Sep 18, 2008

Broad Brush

I don't know all that much about black theater artists and their relationship to the American theatrical avant-garde, but even I felt something amiss in the broad generalizations that start off Hilton Als' new review of Thomas Bradshaw's Southern Promises. He cites Robert Wilson's casting Sheryl Sutton in Deafman Glance and later Einstein on the Beach as cases of "purposefully incorporating blackness into America’s primarily white avant-garde theatre." Fair enough, but then Als writes:

Since Sutton’s début, no other black actor, writer, or director has had the same impact on our theatrical avant-garde. Aside from the early work of the playwright Adrienne Kennedy—particularly her 1965 piece, “A Beast’s Story,” and 1969’s “Sun”—black theatre in this country has remained, for the most part, mired in folklore and its various offshoots: minstrel shows that pass as naturalistic family dramas; “get whitey” spectacles; nostalgia-tinged song-and-dance revues. This trend is disrupted only when artists like Wilson and the late Iranian playwright and director Reza Abdoh—whose 1993 play “Tight Right White” is one of the most insightful and entertaining treatises on race that we’re likely to see—amass enough power to hire black actors, and to force the audience to see things as they do. (When companies like the Wooster Group want to inject race into a show, more often than not their white actors don blackface and coon it up as a “critique” of the performance of blackness.)

Again, it's not my area of expertise, but does Suzan-Lori Parks not count? Or George C. Wolfe's The Colored Museum? And is that unappetizing list of black theater sub-genres, which I guess includes and dismisses everything by August Wilson, Douglas Turner Ward, Lynn Nottage, Kia Corthron (and these are just the names I can pluck off the top of my head), really relevant to the question of the scarcity of black artists in the avant-garde theater? Hilton seems to be moving the goalposts there.

All of this seems a rather poor introduction to the work of Thomas Bradshaw, whose play "Southern Promises," as far as I can tell, may be considered avant-garde primarily because it's being performed at PS 122.


Anonymous said...

I think you're rather understating the case -- I would say that this paragraph is outrageous and ignorant. Sadly, writing this way about black playwrights is nothing new for Als. He had the poor taste and poor timing to lead off a piece, shortly before the world learned that the great man was dying, by literally giving his readers permission to ignore August Wilson's work. John Heilpern discusses Als's negro problem here:

Sean Paul Sartre said...

well, first of all, i'm curious as to what your working definition of "avant-garde" happens to be given its repeated misuse and bastardization in much contemporary criticism, which is so extensive to the point of actually transforming the definition of the word.

"boundary pushing," i think, is an oversimplified but useful distillation of the various ideas that go into any sort of notion of the avant-garde and als's piece, i think, is spot-on in pointing out the way in which Thomas Bradshaw's work is in conversation (if not in confrontation) with the history of african-american theatre in the past two centuries, which you claim as not your area of expertise... so... okay? but Bradshaw's work has and continues to challenge received notions of representations of race on the American stage as well as its consumption and especially the ways in which blackness has seemingly almost always needed to be wrapped in sentiment for a predominantly white theatre-going audiences to even come close to disgesting it (see: the canonization of August Wilson and the nearly unanimous critical dismissals of "Happy Ending and Day of Absence," the two finest plays of Douglas Turner Ward, who you mention).

Southern Promises, btw, reads to me as a send up of Uncle Tom's Cabin melodramas and travelling slave freedom testimonies that dominated the American theatrical scene in the 19th century and actually mark--along with, ironically enough, minstrelsy--the beginnings of any idea of Black Theatre in America. But Tom, in addition to the familiar plotlines and mawkish monologues of sweet liberty and god's will blah blah blah is also showing the previously unshowable: the slaves fucking, the owners fucking the slaves, the various forms of psychological violence and repercussions--the stuff we "know" happened but never really "talk" about or "see."

and also let's just zero in on the phrase "Since Sutton’s début, no other black actor, writer, or director has had the same impact on our theatrical avant-garde." i'm curious to know what you think is the impact is that Suzan-Lori has had on the avant-garde? 365 plays? giving a bunch of actors something to do for a year? her finest work (Death of the Last Black Man, Imperceptible Mutibilities...) is her earliest work, which i can almost guarantee you weren't even seen in production or noticed by the people who now claim her as a bastion of the avant-garde and some heiress to the Black Theatre Tradition, and i find that suspicious. i'd like to actually hear someone articulate what her actual additions to the tradition have been--of which i can think of a few--without mentioning her Genius grant or her Pulitzer.

