by Edgar Nkosi White
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
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.