Steve Carter (1994)
From my point of view, I like to see a play presented as it was written. If you write characters of various ethnic backgrounds into your plays, I think there is a reason why they are there. This applies as much to my plays as to A Streetcar Named Desire with the character “Negro Woman” or the black character in the bar of The Iceman Cometh. To cast those plays without regard for the ethnicity of the characters as written is to overlook important questions about the plays as a whole.
This is especially true for the first production of a play. The first production of a play is your child. What you want to do, like with all children, is to give it a boost at the very beginning, give it a push forward into the world and try to get it seen in the best possible light. It’s the establishing production. It’s the version that is published. I think it is important as much as possible for it to try to live up to what the writer intends.
I have written plays with characters of all different backgrounds. Most of my plays have been about African Americans or people from the Caribbean. Being a part of both those cultures, I know those people. In writing, I very seldom have to do research on the ethnicity of black characters. On white characters, I always do. I do it so I can write my characters as true as I can and not insult the characters – be they bad or good. I won’t write characters who aren’t true to their ethnic backgrounds and their upbringing and I won’t write caricatures. This research can take a long time because a lot of it is about my trying to temporarily turn into those other people. I firmly believe that in order to understand a character, you have to put yourself into her or his place.
I was very fortunate when I began my career to be part of the Negro Ensemble Company, where I was on staff from 1967 to 1981. There I learned theater tradition and theater responsibility. I learned about playwriting by watching other playwrights having their plays produced. I learned what is possible theatrically on a given stage and what is not. Since 1981, I have been the resident playwright at the Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago. For over twenty years, I have had a place to have my work done.
Writers of color now face the fact that there are fewer of their plays being done because there are fewer theaters. A lot of theaters have folded, so there is less opportunity now. Less opportunity for failure at the beginning. August Wilson’s plays can be done and that’s good, but there are a whole lot of younger black writers, who are not getting done because there are fewer people who are willing to take a chance on them now. Not all of them are young either, some just have not been produced as much. Theaters like Crossroads cannot afford to fail, their very existence depends on success. When the NEC was started, it didn’t depend on success, we could do a lot of things that weren’t going to fall into the mainstream and know that what we were doing was building a new audience for theater. We were doing other things than just presenting plays.
I look around now and I think there is more of a need for an NEC now than ever before. When white theaters are falling by the wayside, you know there can’t be too many blacks ones that are doing nicely. It’s almost as if those black theaters that are in existence now have too much responsibility on them and not enough other theaters to share that responsibility with. There are so many black playwrights I know who are good playwrights and are just being overlooked because they don’t have the track record, they don’t have the name, but how are they going to get it? That’s one of the contradictions in these efforts at diversity. There are less places to have this diversity. The writers that white theaters are diversifying with are usually known quantities, because they also have this pressure of not failing.
There’s another thing that black writers face. We are always being compared to each other. There is a pie and one wedge of the pie is the black wedge and all of us black playwrights are supposed to share that. We don’t share the pie, we share the wedge. I saw an article the other day, which started, “Certainly August Wilson is the greatest black American playwright alive. . .” He’s not that. He’s a great American playwright. He has done what few other writers have equaled. But there are still some who would see August Wilson as part of the shared wedge. And that’s not right. It’s not right. August is part of the pie . . . the whole piece. We all are!
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