Theater changed in 1984 when a then-unknown playwright named August Wilson (pictured at right) saw his play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” open at the Cort Theater on Broadway.
Those who saw it — including me — knew instantly something fresh and exciting was happening. The play was a powerful evocation of African Americans by a deeply committed and masterful artist of that same ancestry.
It was also the first highly public statement by a writer who challenged himself to create a history in drama of his people and time by creating 10 plays reflecting each decade of the 20th century.
The result is a list of contemporary classics that include “Fences,” “The Piano Lesson,” “Gem of the Ocean,” “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” and others.
Now part of theater history, the plays are also part of our region’s cultural reference, thanks to McCarter Theater’s efforts to revive the works of the playwright, who died in 2005 at age 60.
McCarter is now engaged in another effort to keep the Tony and Pulitzer-winning Wilson’s ideas active by revisiting a speech Wilson delivered at McCarter when the national Theater Communication Group convened its annual conference in 1996 on the McCarter stage.
Wilson’s speech was called “The Ground On Which We Stand.” It called on the theater community to do nothing less than create a meaningful dialogue on race, culture, and theater.
“I have come here today to make a testimony,” Wilson proclaimed, “to talk about the ground on which I stand and all the many grounds on which I and my ancestors have toiled, and the ground of theater on which my fellow artists and I have labored to bring forth its fruits, its daring and its sometimes lacerating, and often healing, truths.”
Now in 2016 a day-long symposium titled “The Ground On Which We Stand: Diversity and Opportunity in American Theater, 20 Years after August Wilson’s Foundational Speech” intends to revisit Wilson’s “truths” and ideas.
The free event will be held on Monday, April 18, at McCarter Theater in Princeton.
“To honor the 20th anniversary of this watershed moment,” note organizers, “this symposium — jointly produced by McCarter Theater and Princeton University’s Lewis Center for the Arts — will endeavor to explore Wilson’s speech through the lens of the last 20 years of race and theater, and discuss where we stand today. The event will include a reading of the speech itself, panel discussions with prominent members of the theater community and Princeton faculty, and an open town hall discussion.”
Wilson spoke loud and clear in his speech, noting early, “I believe that race matters. That is the largest, most identifiable, and most important part of our personality. It is the largest category of identification because it is the one that most influences your perception of yourself, and it is the one to which others in the world of men most respond. Race is also an important part of the American landscape, as America is made up of an amalgamation of races from all parts of the globe. Race is also the product of a shared gene pool that allows for group identification, and it is an organizing principle around which cultures are formed. When I say culture, I am speaking about the behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought as expressed in a particular community of people.”
He then focused on heritage and background, stating, in terms that resonate against the current backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement and institutional racism (including Princeton University grappling with the racist views of former university and American president Woodrow Wilson): “The term black or African American not only denotes race; it denotes condition and carries with it the vestige of slavery and the social segregation and abuse of opportunity so vivid in our memory. That this abuse of opportunity and truncation of possibility is continuing and is so pervasive in our society in 1996 says much about who we are and much about the work that is necessary to alter our perceptions of each other and to effect meaningful prosperity for all.”
“The problematic nature of the relationship between white and black for too long led us astray from the fulfillment of our possibilities as a society. We stare at each other across a divide of economics and privilege that has become an encumbrance on black Americans’ ability to prosper and on the collective will and spirit of our national purpose.”
Wilson then calls for support of theaters outside the traditional mainstream culture. “Black theater doesn’t share in the economics that would allow it to support its artists and supply them with meaningful avenues to develop their talent and broadcast and disseminate ideas crucial to its growth. The economics are reserved as privilege to the overwhelming abundance of institutions that preserve, promote, and perpetuate white culture.”
The April 18 symposium has four segments. It opens at 1 p.m. with a welcome and reading of “The Ground on Which I Stand” by James A. Williams — an actor who has performed in Wilson productions on Broadway and regional theater.
The panel portions start at 2 p.m. with “As The Ground Shifts: Tracking Seismic Changes in Race and Gender Representation,” a round table discussion involving Two River Theater artistic director John Dias, Theater Communication Group director Teresa Erving, playwright Lisa Kron, McCarter Theater director and playwright Emily Mann, stage director Marion McClinton, and James Williams. Jill Dolan, Princeton’s dean of the college, professor of English and theater, and award winning critic and Feminist Spectator blog writer, moderates.
It is followed at 3 p.m. with the second discussion, “The Ground from Which We Step: Wilson’s Legacy and Our Contemporary Conversations.” Moderated by Brian Herrera, Princeton professor of theater and author of the book “Latin Numbers: Playing Latino in 20th-Century U.S. Popular Performance,” the panel includes PlayMakers artistic director Vivenne Benesch, ArtsEmerson’s co-artistic director Polly Carl, stage director Jade King Carroll, and playwrights Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins and A. Rey Pamatmat.
A 4 p.m. town hall will provide the public an opportunity to join the discussion and close the event.
Tickets are free but registration is requested.
The Ground On Which We Stand: Diversity and Opportunity in American Theater, 20 Years after August Wilson’s Foundational Speech, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Monday, April 18, 1 to 5 p.m. Free. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.
More April 18 Theater Talk at Princeton: Following the McCarter symposium, Nigerian poet, playwright and Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka delivers the first of three lectures, “In Praise — and Dread — of Trees,” 5:30 p.m. at the McCosh Hall, Room 10. Chika Okeke-Agulu, associate professor of art and archaeology and African American studies, provides the introduction.
The series — part of the annual Toni Morrison Lectures — continues on Tuesday, April 19, with “Sweet Are the Uses of Diversity,” introduced by English professor Simon Gikandi, and the Wednesday, April 20, talk, “As It Was in the Beginning” introduced by Wendy Belcher, associate professor of comparative literature and African American studies.
All speeches are free and are held in McCosh Hall, Room 10, at 5:30 p.m.
For more information, visit aas.princeton.edu/event/wole-soyinka-lectures-at-princeton-university.