Race and representation:The August Wilson/Robert Brustein Debate

While we have come far in terms of race representations in theatre and film in the past century, we still have a long way to go. This is why the Department of Dramatic Arts at Brock is hosting a reenactment of The 1997 August Wilson/Robert Brustein Debate which discussed the representations of African-American people in theatre.

On a late rainy night in New York City in 1997, two theatre and culture giants went head-to-head to argue about “funding, racial equality and casting.” The debate was born out of outrage sparked by a keynote speech August Wilson gave at a Theatre Communications Group conference. After a year of writing about it by critic Robert Brustein, Anna Deavere Smith, another major player in theatre, insisted the two men hold a formal debate. The event was a lively one and it is ever more relevant with today’s uneasy political climate.

“Kelly J. Nestruck of The Globe and Mail, and playwright Djanet Sears, have both pointed out that access to cultural capital has not shifted significantly to increase equality in Canada over the last twenty years,” said Gyllian Raby, Producer of the production and Professor of Dramatic Arts at Brock.

She continues, “the goal of the re-enactment is to add a layer of history and vocabulary to the conversation about the inequities of cultural representation in visibility, narrative and cultural decision-making in Canada as distinct from the US. Brock’s Dr. Tamari Kitossa has tried to bring our attention to the systemic and implicit racism on our campus and, while we are starting with the roots of the public debate as articulated in the U.S., we end by looking at ourselves.”

“We open with Canadian stories of inequity — we know that it is dangerously easy, as Desmond Cole puts it in his documentary “The Skin We’re In”, to point at woeful injustices in the U.S and feel smug about a mythical ‘greater equity in Canada’. We point to the Underground Railroad, take credit for it, go home, and sleep easy. David Fancy, who will be reading Robert Brustein’s words in the debate, calls this “maple-washing”— and it’s an ugly, sticky mess we should clean up. “

“The issues are complex, and sometimes we feel overwhelmed, silenced, or bewildered, not knowing what questions to ask…it’s hard to shift power structures. Students in Dramatic Arts have queried our politics of representation and it’s good to develop a discourse. By re-enacting this historic debate between the pre-eminent African-American playwright August Wilson and the influential artistic director, scholar and theatre critic Robert Brustein, and applying what we learn to our own situation, the Department of Dramatic Arts asks who we make our work for —“whose culture – for whom”?”

Lena Hall, who plays Smith, notes some of the differences doing a re-enactment instead of fiction.

“This is my first time in my university career where I get to take on the role of a real person who is still alive today. Recognizing this, it was actually quite informative watching her performance pieces such as “Twilight: Los Angeles” and “Fires in the Mirror”, where she interviewed American citizens and in a one woman documentary style show, performed their stories. I don’t want to put any interpretation on her as I would for a fictional character, I just want to play Anna.”

She also said that “all Brock students, not only theatre students, would benefit from coming out to the debate and participating in the discussion afterwards. Open discussion and education are the only ways people can move forward in a society. In a time where we are bombarded in the news and on social media about concepts such as “alternative facts” and simultaneously bashing free speech while promoting hate and intolerance, I think this debate offers a safe space where we as a community can open up conversations, specifically conversations about race and
representation.”

The re-enactment will take place on March 15, and tickets are free online. The re-enactment will be followed by a discussion period.

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