August Wilson | Critical Essay by Hilary DeVries

This literature criticism consists of approximately 9 pages of analysis & critique of August Wilson.
This section contains 2,649 words
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Buy the Critical Essay by Hilary DeVries

Critical Essay by Hilary DeVries

SOURCE: "A Song in Search of Itself," American Theatre, Vol. 3, No. 10, January, 1987, pp. 22-5.

In the following essay, DeVries examines the recurring themes in Wilson's cycle of plays regarding the black experience. She identifies the most pervasive theme as "the need for black Americans to forge anew their identity, an identity that is at once African and American."

In August Wilson's most recent play, The Piano Lesson, the young protagonist Boy Willie declares: "That's all I wanted. To sit down and be at ease with everything. But I wasn't born to that. When I go by on the road and something ain't right, then I got to try and fix it." The speaker is the son of a slave determined to transform his family's racial legacy into a self-determining future; but the words also bear witness to their author's aspirations as one of this country's leading black playwrights.

In the black American theatrical tradition, often distinguished as much by political circumstance as individual accomplishment, August Wilson has emerged as a compelling new voice. Chronicling the history of black Americans through the 20th century, Wilson draws on his background as a poet to enrich his more recently honed talents as a dramatist. His three best-known plays, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Fences and Joe Turner's Come and Gone, evince both their author's fecund use of language and a storyteller's narrative touch.

The plays' cumulative intent, however, is as pedagogic as it is expository. Wilson describes his artistic agenda as an attempt to "concretize" the black American tradition, to demonstrate how that tradition "can sustain a man once he has left his father's house." Indeed, the theme that surges through Wilson's work is the need for black Americans to forge anew their identity, an identity that is at once African and American.

In the seven years he has been writing plays—his first efforts resulted in a handful of seldom if ever produced one-acts—Wilson has undertaken an ambitious, systematic project: each work is to be set in a different decade from 1900 to the present. "I'm taking each decade and looking back at one of the most important questions that blacks confronted in that decade and writing a play about it," says Wilson. "Put them all together and you have a history."

The dramatic chronicle that has resulted thus far is peopled by striking protagonists earmarked by the eras in which they lived: Levee, the impetuous young trumpeter of Ma Rainey, struggles to survive in a white entertainment world during the '20s; Loomis, the forbiddingly Dickensian protagonist of Joe Turner, fights to regain his identity after seven years of forced labor in the early 1900s; Troy, the tyrannical patriarch of Fences, rages at social injustice prefiguring that of the explosive '60s. Collectively they constitute Wilson's overt literary intent: "You should be able to see a progression through the decades from Loomis to Levee to Boy Willie [in The Piano Lesson] to Troy. Says drama critic Ernie Schier, "August is a better chronicler of the black experience in this country than Alex Haley. In 40 years, he will be the playwright we will still be hearing about."

Ironically, Wilson is emerging at a time when few black American playwrights are finding and keeping a national audience, when politically and artistically the country is more attuned to the racial injustices of South Africa than to the dilemmas of its own black population. Nonetheless, after nearly two decades of writing both poetry and drama and four years of almost exclusive collaboration with director Lloyd Richards at the O'Neill Theater Center and Yale Repertory Theatre, Wilson is entering a new and broader arena.

The Piano Lesson received its first staged reading at the O'Neill this past summer. A trio of Wilson's other plays are currently crisscrossing the country. Fences, starring James Earl Jones, is set to open in New York in March after runs last season at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago and (with a different cast) at Seattle Repertory Theatre. The Yale production of Joe Turner has just completed the first of its regional theatre stopovers at Boston's Huntington Theatre Company. And—although Ma Rainey never recouped its investment during its commercial New York run two years ago, despite its critical heralding and a 1984 Tony nomination—Wilson is tilting anew at Broadway. In addition to the upcoming New York run of Fences, Wilson has just completed the book for a new musical about black jazz musician Jelly Roll Morton, which is to star Gregory Hines and open on Broadway in the spring under Jerry Zaks's direction. "I consider this a jazz-blues folk opera," says Wilson, "an encapsulation of the history of black music until 1928."

The undertaking is further evidence of Wilson's commitment to his delineated literary turf—history, that individual and collective process of discovery that, as the author says, "becomes doubly important if someone else has been writing yours for you." His plays maintain a contemporary involvement with the past, and punctuate each era with its own particular totems. By mining black American music, which Wilson sees as one of the few traditionally acceptable venues for black American culture, Wilson is able to reveal the cumulative history informing his protagonists: nearly all his characters are in search of their individual songs of identity. Wilson describes Loomis's meta-physical journey in Joe Turner, for example, as a "song in search of itself."

