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.

Posted by Rob Fields

  • Check out between Mat Johnson and Shamontiel Vaughn. Not once does Vaughn mention craft. All she is interested in is loot, which is ok, but we’ve got to separate the type of work which is done to gain an audience predominantly and the type of work which makes a contribution to the human condition. If it was just about loot, then why don’t we just all sell black porn?

  • Shamontiel (Maroonsista) Vaughn

    The next time you want to mention my name in one of your blogs, you better make sure you get your facts straight. I mentioned several Harlem Renaissance writers and contemporary authors of today who I enjoy their craft. You heard me mention money all of twice, I believe, and that was just to prove my point about how even with a major publishing house, an author has to do the same amount of self-promotion to get their work sold. You cannot possibly be naive enough to think that when an author creates a book, she/he doesn’t want it to be bought. If that’s the case, she/he should just write in a journal and lock that shit up. Name one major author you know who went to a publishing company, said they didn’t want their royalty, and just wanted to be published. None. I pointed out several other points within my posts but you were too busy riding the back of Johnson to even notice that. Next time you speak my name, make sure you reread my posts and tell the whole story. One.

  • Shamontiel (Maroonsista) Vaughn

    And by the way, none of my posts say that we should somehow just publish everything that a writer creates. I was simply stating that you cannot distinguish authors of major publishing houses from self-published authors as though one is great and the other is not because they don’t have a company linked to their work. If that were the case, I would’ve continued doing ghostwriting or continued my marketing plan with the company who was interested in CHANGE FOR A TWENTY. Instead, I did it my own way. Yes, we need to consider the contributions that readers are exposed to, but who is ONE writer to say what all humans need to read? What is garbage to one reader may be great reading to another? We are NOT all the same. And as for black porn, that analogy is stretching it and completely inaccurate. Funny thing is we are already selling black porn. What the hell do you think erotica is? Porn on paper, so your analogy is weakened even more with that.
    I’d ignored the rest of Mat Johnson’s messages and had no intention of continuing this debate, but someone emailed me about doing a radio interview after reading my posts on that blog, so now I’m back with this nonsense. I wish you all would take more time perfecting your own craft and less time worrying about what somebody else is doing.