This section contains 3,537 words
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Interview by August Wilson with Kim Powers
SOURCE: "An Interview with August Wilson," in Theater, Vol. 16, No. 1, Fall/Winter, 1984, pp. 50-5.
In the following interview, Wilson discusses various aspects of his works, including themes, symbols, and characters.
August Wilson's play Ma Rainey's Black Bottom garnered rave reviews at the Yale Rep last Spring. It met with even greater success this Fall in New York, where the play opened at the Cort Theatre on October 11, with the same production staff, including director Lloyd Richards, and a majority of the original Rep cast. Wilson leapt from virtual obscurity as a playwright to the leading ranks with only this one play. Ma Rainey, originally produced at the Eugene O'Neill National Playwrights Conference in 1982, is, in part, an examination of race relationships in America, set in 1927 against the backdrop of one of the legendary blues singer's recording sessions at a "race division" of Paramount Records. The battling egos of the musicians, and the transitory status of the blues itself, become metaphors for rage and injustice.
At our interview, conducted in New Haven in mid-May, 1984, Wilson had just returned from the O'Neill's "Pre-Conference", during which each playwright reads his or her play aloud. August had read his play Mill Hand's Lunch Bucket (retitled Joe Turner's Come and Gone during the summer), and was both exhilarated by the new creation and alerted to the hard revisions ahead. Our focus on this play in the interview is indicative of his excitement. Joe Turner is set in a boardinghouse in Pittsburgh in 1911 and uses a sort of "Grand Hotel" strategy to take in a number of characters who are searching for a racial and spiritual identity. As Wilson explains in the interview, the play has a more mystical and less realistic base than Ma Rainey. The Yale Rep has already optioned Joe Turner for its 1985–86 season. (Wilson is quickly becoming a sort of resident playwright at the Rep. His play Fences, read at the 1983 O'Neill Conference, will be directed by Lloyd Richards at the end of the 1984–85 season.)
August Wilson says he came to playwriting out of arrogance and frustration, certain he could write just as well as other playwrights about the Black experience in America. He didn't use other plays as a primer on how to write, but combined his poetry background with fledgling efforts as a director at a small theater in Pittsburgh, which devoured the plays from the early 70's anthologies of Black drama. His first play written for that theater was called Jitney: it concerned a group of jitney cab drivers, two of whom are involved in a pivotal father/son conflict. The play was an SRO success; a large portion of the black audience going to the theater for the first time refused to leave when told the show was already sold out. The play came back the next year to satisfy the demand. In his second play, Wilson deliberately tried to expand the dramatic world from the rather narrow "slice" of the first play. Although Wilson considers the play a failure, it did lay the groundwork for the expanded fictional realm and overlapping scenes of Ma Rainey.
August Wilson was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and now lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. He is a member of New Dramatists, and an Associate Playwright at the Playwrights Center in Minneapolis. Mr. Wilson is the recipient of Bush, Rockefeller, and McKnight Foundation Fellowships in playwriting. In addition to his summers at the O'Neill National Playwrights Conference (1982, '83, and '84), Mr. Wilson's poetry has been published in various magazines and anthologies.
[Powers:] You've written other plays before Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, but is that the one you wanted to hit the public first? Did you instinctually know it might be a bigger play?
[Wilson:] Oh, no—I wanted to hit the public with all of them. But about Ma Rainey I felt that I was growing as a playwright and moving toward learning more about the craft and how to articulate my ideas dramatically. I had submitted a couple of other plays to the O'Neill, but I'm glad they weren't selected. I'm glad my exposure was with Ma Rainey because I think it is a stronger play than the others I had submitted.
You've mentioned a cycle of history plays you have in the works. What is that?
