By Dudley Cocke

Dudley Cocke places the 1997 August Wilson-Robert Brustein debate on race in American theater in a wider cultural context in this reiteration of Alan Lomax’s classic Appeal For Cultural Equity:  "I say then that cultures do not and never have flourished in isolation, but have flowered in sites that guaranteed their independence and at the same time permitted unforced acceptance of external influences." Originally published in American Theatre magazine, May/June 1997.

From: "On Cultural Power," American Theatre magazine, May/June, 1997; One of 13 commentaries

The broad culture issues encapsulated by August Wilson’s and Robert Brustein’s running debate -- racial politics in the U.S. theater, cultural power, and separatism versus integration, to name three -- have been present since our forebears first dodged the Puritans and began putting on dramas. This is the case whether the stage was set in 1821 at the African Grove Theater on Mercer and Bleecker Streets in Manhattan, where a growing community of free African Americans put on productions of Shakespeare and original plays (including The Drama of King Shotoway, which called for a slave rebellion), or at the rival Park Theater, a long-established white venue in the same neighborhood. These culture issues persist, because they are consequential for a democracy.

Folklorist Alan Lomax in his "Appeal for Cultural Equity" (Journal of Communication, Spring 1977) states, "I say then that cultures do not and never have flourished in isolation, but have flowered in sites that guaranteed their independence and at the same time permitted unforced acceptance of external influences." This is a much more realistic formulation than either cultural separatism or cultural assimilation.

Lomax’s contention that the combination of interaction and independence produces the best results for a culture applies as well for a people. While we who are disenfranchised must persistently fight to gain a seat at the table, we must also have some break from the battle, times to gather and to be with ourselves. Such pauses give us a chance to let our guard down: to celebrate who we are, to share our insecurities, and to ask candidly whether we are in any way aiding and abetting the forces and individuals against which and whom we are struggling.

If one considers the artist and audience relationship, Lomax’s argument again holds: to achieve their best work, artists need both the engagement of audiences who know down in their souls from what place the artistic expression is coming, and the engagement of audiences who bring unknown perspectives and unexpected energy to their interaction with the stage. It’s interesting to note that the audience for the aforementioned African Grove Theater, as described in William Branch’s Black Thunder, an Anthology of Contemporary African-American Drama, was racially mixed, although the theater’s management found it necessary to segregate whites, as some did not know "how to behave themselves at entertainments designed for ladies and gentlemen of color."

In my theater’s experience as a grantee, the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund’s theater initiative has been effective precisely because it has focused both on broadening audiences and deepening the audience-artist exchange. For Roadside Theater, whose work is drawn from the farming and coalmining culture of its Appalachian home, the Wallace initiative enabled us to connect with rural and working class audiences across the country, reaching people the existing nonprofit touring and presenting mechanism typically does not engage. As facts gathered in the Fund’s evaluation project show, in 1995 Roadside’s national audience was 65 percent rural; 68 percent had annual incomes of less than $50,000 — and half of those folks earned less than $25,000 a year. Only two percent of our audience earned more than $100,000 a year. This profile is almost the inverse of the Broadway and regional theater audience. 100 million American families have annual incomes of less than $50,000, and a large portion of them, if Roadside’s 20 years of touring experience is a reliable gauge, are eager to participate in theater (and cultural production in general) that connects with their hopes, joys, and tragedies.

Given our history, it’s not surprising that our national culture dialog often takes the form of combats, as appears to be the case in the Wilson-Brustein debate. But as Lomax and others have been arguing for some time (for 16 perspectives, see Voices from the Battlefront, Achieving Cultural Equity, Africa World Press, 1993), what consistently defeats the discourse is our failure to uphold the fundamental principles of self-determination and equitable treatment. If we embraced these principles, we would find ourselves in a new conversation about our collective strength in the face of developments which threaten us all.

Cite This

Dudley Cocke. “Independence, Not Isolation.” February 8, 2017.

Interested in copying, distributing, and/or adapting this work? Please view our license information.