Its musical allusions aside, Wilson's writing is a poetic melding of African and Western imagery. His use of ethnographically specific folklore borders on the mystical and reinforces the distinctively non-linear narrative style which the playwright ascribes to an "African storytelling mode." While some have been slow to warm to this non-traditional dramatic structure, others have praised it as indigenous to the black oral tradition, a heritage that embraces African as well as Bible Belt oral patterns and serves as Wilson's own palimpsest. "It is writing based on centuries of 'hearing'," says director Claude Purdy, who staged Wilson's Fences at GeVa Theatre in Rochester, N.Y.

Wilson describes his work as an attempt to confront "the glancing manner in which white America looks at blacks and the way blacks look at themselves." By probing the sociological archetype with sufficient metaphor but without conspicuous didactism, Wilson has set himself apart from many of the so-called angry young black playwrights, including Ed Bullins and Amiri Baraka, whose work proliferated during the late '60s. "I can only do what I do because the '60s existed," Wilson reasons. "I am building off that original conflict."

Although he maintains that "the one thing that has best served me as a playwright is my background in poetry," Wilson first came to the theatre out of a search for a broader forum in which to voice his social concerns; initially he thought about a legal career. But after a boyhood spent on the streets of Pittsburgh—Wilson dropped out of school at age 15—the playwright says "my sense of justice [became] very different from what the law says. It just happened that my talent lies with words." Claude Purdy, now director-in-residence at St. Paul's Penumbra Theatre, confirms Wilson's motives: "August came out of the '60s with a responsible attitude, eager to explore his community's culture and do something for his people."

As a co-founder of Pittsburgh's Black Horizons Theatre, Wilson wrote his early one-acts during the height of the black power movement as a way, he says, "to politicize the community and raise consciousness." Today Wilson prefers the label of "cultural nationalist."

"An interviewer once asked me if having written these plays I hadn't exhausted the black experience. I said, 'Wait a minute. You've got 40,000 movies and plays about the white experience, and we don't ask if you've exhausted your experience.' I'll never run out of material. If I finish this cycle, I'll just start over again. You can write forever about the clash between the urban North and the rural South, what happened when [blacks] came to the cities, how their lives changed and how it affected generations to come."

It is an outspoken assertion from this usually reserved 41-year-old Pittsburgh native now residing in St. Paul. Wilson's conversational style only hints at his transplanted Midwest roots. With his soft-spoken affability and almost old-fashioned politeness, he hardly appears the source for the chorus of vibrant voices—by turns soft and genial, angry and defiant—one hears in his plays.

"After I turned 20, I spent the next 10 to 15 years hanging out on streetcorners, following old men around, working odd jobs. There was this place called Pat's Cigar Store in Pittsburgh. It was the same place that Claude McKay mentioned in his book Home to Harlem. When I found out about that, I said. 'This is a part of history,' and I ran down there to where all the old men in the community would congregate."

Although Wilson originally channeled his literary efforts into poetry, his move to Minnesota in the early 1970s served as a catalyst, permitting those colloquial voices and his own skills as a dramatist to come into their own. Initially working as a script writer for the local science museum's children's theatre while firing off "five plays in three years" to the O'Neill, Wilson did not conceive of himself as a playwright until he received the first of several writing grants. After submitting Jitney to Minneapolis's Playwrights' Center, Wilson was awarded a Jerome Foundation fellowship in the late 1970s. (He has subsequently received Bush, Rockefeller, McKnight and Guggenheim fellowships.) "I walked in and there were 16 playwrights," Wilson remembers about that encounter with the Playwrights' Center. "It was the first time I had dinner with other playwrights. It was the first time I began to think of myself as one."

It was this "two hundred bucks a month for a year" that afforded Wilson the opportunity to rework a one-act about a blues recording session into what became the full-length Ma Rainey, his first play accepted by the O'Neill and the most naturalistic of his dramas. Set in a Chicago recording studio in 1927, the play is a garrulous and colloquially accurate look at the exploitation of black musicians. Through Wilson's carefully orchestrated verbal riffs, the characters' struggle for identity slowly escalates to a violent conclusion.

