Fresh from the unveiling of his all-black-and-Hispanic productions of "Julius Caesar" and "Coriolanus," maverick theatrical entrepreneur Joseph Papp now plans to establish a permanent "Third World" acting company with its home base at Papp's public Theater complex in Lower Manhattan.
His ultimate aim, said Papp, founder and head of the New York Shakespeare Festival, is a year-round company composed of "dark-skinned peoples" doing a mix of plays that emphasizes the classics, performing throughout the United States and the world.
With stars James Earl Jones, Raul Julia, Roscoe Lee Browne and Morgan Freeman assembled in his office Wednesday night, Papp launched a passionate assault on the traditional "British" way of acting Shakespeare, which he called "oratorical, declamatory and musical."
He had watched a few of the Shakespeare plays on public television this winter with "great trepidation," Papp said, "because my worst fear was that it was going to be good... but essentially it was the same old bull."
In contrast, said Papp, people who were unaccustomed to seeing Shakespeare, and even more unaccustomed to liking it, have been startled by "Julius Caesar" and "Coriolanus" at the Public Theater. Papp said one woman had told him, with astonishment: "They [the actors] weren't speaking in any fake British way -- they were speaking in a natural way."
Of course, he added hastily, "we have some very fine British actors that are colleagues and friends and so forth."
Papp also struck back at those who have criticized his minority Shakespeare productions, and "Julius Caesar" in particular, for muddling the original language either through poor pronounciation or changes in the text. "The notion that we advocate poor speech on the stage is ridiculous," said Papp. "We advocate clear speech on the stage."
"Some of the criticisms either showed ignorance, which is usual in most critics, or a kind of racism in the guise of liberalism," he said.
Papp recalled earlier, intergrated productions of classic plays that had brought criticism on him. In one "Henry V," he said, a black actor and a white actor had played brothers. And when James Earl Jones did Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard," deliberately using light-skinned black actors as Russian aristocrats and darker-skinned black actors as peasants, critics, according to Papp, asked, "What are those people doing in this territory?"
The idea of all-minority productions seemed to be more internally consistent and thus more unbelievable, Papp said he had concluded.
If Papp has his way, the new company will go into part-time operation next season with Gloria Foster in Brecht's "Mother Courage" and Raul Julia and Richard Dreyfuss (as Iago) ino "Othello."
Papp's announcement comes when a major revenue source, the phenomenally successful Broadway and touring editions of "A Chorus Line," is beginning to show signs of tailing audience interest.
He conceded that an "extraordinary amount" of fund-raising will be required to launch the Third World company, but predicted that his press conference would eventually be looked back on as a momentous event in the theater. "I hate to call a historic occasion a historic occasion," said Papp, "but..."