Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Links, lineage & legacy: Viola and Denzel on August Wilson and "Fences"

I stumbled upon this interview at this black sista's page and I'm grateful because:
  1. As did my favorite writer of all time, Mr. James Baldwin, August Wilson honored our lived experiences in these United States by speaking clearly, unashamedly and uncompromisingly to my growing up Black in America.  "The Piano Lesson" rings particularly and painfully true for me.  When it was made into a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie in 1995, I bought it - having no idea that within a year's time, my brother and I would be locked in our own kind of "Piano Lesson"-esque battle (but only over land) when my mother died in 1996.
  2. Like Alfre Woodard (the sister in "The Piano Lesson"), the South Carolina-born, Viola Davis and Denzel Washington are, for me, cut from the same cloth as the afore-mentioned writers in their talent and integrity.  I've not yet seen "The Help" for various reasons, chief among them - the women in my family were "The Help" on the Sea Islands of South Carolina when I was growing up (and yes, these Field Negroes were also cooks, maids, laundrywomen and wet-nurses).  Consequently, there are times when balancing my rage - at the de-facto inhumanity and ignorance of white folk - with the courage, determination and selflessness it took, for generations of women in my life to put up with their asses ( for us) - is still, very challenging.  I'll probably see it one day, just not ready to yet.  (I do wonder what she felt, filming in Greenwood, MS - a hop, skip and a jump from where young, Frederick Jermaine Carter was found, hanging from a tree he supposedly got himself up on and committed suicide in December 2010).   And while I did not like "Training Day" (the political motivations of those alabaster hands, guiding who gets an Oscar and why, are always suspect to me, because they also tend to shape what we think is good, and not - which isn't always good, IMHO), that Denzel Washington is a thespian of the highest caliber, cannot be denied (and I, for one, am so very glad he took Mr. Poitier's advice)!  
 This New York Times article, written upon Wilson's death, gives us a glimpse of the man and his message:
When a Hollywood studio optioned "Fences," Mr. Wilson caused a ruckus by insisting on a black director. In a 1990 article published in Spin magazine and later excerpted in The Times, he said, "I am not carrying a banner for black directors. I think they should carry their own. I am not trying to get work for black directors. I am trying to get the film of my play made in the best possible way. I declined a white director not on the basis of race but on the basis of culture. White directors are not qualified for the job. The job requires someone who shares the specifics of the culture of black Americans." (The film was not made.)

He was a firm believer in the importance of maintaining a robust black theater movement, a viewpoint that also inspired a public controversy when Mr. Wilson clashed with the prominent theater critic and arts administrator Robert Brustein in a series of exchanges in the pages of American Theater magazine and The New Republic, and later in a formal debate between the two staged at Manhattan's Town Hall in 1997, moderated by Anna Deavere Smith.

The contretemps began when Mr. Wilson delivered a keynote address to a national theater conference in which he lamented that among the more than 60 members of the League of Regional Theaters, only one was dedicated to the work of African-Americans. He also denounced as absurd the idea of colorblind casting, asserting that an all-black "Death of a Salesman" was irrelevant because the play was "conceived for white actors as an investigation of the specifics of white culture." Mr. Brustein referred to Mr. Wilson's call for an independent black theater movement as "self-segregation."

At the sold-out debate at Town Hall the friendly antagonists essentially restated their positions publicly. "Never is it suggested that playwrights like David Mamet or Terrence McNally are limiting themselves to whiteness," Mr. Wilson said. "The idea that we are trying to escape from the ghetto of black culture is insulting." (all emphasis mine)
Do enjoy!

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