In Ma Rainey, the struggle is predicated not only upon friction between the while recording executives and the black musicians but also upon subtle conflicts within the black community itself. Ma, the recording star, knows the limits of her commercial success, admitting, "It's just like I been a whore"; the elderly pianist, Toledo, is an African nationalist who argues, "We done sold ourselves to the white man in order to be like him"; Levee, the headstrong trumpeter, is intent on making it in the white world, on seeing his name in lights. Unable to confront his white oppressors, Levee fatally lashes out at his own. Wilson describes Levee's condition in a rhetorical question: "How can I live this life in society that refuses to recognize my worth, that refuses to allow me to contribute to its welfare?"

It is a question that Wilson probes again in Fences, written partly as a response to criticism of Ma Rainey's bifurcated focus. "Fences was me sitting down saying, 'Okay, here is a play with a large central character.'" It was also the writer's attempt to create a protagonist who, unlike the impatient and intransigent Levee, had achieved a grudging parity with his times, albeit a smoldering suppression of desire suitable to the political realities of the 1950s. "Unlike Levee, Troy didn't sell his soul to the devil," says Wilson.

A former Negro League ballplayer past his prime by the time Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, Troy Maxson can be considered Wilson's most overtly didactic character. "I had to write a character who is responsible and likes the idea of family," says the playwright. This sense of responsibility—for one's own destiny as well as one's own family—is pivotal for Wilson, not only in its metaphysical ramifications but in its more pragmatic applications as well. "We have been told so many times how irresponsible we are as black males that I try and present positive images of responsibility," says the writer. "I started Fences with the image of a man standing in his yard with a baby in his arms."

It is this sense of individual accountability that Wilson's other protagonists—Loomis in Joe Turner and Boy Willie in the yet-to-be-produced Piano Lesson—confront in more mystical terms. "In Ma Rainey and Fences," Wilson explains, "the two roads into white American society traditionally open to blacks, entertainment and sports, fail the characters." As a result, the leading figures in the subsequent plays do not establish their identities relative to the white world; they rediscover themselves as Africans. "If black folks would recognize themselves as Africans and not be afraid to respond to the world as Africans, then they could make their contribution to the world as Africans," says Wilson.

Set in 1911 in order to get closer to this "African retentiveness," Joe Turner is infused with so much non-Western mysticism and folklore—ghosts, myths, chants and spells—that the narrative can be seen as a spiritual allegory. Based partly on a painting by black artist Romare Bearden, "Mill Hand's Lunch Bucket," as well as the legend of the actual slave hunter Joe Turner, the play is rife with historical detail as well as religious feeling. Loomis's search for his own past after seven years of bondage symbolizes the quest of an entire race. "As a whole, our generation knows very little about our past," explains Wilson. "My generation of parents tried to shield their children from the indignities they'd suffered."

For Loomis, the journey towards self-knowledge includes two apocalyptic moments—baptismal exorcisms that bracket the play's two acts and reverberate with violence. In the first of these cathartic steps, Loomis confronts his vision of "bones walking on top of water," a mythic image of ancestral suffering. In the final scene, Loomis faces both Christianity and African myth, and with a single symbolic act, finds himself purged from his past and a free man. As Loomis states, "I don't need anyone to bleed for me, I can bleed for myself."

It is a moment of individual transmogrification that Wilson examines again, and to even stronger effect, in The Piano Lesson. Although Wilson intends to rewrite this latest entry in his historical cycle next summer, the play's inherent dramatic conflict—a brother and sister argue over their shared legacy, the family piano—and its crisp scenic construction bode well for its arrival on stage. The piano itself is Wilson's clearest, most fully realized symbol, one that resounds with African and Western significance while forming the fulcrum of the play's metaphysical debate. "The real issue is the piano, the legacy. How are you going to use it?" says Wilson.

There are two choices, one taken up by Berneice, who wants to preserve the blood-stained piano as a totem to the family's violence-wracked past. Her brother, Boy Willie, however, is intent on literally capitalizing on the family's history to create a new future; he wants to sell the piano and buy the land which their father originally farmed as a slave. "I ain't gonna be no fool about no sentimental value," Boy Willie says. "With that piano I get the land and I can go down and cash in the crop." As Wilson describes his character's position, "I often wonder what the fabric of American society would be like if blacks had stayed in the South and somehow found a way to [economically] develop and lock into that particular area. That's what Boy Willie is articulating. He wants to put his hands to better use."

Willie's desire encapsulates the playwright's overall intent. "I think it's largely a question of identity. Without knowing your past, you don't know your present—and you certainly can't plot your future," Wilson says. "You go out and discover it for yourself. It's being responsible for your own presence in the world and for your own salvation."

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This section contains 2,649 words
(approx. 9 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Hilary DeVries
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