Double Pulitzer Prize winner, the late August Wilson, often butts heads with the traditional theater critics even today. According to one of the leading authorities on Wilson’s work, Benny Sato Ambush, ”Wilson is very intense about people of color and Black culture in particular. Wilson seems to believe there is very little room for Black culture in traditional theatre and, as a result, criticism regarding the Black playwright’s work (or any writer of color) is almost always judged through a faulty lens.” Wilson explains that the lens is rooted in theatre’s domain which favors European works. He also says that he believes the art of traditional theatre are historically hostile to black culture and, therefore, puts pressure on African American playwrights to cater to what white society will find entertaining.
August Wilson, as stated by Benny Sato Ambush, speaks with such assertiveness his words still resonate shock waves throughout today’s theatre community. Wilson strongly touches the nerves of all members of theatre’s field, including the scholars, critics and theatre directors who are all positioned as experts of the domain within the theatre community. Wilson believes Black people have a culture spawn in their American experience that is uniquely different from mainstream America or white culture. The problem with this, he further states, is that white America, specifically the gatekeepers of traditional theatre, often fail to acknowledge this point and refuse to make room for differences by continuing to use Eurocentric measuring tools to determine and validate artistic quality in the 21st century.
Critics using Eurocentric measures, in many instances, cannot correct the grave wrong committed for centuries by Europeans against Black art and its expression in this country and worldwide. Primarily, according to Wilson, traditional theatre refuses to acknowledge the mission of Black theatre: Stories being told through the venue of traditional theatre for and by Black people. Thus, Wilson’s primary disagreement with traditional theatre, according to Ambush, is their attempt to “define the purpose and function of black art expression as it relates to the venue of traditional theatre.”
Wilson further argues against what he sees as an elitist attitude toward Black culture within traditional theatre. Oddly enough, although Wilson himself is a critically acclaimed late great playwright, continues influentially reject what he saw as the supremacy of white dominance prevalent within traditional theatre. Critic Sharon Fitzgerald, explains that Wilson’s greatest asset is his ability to listen to his people and interpret with powerful accuracy the hopes and dreams of such, accomplished by refuting mainstream cultural views and influences on his work. Wilson is quoted as saying, “If you look back at the history, a lot of the so called Negro plays of the ‘20’s and ‘30’s were written by white authors who took the custodianship of the Negro experience as though Negroes didn’t have their own voice.”
Wilson’s stand is against this custodianship, and if left up to him, this part of history will never be repeated. Some whites find his attitude frightening; however, Wilson said that his attitude is born of personal respect and a necessary defense against European assertiveness that exist within traditional theatre.