I’ll start out by immediately admitting that this is off topic. But sometimes, when confronted with blindingly ignorant assertions, you have to respond. Case in point is yesterday’s NY Times article on the state of Black theater, wherein we find the following bit of text that is attributed to David Talbert:
No figure attracts more conflicting opinions that Mr. [August] Wilson, who died in 2005. Mr. Talbert. . .is not shy about his view: if the audiences who go to Mr. Wilson’s plays are predominanty nonblack, he asked, then how significant could he be to black people?
"[H]ow significant could he be to black people?" Huh? For those of you who are not aware of August Wilson, he was an African American playwright who, through his 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle, illuminates the humanity of African Americans throughout the 20th century. Along the way, Wilson garnered two Pulitzer prizes (Fences and The Piano Lesson), numerous Tony award nominations, and a National Humanities Medal among others. So let me re-phrase: August Wilson is an American playwright. In fact, I pulled this from his obituary in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
In dramatizing the glory, anger, promise and frustration of being black
in America, he created a world of the imagination — August Wilson’s
Hill District — to rank with such other transformational fictional
worlds as Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha, Hardy’s Wessex or Friel’s Donegal.
Critics from Manhattan to Los Angeles now speak knowingly of
"Pittsburgh’s Hill District," not just the Hill as it is now or was
when Mr. Wilson grew up in the ’50s, but August Wilson Country — the
archetypal northern urban black neighborhood, a construct of
frustration, nostalgia, anger and dream.
Talbert, on the other hand, has made millions over the last 15 years trafficking in stereotypes and caricatures, leveraging a lowest-common denominator approach. He wouldn’t be the first. Some of his works include “Lawd Ha’ Mercy” and “Tellin’ It Like It Tiz”. Such work travels well: According to his site, his plays are seen in over 20 countries around the world.
In addition to Talbert’s dismissiveness of one of the giant’s of American theater, what’s most irksome about the above “quote” is that it seems to equate popularity as the only yardstick of relevance or importance. Certainly, lots of people see Talbert’s plays. But few will confuse them with art. Wilson’s plays, on the other hand, deal with the tragedy and comedy of black life in highly nuanced ways. So what If Talbert’s assertion is true that a majority “nonblack” audience sees Wilson’s plays? Could Broadway’s high ticket prices relative to those on Talbert’s “chitlin“ circuit be one of the culprits? In any case, whoever goes to an August Wilson play sees much more complex depictions of African American life than can typically be found in other media. For that alone, Wilson deserves all the respect in the world.