On The State of Serious Black Theatre
(Further conversations with Paul Carter Harrison)
GE: On the drive here to Provincetown we talked a lot about black theatre and the state of contemporary black playwriting. You have been contemplating and addressing the subject for quite a while as I can see. So I’d like to ask you to share some of your observations and insights if you will.
PCH: Alright, sure. The way I see it much of what is passing for black theatre right now is not being conceived by the imagination of the younger black playwrights. Much of the generation past August Wilson, myself; you and a whole host of others, are initialing their works from the standpoint of how it will be received by the national regional theatres. So that means that they’re writing for a different audience they’re writing for the subscription base of those regional theatres around the country. In other words the works are being developed in these theatres for a circumscribed audience. As a result the black imagination is being suppressed by this kind of selection process. So the spontaneous imagination we saw burgeoning in the 1960, 70s up through themed to late 80s is not happening. No it’s not happening at all.
Two years ago I sat in a room of about 30 black playwrights at The Arena Stage and told them: “Let us not talk to the Arena Stage. This conversation we will be having for the next day and a half is not for them. We will be talking to each other and how to make our work have a prominent place in the American Theatre.” Everyone agreed. Then five minutes after I said that they started talking to The Arena Stage. To the leadership of the Arena Stage. Everything they said was in some way to present themselves as being available to the Arena Stage. So I gave up right then and there. I said to myself: “Okay, I’m done with this conversation.” Because obviously these young people aren’t interested. Not that they’re bad writers. The question is more what they’re writing about and what purpose do they serve? They’re pandering. That’s basically what they’re doing, pandering. And that to me is the state of black theatre at the moment.
There are things that in my view don’t belong on the stage. They’re not stage works per se. They’re something else and should not be confused with the aspirations or ideas of black or theatre in general.
I see them as entertainments, popular entertainments. And there’s nothing wrong with that. They have their place. But that which gets done is a lesser experience theatrically even though it is sometimes a very entertaining one for a general audience… And unfortunately a lot of what I’ve been seeing that passes as serious black theatre often journalistic renderings of domestic situations or some kind of realistic interpretation of some maudlin situation. Also a lot of these plays are just personal revelations that don’t have much value beyond that. They sort of serve the purpose of therapy for some of these writers. So I don’t know that serious black is anywhere near where it had been in the1970s and 80s.
GE: What I find interesting to observe is that so many of the writers from that time are still around and writing but aren’t being heard from for one simple reason; they’re not being produced.
PCH: That is because they’re not topical. They’re not going journalism looking for stories. They’re not looking at a story in say The New York Times and using it as the basis of a play. All these writers you’re talking about have their own imagination. But the spontaneity of the black imagination is being thwarted and suppressed by the co- modification that the black writer must or should write about a baby in a crib being bitten by a rat. That’s a play with a production opportunity. It serves the general population’s expectation of the black experience… and it serves the purpose well for that particular audience. But it has nothing to do with the true imagination of the plays we saw in the 1970s and 80s. As you said Charles Fuller is still around but he can’t get any plays off the ground because he’s not writing about these topical things. Or yourself, or me. Look at things that I do. I work on a larger scale and the black companies won’t do it. They won’t even look at it sometimes. One quick glance and it’s: “Oh my God it’s got more than 10 people in it”… and forget it.
GE: That brings me around to Doug’s Haitian Chronicles, which we’ve both read and which is in the same situation.
PCH: Well, with those plays, not only are there a great number of people in the plays but you have to have an understanding of the historical significance of that work and make it plausible to a larger audience. Of course Douglas understands that. But most of the producers first can’t understand why we’re looking at Haiti at the turn of the 19th Century. They look at you and say: “Why are we looking at this when we can talk about a baby being bitten in a crib?” So you need to have the imagination as a black company to do it, let alone a white company. Saying that, a white company might come around to doing it one day. A major white company possibly because they see the scale, the classic scale on which it was written. It’s a chronicle. A trilogy. Three plays. It deals with the revolution in Haiti, the ideas and issues surrounding it…It or rather they contain huge ideas that sets up a sense of what black work could be in the 21st Century and they should be done.
In serious black theatre there should be a standard of exposing ideas. Exposing real, large, ambitious ideas on the stage. I say that thinking about War Horse, the scale of it. It’s very simply produced. But the scale of it, the dynamics of it with its puppetry and all. The theatrical dynamics of it. It happened because of The National Theatre in London where I saw the show… But the important thing is that they took it on and presented a re-examination of the First World War through these horses. A re-examination of the First World War through puppets. Wow!
GE: From what I can tell the vision isn’t there nor is the ambition there either.
PCH: Exactly. It’s what I told the current Artistic Director of the new NEC. I said: “Listen you should not fail on a small scale. If you’re going to get bad reviews get them because your attempt and ambitions were so large that perhaps they were beyond the imagination of the critics viewing the work. Because on that level you can at least be satisfied that you got what you wanted out of it even though it didn’t meet with the approval of whomever the papers sent to assess it. What I’m saying is that it should be overwhelming or under whelming, if you like. But at this point in your history you shouldn’t be failing with some miserable two character play that’s badly acted and presented.
GE: That’s why I think doing something like Doug’s Haitian Trilogy was and still is a great idea. It would give whatever theatre that did it the opportunity to move forward in terms of critical perception. Because like it or not, they would have to deal with the fact that it is not your garden variety black situation drama/melodrama or comedy. It is a work that demands so much of the artists involved, the critics, the audience and the producing entity that it insists on being viewed and dealt with on its own terms as well as its own large scale ambitions.
PCH: Absolutely. And it would signal the fact that serious black theatre is indeed being thought about, written and done.
GE: There was a phrase that Doug liked to use that I don’t hear much used anymore. That is “Artistic autonomy.” …”We have to seek and acquire artistic autonomy” he use to say. Over the years when I was teaching I would use the phrase to the African American theatre students I had. And almost uniformly they would look at me totally baffled by what I meant. This is after I had gone through as thorough an explanation as I was capable of. It’s not that they didn’t understand what I was saying, it’s that they didn’t want to understand. So like you at the Arena Stage I gave up on the conversation. What they’re interested in is the job wherever it comes from no matter the price. But what they don’t seem to appreciate is that as long as we remain in that mindset we will always is beggars at the banquet table… Anyway Paul, once again it was great talking to you.
PCH: My pleasure as well.
GE 8- 16-11