NEW YORK -- They entered from opposite ends of the stage, and 2 1/2 hours later, that's how they left.
Anyone who expected August Wilson, the nation's preeminent black playwright, and Robert Brustein, one of the country's most outspoken theater critics, to kiss and make up was courting disappointment. Since June the two men have been engaged in an inflammatory, often personal debate about the purpose and future of black theater. Up to now, it has been conducted primarily in the pages of the New Republic and American Theater magazines. But Monday night they brought their argument to the Town Hall, an auditorium in the heart of the theater district.
The evening was billed as "On Cultural Power, the August Wilson/Robert Brustein Discussion" and was moderated by performance artist Anna Deavere Smith. Smith contacted both men, who had met only once before in passing, and convinced them that a face-off would be instructive.
Some 1,500 spectators, a sellout crowd that included actors, directors, theater administrators and even CBS newsman Mike Wallace, thought so, too. As the snow fell, they lined up six and seven deep on the sidewalk, jostling to get into what was, for one night only, the hottest ticket on Broadway.
It had all the makings of a cultural slugfest. This, after all, was the stage on which Gloria Steinem and Norman Mailer once went at each other tooth and claw over the merits of feminism. And race, even more than gender, continues to be a flash point in American society. For the most part, however, what the evening came down to was polite intransigence on both sides.
"I think they're both extraordinarily conservative men," commented Zelda Fichandler, founder of Washington's Arena Stage and now head of New York University's graduate acting department. "Mr. Wilson says the truth is this. Mr. Brustein says no, the truth is that. Neither is willing to admit the possibility that the truth may be this and that."
Indeed, Wilson and Brustein stand diametrically opposed on many of the defining issues in the American theater today. Wilson reiterated his basic charge that there is an appalling lack of professional black theaters. Of the 65 theaters that belong to the League of Resident Theaters, only one, the Crossroads Theater in New Jersey, is run by blacks. "Blacks are locked out of the house," he said.
Grants given to white-run theaters to increase black programming and participation, he insisted, have not only been misguided, they have siphoned off funding that should have gone directly to black institutions. Furthermore, he dismissed as "dangerous" the practice of nontraditional casting, a sacred tenet of not-for-profit theater.
(Proponents of nontraditional casting maintain that if race is not specifically mentioned in a work, any actor should be allowed to play any role. Over the past decade, such thinking has significantly increased the presence of blacks and other minorities in a wide range of classics and contemporary plays once thought to be "white.")
A self-described "race man," Wilson, 52, argued that African American talent can flower only in black-run institutions, "someplace where your visiting pass doesn't expire, usually in March after Black History Month." Anything less, he claimed, puts black identity at the mercy of the white power structure -- personified, at least Monday evening, by Brustein.
Brustein, 69, has long regarded Wilson's agenda as a wrongheaded bid for separatism, and he once again warned that Wilson was harking back to the 1950s, when "separate but equal" was the catch phrase used by bigots to justify egregious racial inequities. A longtime opponent of multiculturalism, Brustein subscribes to "a single value system" by which all art should be measured. Drama, he insisted, investigates "the workings of the human soul, which has no color."
Nontraditional casting, far from being a racial betrayal, he told the audience, expands opportunities. He accused Wilson of asking black actors "to cripple their careers for the sake of racial exclusivity."
The differences didn't end there. Wilson views theater as a political act and an agent of social change. For Brustein, "Art changes nothing," and art that tries to bring change is usually dogmatic or hopelessly melodramatic.
Wilson makes it clear that the single most important component of his identity is his African American heritage. He cannot -- and will not -- forget the years of servitude and second-class citizenship his ancestors suffered, he said. Brustein, an advocate of assimilation, asserted, "We are individuals first, Americans second and tribalists third."
In a challenge to the white critical establishment, Wilson questioned why plays by such white dramatists as David Mamet and Terrence McNally are widely assumed to be "universal," whereas black plays are considered parochial and somehow marginal. "Black is not limiting," he thundered.
In the past, Brustein has been critical of Wilson's prize-winning plays ("Fences," "Seven Guitars," "Two Trains Running"). The discussion steered clear of Wilson's work, however, until Brustein asked Wilson why, if he wanted to help struggling black theater companies, he didn't allow one of them to do the world premiere of one of his plays.
Wilson responded that he did take "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" (1984), his breakthrough play, to the Yale Repertory Theatre specifically because its artistic director, Lloyd Richards, was a black man. (Richards has since been Wilson's director of choice.) Ironically, Brustein founded the Yale Repertory Theatre and ran it until 1979, when a disagreement with Yale's president led to his dismissal. Brustein now heads the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass.
Although Smith made a concerted effort to discourage audience members from talking out, many did. "Speak what you know!" one irate woman screamed at Brustein, while Wilson's opposition to nontraditional casting earned protracted groans, many from actors who see it as a welcome source of employment. The biggest laugh in an evening that had few came during the question-and-answer period. Wilson was asked whether he believed gay actors should play only gay roles, just as he believes blacks should play only black roles.
The playwright paused. Then a voice rang out from the audience: "Don't touch it." (Wilson didn't.)
What the evening meant depended largely on whom you talked to afterward.
For Woody King, who for 27 years has run the New Federal Theater, an impoverished black company in Manhattan, Wilson's call for more professional black theaters was invigorating. "The country really thinks the way Brustein thinks," he said. "Theaters like ours have been unable to get grants for years. But when a major black artist like August speaks out, it focuses a lot of attention on the problem. I could write 100 proposals that say the same thing and they'd be ignored. But no one can say now, Oh I didn't know you guys felt like this.' "
Brustein also had his defenders, some of them surprised that the critic was more personable and reasonable than his often acerbic reviews would suggest.
At the end of the night, Smith asked each participant what, if anything, he had learned from the other. "I learned," replied Brustein, "that behind Mr. Wilson's anger, he is a teddy bear."
"I assure you I am a lion," Wilson countered quickly.
"I was not prepared to find a man of such quality. . . . I like him," Brustein continued, undaunted.
"I have somewhat the same feelings for Mr. Brustein," Wilson admitted when it was his turn. "Unfortunately, I was not able to learn much about the positions he espouses. I didn't learn much else but what was already there."
Perhaps the only viable conclusion came at the very outset, as moderator Smith surveyed the audience, cold from standing out in the snow and eager for the fireworks to begin.
"Who would have thought a rap on race, a rap on power, would have brought out such a crowd on a Monday night?" she marveled.
CAPTION: Playwright August Wilson, left, and critic Robert Brustein: A debate that solved no problems but did provide a lot of heat on a snowy New York night.