theatre Commons 2013 National Convening: A Narrative Report (HowlRound, 2015) and his book Latin Numbers: Playing Latino in Twentieth-Century U.S. Popular Performance (Michigan, 2015) was recently awarded the George Jean Nathan Prize for Dramatic Criticism. Also a performer, his autobiographical solo show I Was the Voice of Democracy has been seen in more than a dozen states, as well as Beirut and Abu Dhabi, since 2010; he is currently developing two new storywork shows, Boy Like That and Touch Tones. Brian is also presently at work on two new book projects: Starring Miss Virginia Calhoun and Casting – A History, a historical study of the material practices of casting in US popular performance.

4pm:      Town Hall Discussion

A moderated town hall discussion will follow both panels, providing attendees an opportunity to join the conversation as they reflect on and discuss the themes and stories shared earlier in the day.

Bio of August Wilson – Playwright

Wilson was born Frederick August Kittel, Jr. in 1945 in Pittsburgh, PA. In the mid-1960s, Kittel, who took his mother’s maiden name (Wilson) as a way to honor her, decided to become a writer. Soaking up the atmosphere from time spent working, reading in the Carnegie Library, listening to the blues, and writing in bars and cafes, Wilson became one of the leading chroniclers of the African-American experience. His plays Fences and The Piano Lesson both won Pulitzer Prizes. According to The New York Times, Wilson’s plays logged over 1,800 performances on Broadway, and there were over 2,000 professional and amateur productions staged of his work. He died in 2005. “In bringing to the popular American stage the gritty specifics of the lives of his poor, trouble-plagued and sometimes powerfully embittered black characters, Mr. Wilson also described universal truths about the struggle for dignity, love, security and happiness in the face of often overwhelming obstacles, ” wrote Charles Isherwood in The New York Times in 2005.