As it turns out, I've written plays that take place in 1911, 1927, 1941, 1957, and 1971. Somewhere along the way it dawned on me that I was writing one play for each decade. Once I became conscious of that, I realized I was trying to focus on what I felt were the most important issues confronting Black Americans for that decade, so ultimately they could stand as a record of Black experience over the past hundred years presented in the form of dramatic literature. What you end up with is a kind of review, or re-examination, of history. Collectively they can read, certainly not as a total history, but as some historical moments.
Why did you switch from writing poetry to playwriting? Did you need something as "big" as a play?
I would describe my poetry as intensely personal. I needed something as big as a play because my ideas no longer fit in the poems, or they fit in a different way, for myself only. I needed a larger canvas that would include everyone.
Your concern with history hasn't been evidenced by many other American playwrights. Although there is a contemporary tone to your historical plays, what would you write in a 1984 play, a play without a past framework?
I don't know. But if, as you pointed out, my historical plays are contemporary in tone, I think you can write a play set in 1984 that is historical in tone. A play set in 1984 would still have to contain historical elements—as the lives of the people do not exist in a vacuum. The importance of history to me is simply to find out who you are and where you've been. It becomes doubly important if someone else has been writing your history. I think Blacks in America need to reexamine their time spent here to see the choices that were made as a people. I'm not certain the right choices have always been made. That's part of my interest in history—to say "Let's look at this again and see where we've come from and how we've gotten where we are now." I think if you know that, it helps determine how to proceed with the future.
What is your response to some of the Ma Rainey reviews that said you were just repeating incidents and attitudes from the past that people already knew existed?
I would hope that the play as a whole provides a different view—which is what art and literature are about—to present the familiar with a freshness and in a manner never quite seen before. What I tried to do in Ma Rainey, and in all my work, is to reveal the richness of the lives of the people, who show that the largest ideas are contained by their lives, and that there is a nobility to their lives. Blacks in America have so little to make life with compared to whites, yet they do so with a certain zest, a certain energy that is fascinating because they make life out of nothing—yet it is charged and luminous and has all the qualities of anyone else's life. I think a lot of this is hidden by the glancing manner in which White America looks at Blacks, and the way Blacks look at themselves. Which is why I work a lot with stereotypes, with the idea of stripping away layer by layer the surface to reveal what is underneath—the real person, the whole person.
What do you think of the angry young Black playwrights of the early 70's—Ed Bullins, Leroi Jones, Papp's people?
I think it was an absolutely great time, much needed, and I'm sorry to see it dissipated. It was a response to the time, the turbulence of the 60's. I think it goes back to a person like Malcolm X, who began to articulate for the first time what the masses of Black people were saying on the street corners. It was all a part of the people's lives; they had been given a platform, and there was an explosion of Black art and literature comparable to the Harlem Renaissance.
When you write your 60's play, will you write about a real historical figure such as Malcolm X or Martin Luther King, or will you use that as a background for imagined characters?
So much has been written about them that I don't think I would attempt it. Here again, I would try to find the major idea of the decade and examine that. The play I write about the 60's will be about what happened prior to the 60's, its historical antecedents. I think the ideas of the 60's are rooted in the morality of American society of the 50's. I would try to uncover what made the 60's a troubled, turbulent and violent decade not only for Black but for White society as well.
Let's start with your historically earliest play, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, set in 1911. You pervade the storytelling with alien folklore, or mysticism.
I set the play in 1911 to take advantage of some of the African retentions of the characters. The mysticism is a very large part of their world. My idea is that somewhere, sometime in the course of the play, the audience will discover these are African people. They're Black Americans, they speak English, but their world view is African. The mystical elements—the Binder, the ghosts—are a very real part, particularly in the early 20th century, of the Black American experience. There was an attempt to capture the 'African-ness' of the characters.
And yet there are characters, such as Seth and Bertha, who own the boarding house, who seem very 'American.'
Well, they are of African descent though their experiences in America have been different. Seth is a Northern free man. His father was not a slave. His grandfather was not a slave. He was born in the North. So his experiences are totally different from the rest of the characters who have come up from the South, whose parents have been slaves. The fact that he owns the boarding house and that he is a craftsman, that he has a skill other than farming, sets him apart from the other characters. That was also a part of the Black experience.
