January 19, 2011
Waterbury Board of Education
236 Grand Street
Waterbury CT 06702
To the members of the Waterbury Board of Education:
Stephen Sondheim, a singular voice in the American theatre, famously wrote the lyric, “Art isn’t easy.” I am reminded of this as I read of the current debate within the Waterbury school system over the Arts Magnet School’s proposed production of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone by August Wilson, another singular voice in theatre.
It is not my intention to offer a blanket defense of “the n-word,” any more than I would defend epithets against Latinos, Asian Americans, Christians, Jews, Muslims or any ethnic or religious group. But what I do defend are the words so carefully chosen by August Wilson, one of the great playwrights America has ever produced, and unquestionably the finest African-American playwright in our country’s history.
August, who I had the honor to know, was a man who knew all too well the scars of racism, faced both personally and by his ancestors. But he transformed those experiences into truthful, transcendent art. If he felt the need to use the offensive word, he did so knowingly and with careful intent, not to glamorize it, but to represent its place in the racial discourse of the 20th century. August’s 10-play cycle of African-American life stands as a remarkable artistic coup and history lesson about the challenges of black life decade by decade, a monumental work completed in his final days.
I understand that schools must not promote or endorse hateful speech, but at an arts high school, within a proper context and with the proper preparation, arts students and their families should have the opportunity to explore and grapple with August’s words – all of them – so that they may struggle with the literature and the sad truths that underlie it. We do not live in a world of absolutes; to make absolute decisions about the utterance of words in a proper education context denies students their ability to learn and grow.
I am product of theatre in Connecticut, although I did not study it. But born in New Haven and later raised in Orange, I have worked at the Westport Country Playhouse, Hartford Stage, Goodspeed Opera House, O’Neill Theatre Center and even the long defunct Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford. Theatre in Connecticut gave me many opportunities, which is why I feel so close to this issue.
I saw August’s earliest works bloom in Connecticut and I believe were he still with us, he would be writing to support the teachers and students of the Arts Magnet School. Because he cannot, I feel I must use the platform that I have as head of the organization that created The Tony Awards, theatre’s highest honor, to stand in his defense and to express my sincere hope that his words will indeed be heard on the Magnet School’s stage, for the benefit of those who perform them and those who hear them.
I am attaching to this letter a blog entry I wrote earlier this week on this topic, which expands upon my thoughts on this matter. I hope that this letter may be shared with the Board before any decision and I thank you for your consideration.