This Thing Of Darkness

In today’s Times is an article about who should be directing the plays of August Wilson. Apparently Mr. Wilson, whose plays chronicled the lives of black people in America, felt that only black directors should be in charge of productions of his work. We read:

In life, the playwright August Wilson had an all-but-official rule: No white directors for major productions of his work, which was one reason that a film was never made from his 10 plays about African-American life in the 20th century. “Fences,” one of the two awarded the Pulitzer Prize, foundered in Hollywood because of his insistence on a black director.

Yet in the years since Wilson died in 2005, an increasing number of white directors have staged his plays, and last week came a milestone: “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” which opened on April 16, is the first Broadway revival of a Wilson play since his death and the first ever on Broadway with a white director, the Tony Award-winning Bartlett Sher.

The selection of Mr. Sher by the producer, Lincoln Center Theater, has prompted concern and even outrage among some black directors, who say this production represents a lost opportunity for a black director, for whom few opportunities exist on Broadway or at major regional theaters.

I quite understand why Mr. Wilson would have felt the way he did, and am inclined to agree that he ought to have his way. I do want to ask, though: does this acknowledgment of the plainly evident natural fact that race is a trait-group that can still matter to people mean that there is ever, also, a legitimate place for “outrage” when the colors are reversed?

Related content from Sphere


  1. Charles says

    One of my students asked me the other day if I would read translations of female authors by male translators, or vice versa. She said that she had a friend who refused to read translations done by people of the opposite sex of the author.

    Personally, I try to avoid translating works written by female authors, in part because I’m not really that fond of most Korean female authors, but also in part because I feel less equipped to do so. (Ironically, though, it would seem that my first officially published literary translation will likely be my only translation of a work by a female author.)

    That being said, I don’t think men are automatically incapable of translating women, and vice versa. Male authors write about female protagonists, and female authors write about male protagonists, and some of them do so very convincingly. Many of them fail to do so convincingly, of course, but that doesn’t mean it is inherently impossible.

    Translation and directing plays strike me as very similar activities–a director is, in effect, translating into drama the words that the playwright put down on paper. Like you, I can understand why Mr. Wilson would want only black directors to do his plays, and also like you I think that wish should probably be honored. I would just like to say that, in general, I don’t think being white necessarily prevents a director from successfully translating a Wilson play, nor do I think that being black is any guarantee of success. More important than race, or sex/gender, is the skill of the director/translator. At least, this is what I would like to believe. It is entirely possible that I am being naïve.

    Posted April 24, 2009 at 10:33 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Hi Charles,

    I quite agree; I can see why Mr. Wilson would want a black director to handle his plays. I discussed this with a friend today in an email exchange, and the point we settled on was that if you are dealing with a play about a particular “trait-group” (and trait groups need not be genetic, but can be as diverse as ethnic associations or Red Sox Nation), it seems fair to want a member of the group in charge of the interpretation. But this should apply equally regardless of color, I think; my friend suggested that

    …certainly if I chose to write a play that was all about inherited anti-black prejudices in a lily-white mid-20th century California suburb where they were not so much reinforced by the outer world but simply allowed to drift along because of the total absence of any real-life correctives, then I think a black upper middle class director would approach my play from the wrong end of the telescope.

    I agree with that — but could a white playwright insist on having a white director without being pilloried for racism? I’d like to think so, but I’m not so sure.

    Posted April 24, 2009 at 11:23 pm | Permalink