There is a part of the character of Loomis that is similar to Levee from Ma Rainey—an anger or drive, a sense of something not being accomplished.
I don't know if Levee's angry. For some reason I don't like that word. Levee is trying to wrestle with the process of life the same as all of us. His question is, "How can I live this life in a society that refuses to recognize my worth, that refuses to allow me to contribute to its welfare—how can I live this life and remain a whole and complete person?" I think Loomis and Levee are very similar in some elements of their character, as you pointed out, but Levee has a firmer sense of who he is—where Loomis is more clearly on a search for identity, on a search for a world that contains his image.
How did you get the ideas for the characters of the People Finder and The Binder in Joe Turner?
Well, the first title of the play was the title of a painting by Romare Bearden, Mill Hand's Lunch Bucket. It's of a boarding house in Pittsburgh in the 20's. There is a figure in the painting that my attention was drawn to. The figure of a man sitting at a kitchen table in a posture of defeat or abandonment. And I wondered, "Who is this man and why is he sitting there and what are the circumstances of his life?" That became Herald Loomis. It occurred to me that at the time and particularly after slavery there was a lot of dispersement among Blacks. Families were separated. I had been working on a series of poems called "Restoring the House" in which a man set out in search of his wife who had been sold from Mississippi to a family in Georgia maybe five years before the Emancipation. Of course, when he finds her, all kinds of things have happened in the interim. That idea of people leaving each other, of people being separated—there has to be someone who wants to heal them and bind them together. So that's how the idea of the Binder came about. I gave him the name Bynum, which was my grandfather's name, and which seemed appropriate. The People Finder is almost the same concept, but it's a White application of it. Rutherford Selig is a peddler of pots and pans. He travels about knocking on people's doors, and as a result he's the only one who knows where everybody lives. So if the people were looking for someone, it's only logical they would ask Selig. I don't think he called himself the People Finder—this is something the people of the community called him.
Do you see him as more evil than Bynum?
Oh, no, he's not evil at all. In fact, he's performing a very valuable service for the community. The fact that his father was a "People Finder" who worked for the plantation bosses and caught runaway slaves has no bearing on Selig's character. That was his job. That was something he did and got paid for. His grandfather was a "Bringer" working on a slave ship. Selig doesn't make any apologies for any of this. It's not his fault. It was his grandfather's job. It was hard work. His grandfather got married and had some kids. This contact with Blacks, of being paid for performing some service that involved Blacks, has been going on in his family for a long time. Selig is the guy who opens up a hardware store in a Black community. He's got a long history of involvement.
What about the story of Joe Turner, who took slaves and kept them for seven years?
Joe Turner was a real person. He was the brother of Pete Turner who was the Governor of Tennessee. Joe Turner would press Blacks into peonage. He would send out decoys who would lure Blacks into crap games and then he would swoop down and grab them. He had a chain with forty links to it, and he would take Blacks off to his plantation and work them. The song "Joe Turner" was a song the women sang down around Memphis. "Joe Turner's got my man and gone."
When I became aware of this song somehow it fit into the play. Because the seven years Loomis is with Joe Turner, seven years in which his world is torn asunder and his life is turned upside down, can in fact represent the four hundred years of slavery, of being taken out of Africa and brought to America. At some point someone says, "Okay, you're free." What do you do? Who are you, first of all, and what do you do now that you're free, which is Loomis' question. He says, "I must reconnect and reassemble myself." But when he goes to the place where he lived, his life is no longer there. His wife and daughter aren't there. He is, in effect, a foreigner to the place. So he goes off on a search. He searches for a woman to say goodbye to and to find a world that contains his image, because there's nothing about the world that he finds himself in that speaks to the thing that's beating inside his chest. And in the process of that search he falls into an ancestral drove and is witness to bones rising up out of the ocean, taking on flesh and walking up on the land. This is his connection with the ancestors, the Africans who were lost during the Middle Passage and were thrown overboard. He is privileged to witness this because he needs most to know who he is. It is telling him, "This is who you are. You are these bones. You are the sons and daughters of these people. They are walking around here now and they look like you because you are these very same people. This is who you are." This is what Bynum tries to guide him toward. And the scene where Loomis reveals his vision can be read as a baptism, as a naming. Loomis' recognition of that, his "learning to sing his song", and his acceptance of that is what makes him luminous.
