Just ‘Cause (or Just Cause): On August Wilson’s Case for a Black Theater

  • John Valery White


August Wilson is a black playwright. This fact animates his eloquent defense of the black theater and funding, therefore, his “just” cause. He is not a playwright who happens to be black. This fact prompts him to expose and attack theater critic Robert Brustein’s neoconservative assault on funding of the black theater. That Wilson is a black playwright seems to lead him, curiously, to denying the existence, legitimacy, and authenticity of playwrights who happen to be black. This aspect of Wilson’s speech to the Theater Communications Group takes Wilson on a quest for authentic blackness, a pursuit he ironically shares with Brustein. In their ensuing debate, Wilson and Brustein vie for the critical authority to define authentic blackness, both speaking the anachronistic language of separation and assimilation. This language impoverishes the critical debate over the future of the American theater and the role of the black theater in that future. Thus Wilson’s speech, perhaps well received as a typical progressive defense against a neoconservative assault on blackness, distorts the very goal of advancing the black theater, as such. Wilson is trapped into arguing with Brustein over whether there should be a black theater rather than whether there can be an American theater without blackness. In anticipating Brustein’s questioning of the need for a black theater, could not Wilson have said, “just ‘cause”?


Black People American Theater Black Experience Black Theater Legitimate Response 
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Copyright information

© Sandra Shannon and Dana Williams 2004

Authors and Affiliations

  • John Valery White

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