August Wilson touched off a vigorous debate in the theater world when he declared, in 1996, that “colorblind casting is an aberrant idea” and a tool of “cultural imperialism.” Wilson, one of postwar America’s most significant playwrights, was addressing the national conference of the nonprofit organization Theatre Communications Group (where I once worked). His forceful speech (later published as The Ground on Which I Stand) got people arguing about race in the theater, and especially the practice of casting black actors in roles written for whites.
“Colorblind” is an unhelpfully reductive term for a complicated reality. There are valid distinctions to be made between, say, a mixed-race Shakespeare company and—to cite Wilson’s main example—“an all-black production of Death of a Salesman.” For Wilson, the issue was about more than actors; the critical question was whose stories are deemed worthy. He bristled at the suggestion that African-American artists like himself should aspire to the standards of white European culture, as though acknowledging the full humanity of black Americans required erasing their history. “We can meet on the common ground of theater as a field of work and endeavor,” he told his colleagues. “But we cannot meet on the common ground of experience.”