When did you find the end of the play, with Loomis slashing his own chest?
When I wrote it. It's something that just happened. I said to myself, "What was that?" and I looked and examined it. At first it read as a liberation, a severing of the bonds, a blood-letting rite. But I think its larger meaning especially in relation to the Christian context, is that Loomis accepts the responsibility for his own presence in the world, and the responsibility for his own salvation. It says, "I don't need anyone to bleed for me, I can bleed for myself." Because your god should resemble you. When you look in the mirror you should see your god. If you don't, then you have the wrong god.
Were you conscious that Ma Rainey also ended with a knife?
There are knives in the two, but that's the only similarity. In Joe Turner it's accepting the responsibility for your own salvation. In Ma Rainey, it's a transference of aggression from Sturdyvant to Toledo, who throughout the play has been set up as a substitute for the White man. It happens in a kind of blind rage as opposed to something that comes from an inner life. When Loomis slashes himself, he's conscious of all the meanings. He knows he must do it. The thing he's been looking for those four years he finds in that moment.
Are you consciously writing religious symbols in the plays?
I don't try to. I write whatever's there. Whatever comes out of me.
As we've said, one of the aspects of your plays is a sort of looking back at history, or even a contemporary involvement in that history. (For example, in compiling program notes for Ma Rainey, you didn't want primary source documents from the Harlem Renaissance writers of the 20's and 30's, but rather contemporary writing examining that period.) In Joe Turner, the integrations of both worlds seems particularly complete, even forging an unknown sort of "otherworld" through an elevation of language and ideas.
I think you just said it—the ideas are universal ideas. When I started I knew it wasn't like my other plays. I knew I wanted to create the sense of a whole other world. It's a blending together, an overlap. You're looking at the familiar in a new way.
Do you have a total stage picture from the audience's perspective as you write, or do you write from the viewpoint of each character, dropping into each voice as you write?
The characters actually do what they want to do. It's their story. I'm like Bynum in Joe Turner: walking down a road in this strange landscape. What you confront is part of yourself, your willingness to deal with the small imperial truths you have accumulated over your life. That's your baggage. And it can be very terrifying. You're either wrestling with the devil or Jacob's angel, the whole purpose being that when you walk through that landscape you arrive at something larger than you had when you started. And this larger something should be illuminating and as close to the truth as you can understand. I think if you accomplish that, whether the play works or not, you've been true to yourself and in that sense you're successful. So I write from the center, the core, of myself. You've got that landscape and you've got to enter it, walk down that road and whatever happens, happens. And that's the best you're capable of coming to. The characters do it, and in them, I confront myself.
The characters in your plays are each trying to find their songs, or they receive a gift from someone who perceives what their songs might be. In your 50's play, Fences, the father has a beautiful speech that sums up his life, his song. Would you quote that?
"I come in here every Friday. I carry a sack of potatoes and a bucket of lard. You all line up at the door with your hands out. I give you the lint from my pockets. I give you my sweat and blood. I ain't got no tears. I done spent them. We go upstairs to that room at night and I fall down on you and try to blast a hole into forever. I get up Monday morning … find my lunch on the table. I go out. Make my way. Find my strength to carry me through to the next Friday. That's all I got. That's all I got to give. I can't give nothing else."
This section contains 3,537 words
(approx. 12 pages at 300 words per page)