The Current State of African-American Theatre Affairs: Dramas Through the Directorial Lens of White Directors

Ajene D. Washington
Ajene D. Washington

I am a freelance African American director who has lived over the past twenty plus years in New York City. For some time now, I’ve observed a number of dramatically written works by African American playwrights being handed over to white directors. A tracking of numerous theatrical dramas presented in off Broadway houses and at regional companies have revealed that white directors had directed an inordinate percentage. This trend has become the norm across the United States. What is interesting about this dilemma is only rarely does an African American director get an opportunity to direct a play written by a white playwright.

As I’ve begun to ponder this trend, many unanswered questions have come to mind: Why aren’t more African American directors directing plays written by African American playwrights, and/or those written by white playwrights? Are African American playwrights fighting for their plays to be directed by African American directors? Do theatre companies feel that white directors are more skillful at staging African American stories? Do white directors’ sensibilities differ from those of African American directors? Do white directors make storylines more digestible for white audiences? Why aren’t African American directors on the radar of white theater companies? Do white theater companies actively seek out African American directors? These are just a sample of my questions regarding the present and future participation and employment of African American theater directors in mainstream American theater.

While attending a Stage Directors and Choreographers’ (SDC) meeting, some years ago, an African American director shared with me his observation why there was a lack of employment for African American directors. Without hesitation he said, “White folks don’t think we can do this thing,”—meaning theater. He went on to say “When I worked in Europe, I was treated as a master craftsman, but here in the United States, I’ve experienced indifference or coldness.”  It was then when I began to wonder if the director’s observation had some merit, and, if so, was it playing a part in the hiring or lack of hiring of African American directors. Still another story that struck me as odd. While attending a Lincoln Center Director’s Lab, an African American female director, who had been invited to conduct a seminar, spoke about an invitation to interview she had received from a regional theatre company intending to hire new directors. She said “I subsequently found out that the invitation to interview was extended in order that the theater company could show funding sources that they had interviewed an African American director.” Another award-winning African American director, who asked not to be named, shared with me the difficulties in making a living as a freelance director, and, that he’s had to supplement his income by working in other areas of theater. Another director said he found it necessary to take a teaching position at a university in order to continue working in theater; others have taken jobs waiting tables and driving taxicabs. These stories are just a few examples of what I’ve heard—there are many more.

In my many discussions with the African-American directors, there was a consensus—there is a scarcity of work. Yes, I am aware that it is difficult being a freelance director, whether you are White or African American. But when theatrical works which African American directors are well equipped to handle get offered to white directors, the question arises, “Why?” The United States theater community has seemingly claimed itself to be fairly liberal and progressive. But if the current state of affairs is true, the underlying “Whys?” need to be addressed. In the early 1980s, when African American actors complained to the Actors’ Equity Association about there not being enough work for them, The Theatre Guild instituted a non-traditional casting policy—perhaps a non-traditional directing policy should be considered for African American directors as well.

Some years ago, Lincoln Center Theater mounted a production of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone on Broadway. There erupted a loud outcry questioning the decision to hire a white director for the production, when, the then living playwright August Wilson had requested an African American director. August Wilson wanted his works to be directed by African Americans; (1) to insure employment, and (2), so that historical and cultural sensibilities would prevail. Lincoln Center Theater’s response, “We don’t know any African American directors.”—many questioned the veracity of the statement. It should be noted that white director Bartlett Sher’s production on Broadway of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, at the close of Act One, chose to turn the ring shout, which is connected to African spiritualism, into a Saturday night dance around a table—ultimately the true dramatic intent of the author was lost. Sher’s directorial choice may be attributed to his misunderstanding of the roots of African American spiritualism.

In a rare case, Lincoln Center Theater did hire an African American director, George C. Wolfe, to direct A Free Man of Color, written by John Guare, a white playwright. George went on later to also direct Nora Ephron’s Lucky Guy on Broadway. What happened to change Lincoln Center Theater’s point of view? Why doesn’t this happen more often for African American directors? If colorblind directing is in place for white directors, why should it not be in place for all directors?

