“A gorgeous, great play. American theater at its most engaging.” Could a producer invent a more perfect pull-quote? Unless you were launching a critique of the whole hype-y synergy between salesmanship and criticism (one well worth launching on another occasion), you could hardly blame the marketing team for “The Trip to Bountiful” —which opened last night at the Stephen Sondheim Theater — for plastering this socko line on its website and other promotional materials.
Funny thing is, the line, though specifically describing the play itself — Horton Foote’s widely beloved 1953 drama about an elderly woman making an insistent last visit to her rural hometown, called Bountiful — comes from a review of another production. And not just any other production, but one that played a part in this new revival.
Yet except for that pull-quote, the contribution of the earlier production has been disappeared, left behind by the bus that took Bountiful to Broadway.
Nothing illegal has happened here, nor anything that dims the astonishing radiance of Cicely Tyson, returning to Broadway after a thirty-year absence to play the central role of Carrie Watts. Nonetheless, something wrong has happened. An artist has not been given his due. Perhaps that’s business as usual. But for a play that decries a self-serving, individualistic urban ethos that has supplanted the human decencies and connections of old—as starkly signified in the contrast between Carrie’s meanspirited daughter-in-law (Vanessa Williams) and Carrie’s kind-hearted young seatmate (Condola Rashad) on the bus to her old home—the ethical breach seems especially blunt.
And it didn’t occur in a vacuum, but in a commercial theater where African-American directors find few opportunities—and in a culture with a long history of white appropriation of black creativity. The case of this professional slight intertwines some longstanding vexing issues: the amorphous nature of a director’s intellectual property and the abiding failure of our theater community to create a climate where diversity can thrive…
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