White Directors, Black Success


Yesterday the New York Times published an article by Patrick Healy about white directors trumping black ones.  This is not a new conversation, but with the recent successes of August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone as well as Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer-winning Ruined—both directed by white directors—it appears the issue has resurfaced with fire.

Bartlett Sher, the white director for Joe Turner, admits he learned a lot from his black cast about the protocol of working with black story and people.  He also believes if he's directing black plays, well, black directors should have a go at Ibsen, Shakespeare and all else.  The bigger issue with Barlett Sher is that August Wilson only wanted black directors to interpret and stage his work.  Wilson believed black artists had the experience and understanding.  He also wanted them to have opportunity.


I'm a mixed bag on this issue.  I love and advocate for black directors.  However, there are black directors who don't connect to my work or I simply don't connect to their style.  In other words:  just because it's black doesn't mean it fits.  Case in point:  While I was in Los Angeles my play Farewell Miss Cotton was being produced and I insisted on a black director.  I was convinced a black director could bring the understanding and nuance to my work.  The theater company wanted to respect my philosophy and sought out black directors.  I'll be honest:  The black directors we sought were either busy, too picky, underqualified, refusing to return phone calls, or taking too long to make a decision.  I could name names, but I'm not interested in any extra drama.  Anyway, I told the theater I wasn't interested in waiting forever to find the "perfect black director"; I just want someone good and passionate.  We selected a white director and I was extremely happy.

I know black writers who only use white directors.  These writers are committed to having a career and they believe white directors help make that happen easier.  I know black writers who refuse to get produced unless they have a black director, but then they trash the same black directors and sabotage their careers.

At the end of the day, I want the best director.  I prefer to work with a black director, but every black director isn't the right director or simply not available.

Keith Josef Adkins is an award-winning playwright, screenwriter and social commentator.