Edgar White was born in Montserrat West Indies. He has lived in the United States and England. His plays have been successfully presented in New York, London, and Africa. In the following autobiographical extract, he describes how his radical activities in the seventies led him to being sent down from Yale.
for Cornel West
It was a peculiar time, the seventies. More this than that, depending on who and what you were and what color. Although they said race didn’t matter, it did, and does and will. It was a peculiar time. Paradoxes packed tightly together can make truth.
By the early seventies we had seen in quick succession the deaths of the two Kennedys and Martin Luther King (all televised). Death seen is different from Death read. We saw also some sudden corporate gestures made on the part of academia and government working together. One such gesture was Yale University’s School of Drama admitting, for the first time, a significant number of Black students.
One could be cynical and say that these gestures had more to do with greed for grants than genuine remorse at disparity of opportunities. I’ll leave that question to be decided upon by more objective and clearer minds than my own. Suffice to say that Yale Drama School found itself in a very peculiar situation. For the first time in the history of the institution, there would be a graduating class of mostly Black faces.
Problem: What to do with so many Blacks with nothing to do but be spear-holders in Shakespearean dramas, all of which must be as distant as possible from reality? (No Blacks must play Othello, for example.) It must be remembered that this was still during the reign of Robert Brustein, who was then Czar of the Drama School.
So it was that one young playwright (myself) decided it would be a good time to take advantage of the opportunity and form a company. The result was the birth of the Yale Black Players. The company was subsequently formed and christened on the stage of the Yale Playhouse, a former church. Of course we used the entire school of actors, but the core of actors, stage designers, and directors were all Black. Even our very own theatre administrator, who was a recent graduate of the school and had done her apprenticeship in England, (her name Helen Marie Jones), she too was Black. The two plays that we opened and eventually toured with were The Ode to Charlie Parker and The Crucificado.
I remember there was such a feeling of elation of at last being able to show what we were really capable of. The actors gave everything of themselves without complaint. There was no such thing as sleep. When we were not performing, we were rehearsing. We were not the only ones who were afire with a sense of mission and purpose. The School of Art and Architecture was in proximity to the Drama School. It was impossible to pass without colliding with someone’s vision or rapture. There was tremendous energy on campus, a feeling that anything was possible and that this generation would be an agent of change.
The city of New Haven itself was electric with social action programs. The Black Panther Party was alive, well, and very active. The population of New Haven was made up largely of those who had migrated from the rural south to work in the many arms factories that existed there during World War II. By the sixties, however, the main employer in New Haven was Yale University itself, so New Haven, the inner city, functioned merely as a fiefdom to provide labor to maintain the smooth running of the campus.
Meanwhile, our theatre company was moving from strength to strength. Imagine our giddy state when we were invited to perform in New York. This we did, over midterm recess and all was well until we received reviews in The Village Voice. One day, I was called in Robert Brustein’s office. I entered certain that we would be congratulated on our success. Surprisingly there were no handshakes, no smiles, only icy silence. I remember mostly the table. Why the table? Because seated at this table were a group of trustees. They seemed to be portraits that had somehow managed to step down from their resting places on the university walls and come alive. These elderly bodies clothed in tweeds all sat silently staring and fixed their gaze on one object: me.
“How dare you. How dare you form a company and call yourselves the Yale Black Players. There is no such thing. Who gave you permission?”
“Well, no one . . . but I thought. . .”
“You thought what?”
“I thought there was a need so I answered it.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“Well, I saw there were actors and no scripts.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, what do you mean no scripts. We have whole libraries of scripts.” And indeed it was true, it seemed that acres of trees had perished in sacrifice to become Yale scripts.
“No Black scripts. There was nothing for our actors to relate to and so. . .”
“Well, let me tell you something, my good man, the reason for that is because the majority of the world is white. A simple fact of life.”
“No, I’m afraid you’re wrong about that.”
At this point one of Brustein’s minions whispered something into his ear informing him that he was in fact incorrect, if not in his world view, at least in his demographics.
“Well, be that as it may, you are still students, and students are forbidden from performing professionally. Didn’t you know this?”
No, I hadn’t known this. No one had taken the trouble to inform me of this before. I looked at the portrait faces. None of them had said a word. Asked a question. Queried a custom.
“Well, in any case, it is the decision of this board that you be expelled from school for your blatant disregard of school policy. You seem bent on causing disruption and conflict. If after 24 hours you are found within a hundred yards of this campus, you will be arrested.”
The entire meeting took less than half an hour and was a remarkable demonstration of the efficiency and the power of Yale University. Within a day I had in effect ceased to exist. Access to housing, library, and even the bookstore was closed to me. More interesting still was the fact that I could be arrested if seen. I had become persona non grata which is Latin for “one more Black face that can be arrested if seen beyond the pale.”
The question was, what would I do now? Or, is there life after Yale? It was then that the city of New Haven really opened up to me. The neighborhood of Dixwell Avenue especially — which is less than five minutes away from the campus and yet remains unknown to most students for their entire stay — provided me with home and love. Amazingly, Dixwell also provided me with performance space in the many churches in the area. An exciting audience that was hungry for theatre.
The strangest thing of all was that the School of Divinity turned out to be the most socially active and relevant branch of the University. They provided lighting when we built sets. They never once attempted to censor our scripts, or tried to influence our performance. Long after the radicalism of the School of Art had subsided and all the architects turned from revolution to designing golf courses in Japan and Hawaii, the School of Divinity continued to be the only group that tried to defend the city from the twin plagues of drugs and unemployment that has devastated New Haven and left the inner city a wasteland. It was that Greek boy, Thucydides, talking about the Peloponnesian War: Death seen is worse than Death read. What you see with your eyes pierces your heart.
It was, as I say, a peculiar time in the seventies, more this than that. Depending on who and what you were. A decade later would see a new Dean at the School of Drama. Lloyd Richards would enter, and actors such as Angela Basset and Charles Dutton. Writers such as August Wilson, who achieved three Pulitzers before he died, would make it possible for Black students to emerge from Yale Drama School without being regarded as freaks or anomalies. What I find ironic though is that it is still possible for a student to emerge from three years at Yale still unaware of the presence of a host community, i.e. the Black ghetto which circumscribes all the Ivy League universities (think Harvard and the slums of Cambridge, think Columbia surrounded by Harlem). Two worlds perfectly sealed and separated one from another. Why do the rich always live within running distance of the poor? It was a peculiar time, more this than that.