White directors shepherding plays written by African Americans have far reaching implications, with regard to their presentation of African American images on stage: imagery and stories of African Americans suffer under the perception and manipulation of white sensibilities. An example is Katori Hall’s wonderful play, Our Lady of Kibeho, in which Michael Grief approached the element of magical realism from a Eurocentric perspective. In discussing this element with an African American theatre scholar, he remarked “the floating of bed and the flying actresses were a bit excessive. They brought to mind films Poltergeist and Exorcist.” Even though this moment was excessively dramatic, he didn’t see how this moment affected other characters’ behaviors throughout the rest of the play. An appropriate question: How would an African or African American director have dealt with the matter of magical realism? In the imagination of some African and African American directors, the elements of magical realism and realism occupy the same space—there is no division.

While watching a performance of Tarell Alvin McCraney in In the Red and Brown Water at The Public Theater directed by Tina Landau, a white director. Several of my African American colleagues remarked that some characters were portrayed broadly, even bordering on buffoonery. Would an African American director have allowed this distortion of his or her image? On the same bill, in viewing Robert O’Hara, an African American director’s direction of Brother Size Me, the characters had a substantial three-dimensional honesty.

What’s ultimately at play? Interpretation! The job of the interpretative artist should be to deliver the best production possible. But, when theatergoers witness false interpretive moments, they become alarmed because the production lacks truth, and, consequently the Art suffers. There’s no question whether the aforementioned white directors are technically good, but to most of my African-American colleagues their directorial works lacked truthfulness. My colleagues were not suggesting that white directors should not direct dramas by African-Americans. But instead, if these directors willingly take on the task, they should get it right, or, face up to deserved criticism. Any lack of truthfulness, intentional or through misunderstanding, may reinforce and even fortify a notion in the uninformed audience’s mind that what has been presented is the correct interpretation. Then too, they may also be left with the belief that these stories have become so generic and homogenized that anyone can handle the subject matter.

What should be the role of the playwright? Perhaps if African American playwrights fought for their works to be directed by African American directors, conditions might change. One African American director told me of an African American playwright who fought to have her direct her play. The director said, “Had the writer not fought for me, I would never have gotten the job.” On the other hand, many African American playwrights may be so glad to get their plays produced that they simply acquiesce to theaters’ wishes.

What parts do networking, lack of visibility, and not being on the radar screen of theaters play in the hiring of African-American directors? A few African American directors have said “I’ve attempted to attract the attention of theaters, but it’s a difficult task”; “I’ve written letters to gain interviews, but to no avail”; “Theater’s want to see my work before hiring me”—which is quite normal; “Artistic Directors suggest that you let them know when you have a production mounted”; “When a play of mine is mounted, the theatre’s representative never shows up.” It’s a catch-22 for these directors. It appears that if a director doesn’t have a well-known theatrical institution attached to his résumé or his production had been reviewed by major reviewers (which is unlikely), then he would not be under consideration.

Another challenging factor: the hiring practices of some theater companies point to a deep-seated problem. Theatrical institutions receive funding from governmental agencies that require multi-cultural participation and diversity in program hiring. This level of inclusion and participation of African American directors is the question in place. Some directors viewing these conditions speculate whether these theatre companies are only using African American dramas with African American actors to the extent of gaining funds. If these African American stories are only being used under the guise of liberalism in order to increase funding then this inequity must be addressed by funding sources.

One colleague pointed out “Most African American directors have a slightly better understanding of white cultural mannerisms than white directors have of African American cultural mannerisms—they’ve witnessed white Eurocentric customs daily. These cultural customs are expressed in literature, social relationships, media, and through personal interactions. Furthermore, the saturation of Eurocentric cultural ideas and values affords African American directors the understanding and sensibilities of white culture while they are, at the same time, navigating through their own double-conscience reality. In addition, most African American directors’ theatrical development occurred in institutions where Western literary canon and theatrical theories were the center of their studies, making them fully educated in the different aspects of theatre, however, they are still denied directorial opportunities.”

Where does the African American director go to direct? Are there many African American directors working? Yes, but not on the same level as their white counterparts. With the shrinkage of African American theaters across the country and mainstream theater companies continuing to mount more and more major African American dramas with white directors, a mandate should be put in place for a greater participation of African American directors, designers and technicians. For all the diversity the theatrical community professes, reality points to something different. Some African American directors have concluded “White entitlement is the problem.”; others feel “These theater companies don’t want to deal with them.” or “It’s an insider’s club game at play.” Whatever the reasons, it remains a disturbing state of affairs for African American directors. Mainstream theater companies need a more vigorous outreach model than what exists today.

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An award-winning Director, Playwright, Set Designer, and Workshop Coordinator at New Federal Theatre.

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