August Wilson was the most prolific black playwright ever to conquer American theater. A lion of the stage, Wilson’s iconic ten plays — including the 1987 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner “Fences” — illuminated the black journey of struggle and triumph. Wilson, who died in 2005 at age 60, was a known advocate for blacks in the theater who understood the hurdles black directors faced in the field. He, in fact, had an unofficial rule of only wanting black directors to stage major productions of his plays.
So given Wilson’s cultural pedigree, Lincoln Center Theater’s decision—albeit with Wilson’s widow’s blessing—to choose its resident director Bartlett Sher, who is white, instead of a black director to direct the $1.7 million budgeted Broadway revival of Wilson’s 1988 play Joe Turner’s Come and Gone—which this week earned six Tony nominations including best director and best revival–has sparked a heated debate on the overall lack of diversity on Broadway with regard to African American directors.
Arguably, the biggest issue for most African Americans in the theater is not whether a white director should be able to helm a play by a black playwright–particularly a revival–the more cogent issue is the overall paucity of opportunities for blacks on Broadway. This season alone there are currently no black directors on The Great White Way, which contributes $5.1 billion to the New York City economy, according to the Broadway League’s 2008 biennial study. In fact, there have been a mere four black directors over the past ten years: Kenny Leon, Debbie Allen, Marion McClinton, and George C. Wolfe — a dearth that underscores a great need for change and new opportunities for directors of color.
“Joe Turner has come to Broadway and gone and come back again,” says actress, director and choreographer Debbie Allen, who directed last season’s hit all-black revival of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. “That’s the good news,” adds Allen of the play, which has grossed $1.2 million at the box office to date. “But the lack of opportunity can’t be weighted on one production,” adds Allen, who will soon direct the Tennessee Williams play in London’s West End.
Notwithstanding Wilson’s support of black directors, some suggest that his position was more nuanced. “August was not opposed to white directors directing his work,” says director Kenny Leon, who directed the Broadway productions of Wilson’s 2007 play “Radio Golf” and 2005’s “Gem of the Ocean,” both of which earned Tony nominations for best play. “He had white directors direct his plays when he was alive; however, he fought for opportunities for black directors to direct his plays because he felt it was not an equal playing field. We weren’t getting an opportunity to direct Arthur Miller or Eugene O’Neil.”
Furthermore, Leon and others, who had the privilege of working with Wilson, contend that white directors are allowed to express themselves artistically in a myriad of ways. Yet black directors are virtually pigeonholed into expressing themselves only in terms of their race, thereby limiting them solely to black productions and limiting their chances to direct on Broadway and at the regional level. That explains in part why the reaction to Lincoln Center’s decision to hire Sher, who won the Tony last year for the musical revival of South Pacific, has been so pronounced.