George C. Wolfe, i am willing to concede, has had an enormous influence--being one of the first champions of Parks, among others--but i am ready to argue that his contribution has come mainly from his work as AD of the Public. "The Colored Museum" is a very important play--in fact, I think every playwright of color working today is in someway indebted to it, but uh... when is the last time it had a New York revival? in fact, it premiered in New Jersey at a tiny theatre in an attic, and how many people do you know who actually saw that? and i think, without Wolfe, we wouldn't even be seeing Bradshaw's play right now... even if it's at PS122.

and, yes, that unappetizing list is relevant to the question of the blacks in the avante-garde because it is apart of the avant many of us are garde-ing against... or something. or at least what we're responding to and what we have the right to respond to, since no one else (e.g. not-black playwrights, or raceless playwrights, or whatever euphemism you want to use, but let's just say playwrights-of-an-establishment) is because--surprise, surprise--maybe they don't necessarily have an investment in it. (and i might even throw some critics in that pile, given Als's piece is one of the few that even bothered to contextualize this work and the ease with which you can claim that "black theatre" is not your "area of expertise"--well what is? "the rest of american theatre"? give me a break.)

its all apart of the same conversation, which has to do with storytelling, the representation of difference (broadly) and blackness (specifically) and the way they are consumed. Thom's play, i think, has an argument that is being predictably dismissed as "shock value." there is an agenda there and rather than writing (c.f. David Cote in Time Out) it off as pure sensationalism or Heavy-Handed Treatments of Race (c.f. Zinoman in the Times), maybe it would help for some critics to start doing their homework, be relevant for once, and trying to really engage something.

(and just as a side, i'd take a look at the controversy surrounding the visual artists Kara Walker's work early in her career. it's amazing and somewhat humiliating that this conversation is far more advanced in the art world than it is in the theatre, when theatre is supposedly an art of immediacy and presence.)

and don't you think its a little naive to think avant-garde work must be defined by experiments in form (which is what i see implicit in your last paragraph)? what about experimental content? who else is writing plays like Thomas? and if the Wooster Group has become one of the most emulated ensemble of theatre artists on the contemporary scene, do a saturation of techno-savvy productions and bizarre textual deconstructions by young, punky ensembles REALLY equal an avant-garde anymore? in my opinion, so many of these once-fresh-now-plentiful stylistic tropes have pushed boundaries so far out of sight that it might be safe to say that these artist are now living quite comfortably within them.

but that's just my opinion, and i haven't said anything about the comment above. jesus.

Rob Weinert-Kendt said...

Thanks for the passionate response, Sean. I can't respond to all of it, as I don't feel it was all directed at me...but I should point out that I also reviewed the show for the Voice, and I did mention the Kara Walker connection. In saying "black theater" is "not my area of expertise," I was just giving a disclaimer to indicate that even to someone who's not an expert on the subject, Als' dismissal of mainstream black theater, and his pointedly excluding both Parks and Wolfe from a history of significant black artists outside that mainstream, seemed plain wrong--not even just critically myopic but factually, historically wrong.

And as for Als being the only one who really delves into this stuff--well, delving is one thing you can do when you've got the word count of The New Yorker. The only reason I'm beating this drum is 'cause I wish Als would use that space, and the national authority that comes with it, more carefully and responsibly.

RLewis said...

I'm not seeing where Bradshaw's work is "avant-garde", but your inablility to really name any black avant-gardeist is sobering. Maybe Parks, but you had to drift off point after her.

Als is an infuriating old curmudgeon, but he's not entirely wrong. The avant-garde world is lilly white, and that will never change if we do not acknowledge it. Maybe this was Als odd way.

If you want to make your point better next time, might I offer Coco Fusco as one future legend of the form.

Sean Paul Sartre said...

hi rob,

i appreciate your response and i actually thought your review was one of the more informed ones, but i tend to take issue with people challenging a critic's right to challenge the canon. Hilton wrote a very interesting profile of Suzan-Lori Park for the new yorker years ago and i'm pretty sure he travels in the same circles with George C. Wolfe, so i think, if anything, he was intentionally omitting them to make a bigger point. i wouldn't say he just wasn't informed. and "significance" is really such a dangerous and elusive word, i think. especially when it comes to cultural affairs.

also, surprisingly enough, i think you're the only person to point out the kara walker connection, but i was just further pointing out how the critical reception of this play in some ways echoes that of her early-and-now-famous tableaux.

but i do appreciate and tend to agree with your concerns, vis a vis the use of space in national publication. but at the same time, i think this was such a bold and bizarre thing for hilton to dedicate however many thousand words to.