August Wilson | Critical Essay by Margaret E. Glover

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of August Wilson.
This section contains 1,030 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Margaret E. Glover

Critical Essay by Margaret E. Glover

SOURCE: "Two Notes on August Wilson: The Songs of A Marked Man," in Theatre, Vol. 19, No. 3, Summer-Fall, 1988, pp. 69-70.

In the essay below, Glover examines the role of blues music in Wilson's plays.

A black man walks into a bar. The words "for whites only" do not hang over the neon sign in the window, but as he enters he senses that the bartender and his patrons wish he were not there. He is thirsty and does not know the city well enough to look for another bar where he would be welcome. He takes a seat at the bar and orders a drink. The bartender serves him; the next song begins to play on the juke box. He recognizes the music as the same music he would hear coming out of a juke box on the other side of town. He begins to breathe more deeply; he stops trying to make himself invisible; he rests his arms firmly on the bar; he moves the beer bottle to the right, his glass to the left and marks out his space at the bar. "If they are playing my music, this is where I belong."

The man is August Wilson. The year is 1987. The voices of his characters come back to him. Ma Rainey in Sturdyvant's Chicago recording studio. "Wanna take my voice and trap it in them fancy boxes with all them buttons and dials … and then too cheap to buy me a coca-cola." Bynum to Jeremy in Seth Holly's boarding house [in Joe Turner's Come and Gone]. "You ought to take your guitar and go down to Seefus … That's where the music at … The people down there making music and enjoying themselves. Some things is worth taking the chance going to jail about." And Wining Boy at one of the stops along his road [in The Piano Lesson].

You look up one day and you hate the whiskey, you hate the women, and you hate the piano. But that's all you got. You can't do nothing else. So all you know is how to play that piano. Now, who am I? Am I me … or am I the piano player? Sometimes it seem like the only thing to do is shoot the piano player 'cause he's the cause of all the trouble I'm having.

This is the dilemma. His music gave the black man a place in the white man's world, but at the cost of losing his right to that music and the part of himself he put in it. Ma Rainey knows that once Sturdyvant and Irvin have gotten what they want from her music, "then it's just like I'd been some whore and they roll over and put their pants on." But the same music she sold to make a name for herself was the blues that "help you get out of bed in the morning. You get up knowing you ain't alone. There's something else in the world … You get up knowing whatever your troubles is you can get a grip on them 'cause the blues done give you an understanding of life." Ma Rainey chooses to believe that the blues from which she took the melodies for her own songs will always be there, just as the blues has always been there waiting for the people to find their own songs in its fullness.

But does that music remain whole and free when strains of it are sold to the white man? Berneice and Boy Willie struggle to resolve a similar question in The Piano Lesson. Berneice argues that to sell the piano for a stake in a new life is to sell one's soul. Boy Willie counters that to guard the piano as a shrine to those who died for it is to bind him to the slavery and homelessness of the past.

The underlying agony is between the personal freedom that the music and its songs provide and the fact that just singing the music for one's self is not enough to live free in the white man's world. It is through music that Levee seeks a way to tell the stories that gnaw at him [in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom], but he is denied the right to tell people how to play it. Where is the law preventing him from leaving his mark on the world by playing his own music? Others have left their mark on him while exercising what they called their "Freedom." For Levee, as for the other marked men in August Wilson's plays, personal freedom is not enough.

In Joe Turner's Come and Gone Bynum tells the story of how he found his Binding Song as a lesson to Loomis. "All you got to do is sing it. Then you'll be free." But Joe Turner took Loomis' song to fill his own emptiness, and Herald Loomis may never get it back. In The Piano Lesson Wining Boy calls his music an albatross. It has become a way for others to name him without knowing him. He looks at the piano and sees something the white man gives him to play on.

Others hear what they want to, but do not really listen to what the words, the rhythms and the melodies of Levee's songs of the city or Wining Boy's and Doaker's songs of the road tell them about the souls of these men.

There is something frightening in this music "that breathes and touches. That connects. That is in itself a way of being, separate and distinct from any other." (August Wilson) It frightens the white man because it is something the characters in August Wilson's plays are not only willing to go to jail for but to fight each other for. It frightens the singers because they know they can neither control nor contain it. To find their songs they must open themselves to be consumed by this music.

Its warmth and redress, its braggadocio and roughly poignant comments, its vision and prayer … instruct and allow them to reconnect, to reassemble and gird up for the next battle to which they could claim both victim and ten thousand slain.

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This section contains 1,030 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Margaret E. Glover
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