It is hard to believe that in 2009 there can be a controversy about a white director Bartlett Sher directing August Wilson's African American classic drama, "Joe Turner's Come and Gone." But there is such a controversy, and it even made the front page of the New York Times this week.
During his lifetime, Pulitzer Prize winning playwright August Wilson wanted his plays interpreted by black directors, feeling that they would best understand the nuances of his work which dealt with various aspects of the African American experience. When Bartlett Sher, a notable white director, was engaged to direct Wilson's play by Lincoln Center, with the approval of the late Wilson's estate, there was some strong objection in the African American theatre community to this white man being hired while so many gifted African American directors are unemployed. There is no doubt that there is a scarcity of steadily employed African American directors, those who are in demand such as George Wolfe come to mind because there are so few. But to me - a playwright - those who would impose a racial or sexual qualification on a work of art are on the wrong side of history - and worse - on the wrong side of art. I have yet to see the play - hope to do so this month - but all who have seen it remark upon Sher's sensitive, intelligent, and moving interpretation of it - something that requires me to state the obvious - art knows no race.
I had my own experience with this problem - for indeed, it is a problem because many subscribe to the idea that one must be of a certain race or sex or generation in order to write of that race or sex or generation. This came home to me three years ago. I was in Chicago working on a musical I had written with the late Wally Harper. The show, "Josephine Tonight!" dealt with the early life of the black entertainer Josephine Baker, a woman who had suffered from racism in her youth but who went on to personify the Jazz Age, and whose triumph in Paris at twenty made her an international star.
Prior to the opening I was interviewed by a young reporter from Time Out, the arts and entertainment publication. The first question of this white reporter was about me and my late composer Harper: "How can two older white men write about a young black girl?" I was taken aback as they say in old novels. This inquiry seemed so naïve to me that I wondered how the young questioner found employment in an arts publication, let alone a local high school paper. The answer is a simple one; it applies to Bartlett Sher as well, and goes to the very nature of art. As human beings we share a common experience: our shared humanity with its joys, its pain, its sorrows, and its mortality. Not that I compare my work to Gershwin's, but if one had to be black to capture the essence of African American life there would not have been a Porgy and Bess.
True, there have been some great male writers who have never gotten to the essence of a woman's personality - Philip Roth comes to mind. And there are fine women writers who fail to capture what it is like to live as a man in today's world. Although Jane Austin with her limited life experience was as capable of creating the men in her novels as well as her glorious heroines, and nobody can dispute the awareness of a whole world in Emily Dickinson who lived the most circumscribed of lives. When artists of one sex or one race fail to depict the other accurately it is not because of limitations imposed by their sex or race or life experience - it is the limitation of their imaginations.
As an ageing, white, Jewish-American male, I own my mind and my body and all its imperfections - together my history of having come of age as a native New Yorker in the nineteen fifties, but I do not truly own the experience of an ageing, white, Jewish-American male who grew up in New York City in that time. Any imaginative African American, Protestant-American writer, or Korean woman can write about my experience with truth, and own it as much as I do.
Recently, I have reconceived my musical so that all its parts, black and white, are performed by four African-American performers - based on my belief that these black performers can create the roles of the white characters as well as the African American ones through their artistry. We are proceeding towards a staged reading in New York with the hope of a production here in my home town. Chicago had proven a triumph for us, and while we went from staged reading to productions there the show has had both African American and white directors - all of whom brought something unique to the staging of it.
The question remains: Must we have first-hand experience in order to create experience on the page or onstage? People have often said to novice writers "write what you know." The trouble with that shibboleth is that we know so much more than who we are and what we have personally experienced - if lucky, we know each other. If all we knew was who we are, we would be condemned to a solipsistic universe - locked in a life sentence within a prison of self - a hideous fate.
For years there have been a group of professorial grumblers who claim that Shakespeare cannot have written his plays; that it must have been the Earl of Elegance or the Duke of Dishwater, because a commoner with little or no experience of courts could not have written Hamlet and having no experience of Europe how could he have written of life in Italy such as Romeo and Juliet? It is not only the sheer snobbery of this notion, but its absolute stupidity that confounds me. One of the great blessings of being alive and human is our empathy, our ability to understand how others - different from ourselves in their time, birth, race, and fortune- can feel. Without that the awkward Russian aristocrat Tolstoy could not have written about the glorious young Natasha in War and Peace. Flaubert could not have delved inside the troubled soul of Madam Bovary. The homosexual writer Tennessee Williams could not have understood the dynamics of heterosexual marriage, and the exiled Russian Nabokov could not have understood and recreated the dystopia of American lives in Lolita. Nor could the Scots barrister Alexander McColl Smith write his delightful series of novels about the African Women's Detective Agency.
We are so blessed by our capacity to get beyond our own skins, our own sexuality, and our own fortunes, that all of us can - if we wish - enter into the world of the other and find that their world is our own world, after all. I can understand the feelings of those who want to keep a lock on their culture - in the case of African Americans it's been a hard fought culture - but it will not work in America today. Too many Americans were able to see beyond the skin of the young politician Barack Obama, and vote him into office because they saw their better selves in him. I hope that this tired, divisive, and wrong-headed argument about race and sex and art will end in our time, although it must always fight against the territorial instinct of human beings - the instinct at war with what is best in us - our empathetic imaginations.