Did anyone else read Patricia Cumper's broadside on the Guardian's Theatre blog this week?
Young black people are growing up in a society where they are frequently stereotyped and alienated. They respond in many dynamic and creative ways – but we don't hear much about that. What makes it into the newspapers and on to the stage is dysfunction, criminality and violence. And if programmers can't find enough of these things in the work of Roy Williams, Kwame Kwei-Armah or Debbie Tucker Green, they may import plays such as The Brothers Size and The Emperor Jones to keep the stereotypes going.I don't deny that the range of black experiences depicted onstage is limited. And we can mistake stereotypes for archetypes just as easily in NYC as they do in London. This week, the Signature Theatre, in a season of work by the Negro Ensemble Company, started showing Zooman & the Sign, which is arguably another play "that assumes that black men are violent, profligate & oversexed" (as Cumper generalizes). Possibly the 1980 play helped establish the stereotype; possibly it transcends it. I'll be curious to see it in the light of this piece.
But there's a bit of slippage in Cumper's article. She speaks as an artistic director frustrated by audience's expectations & writers' shortcomings. So (as above) she critiques other companies for programming choices. But she refers only broadly to "programmers, artistic directors, marketeers & such", whereas she singles out objectionable playwrights by name, claiming that they do not represent the black experience.
I hope she doesn't see simple blaxploitation in Kwame Kwei-Armah's Elmina's Kitchen -- or several of August Wilson's plays like Seven Guitars & King Hedley II, for that matter. These are morally complex tales in a realist style with substantial characters. I also hope she doesn't see them as somehow insufficiently black when she asks, "how do black theatre practitioners put their own stories on the mainstage of those big theatres?"
I'm all for more provocative shows about race in theater, but also for more racial diversity generally in theater. I was happy to note black performers in Guys & Dolls. And that's one reason that, while I recognize the argument against casting Phylicia Rashad as the matriarch in August: Osage County, I think the benefit (a great performer in a juicy role) outweighs that. (And, parenthetically, I find the play's addressing of race half-assed & tacked on.) At any rate, she'll be playing against the hoary stereotype of the black earth mother (Cumper's phrase). I'm glad that the producers are thinking outside the box: proper casting be damned, let's see what Rashad does with the role!