August Wilson | Critical Essay by Sandra G. Shannon

This literature criticism consists of approximately 23 pages of analysis & critique of August Wilson.
This section contains 6,781 words
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Critical Essay by Sandra G. Shannon

SOURCE: "The Good Christian's Come and Gone: The Shifting Role of Christianity in August Wilson Plays," in MELUS, Vol. 16, No. 3, Fall, 1989–1990, pp. 127-42.

In the following essay, Shannon examines Wilson's treatment of Christianity in his plays.

The center of African American playwright August Wilson's growing theatrical universe is conspicuously occupied by African American men. They are the thinkers, the doers, the dreamers. Revolving around them in seemingly expendable supporting roles are wives, mistresses, sisters, children and other relatives. As characters such as Levee (Ma Rainey's Black Bottom), Troy Maxson (Fences), Herald Loomis (Joe Turner's Come and Gone), and Boy Willie (The Piano Lesson), impose their authority, they overshadow the concerns of others. Most noticeable in their blind quest for omnipotence and wealth is that they place no stock in Christian dogma, adapting instead a purely secular ideology. Consequently, what emerges from their abandonment of Christianity is a more convenient, self-serving religion—one totally unaligned with the cultural reservoir provided by what many African Americans have traditionally referred to as "good old-fashioned religion." While this good old-fashioned religion has, for centuries, provided inspiration, strength and moral principles for African Americans, Wilson's men affirm that it has not and will not suit their needs. Therefore, they demonstrate their disavowal by challenging and withdrawing from the religion of their ancestors.

August Wilson has apparently chosen to focus on the African American man's oppression in this country to symbolize the collective struggles of all African Americans. Since the early 1980s, Wilson has committed himself to writing ten plays chronicling the history of his people in each decade of their existence in the United States. Often depicted on the verge of an emotional breakdown, Levee, Herald Loomis, Troy Maxson, and Boy Willie dominate center stage and become Wilson's primary spokesmen. Although the African American woman appears in various supporting roles—devoted wife and mother, cranky blues singer, docile sex object, stubborn sister, etc.—the actions of the African American man clearly convey the themes of each of the four plays Wilson has completed toward his ten-play mission.

What is the place of Christianity in the lives of Wilson's African American men? What has caused them to abandon this previously vital ingredient in their culture? Despite Wilson's frequently quoted belief that "God does not hear the prayers of blacks," his probing treatment of each African American man's personal modification of Christianity begs a far less simplistic analysis. The African American man's shift from devout Christian reverence to outright blasphemy may be partially explained by examining one of many effects of continued racism in America—what Joseph Washington labels as "folk religion" in his study Black Religion. This religion of the folk, per se, was the African American's communal response to economic, social and racial oppression. Noting that their white oppressors often quoted the scriptures to them to justify so-called "ordained" subjugation, many African Americans rationalized that the Bible did not serve their interests. According to folk religion, ethics and morals were determined by adhering to group consensus and by adapting as righteous certain accepted practices within the African American community; the Bible was not the focal point of "folk religion."

From Reconstruction to the Civil Rights Movement, African Americans who were once Christians met discrimination and violence with a bitter mixture of Christian humility and human dignity. According to Washington, who disputes the existence of a so-called "Negro Church," the

common suffering of segregation and discrimination is the crucible out of which the folk religion was created in the past…. The folk religion is not an institutional one. It is a spirit which binds Negroes in a way they are not bound to other Americans because of their different histories. Here and there this folk religion may be identifiable with a given congregation, yet, wherever and whenever the suffering is acute, it transcends all religious and socio-economic barriers which separate Negroes from Negroes.

This communal spirit among mutually oppressed African Americans was a generic response to the too restrictive commandments of the Christian faith. Unfortunately, as is the case with Wilson's African American men, it is also a thin veil between agnosticism and outright atheism.

Among Christians the Old Testament's Book of Job remains one of the most typical lessons in "good" Christian behavior. However, few objective readers can deny that Job appears to be unfairly victimized by a God who tests his faithfulness by initiating one catastrophe after another—each one more crippling than the preceding one. It is not difficult, therefore, to see the parallels in the levels of misfortune between Wilson's characters and the long-suffering Job in this classic work of victimization. Yet Wilson's characters have lost the patience of Job. Worn thin by centuries of disappointments and delays, their patience has fermented into extreme cynicism and destructive behavior. Consequently, they act out those previously repressed desires to respond to their misfortunes, even though they cannot alter them.

Wilson's introduction to the "big-league" among the American theater circuit came with his much hailed production of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (1981). Set in 1927, the play depicts the vulnerable state of African American jazz musicians creating music in a decade when the majority of the country's African American population was pre-occupied with relocating to crowded urban areas during what is now known as the Great Migration. Unfortunately, this mass exodus of African Americans from southern farmland to city dwellings extended into the Depression Era. Not only did African Americans from the South buckle to the poverty and racism that awaited them in northern cities, but those who were already in the North also experienced increasing injustice. For example, while African American performers were often denied access to public facilities, their white fans were welcome in the Jim Crow-separated or exclusively white entertainment halls where blacks crooned, danced or played their jazz before them. Frequently, in the recording industry especially, opportunistic white promoters lined their pockets from ticket and album sales from the music of unsuspecting African American artists. This often proved to be a precarious business arrangement, for such artists had no protection against being surreptitiously discarded at the slightest signs of waning popularity or disfavor with the promoter.

Detained by a freak car accident, Ma Rainey comes late to a recording studio where she is scheduled to sing several of her popular works for an album. Already irritable because of her tardiness, Sturdyvant and Irvin, her white promoters, grumble as she continues to stall by demanding a Coca Cola, by complaining about the chilly studio and by insisting that her stuttering nephew Sylvester be allowed to announce her on the album before she sings.

While Ma Rainey tries the patience of her two promoters, her musicians waiting in the basement band room, all of whom are African American men, bicker and taunt each other in deceptively simple banter. Their conversations, which slip from the correct spelling of "music" to an existentialist discussion of African American history, gradually intensify and unexpectedly erupt in a fatal stabbing. The self-made philosopher Toledo inadvertently steps on the new Florsheim shoes of Levee, the trumpet player, and, apparently for that, he is murdered. Still sulking because of Sturdyvant's recent refusal to pay him fairly for songs which he had composed, the trumpet player turns an otherwise commonplace incident into a justification for homicide.

Contrary to its title, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is not really about Ma Rainey. Even though the play revolves around the life of the one-time blues legend Ma Rainey, Wilson includes her not as a leading lady but rather as a less conspicuous though uninhibited commentator on the callous, white-controlled music industry. Instead, it is the trumpeter, Levee, who ultimately conveys Wilson's more powerful message of the veritable "rape" of black blues performers whose talents were exploited by greedy white promoters.

The most latent and ultimately the most destructive form of victimization is exemplified by Levee, the band's ambitious trumpet player. Instead of directly confronting his nemesis, he transfers his aggression to a colleague. Apparently he has channeled his hostility inward for quite some time—so much so that at the moment of Toledo's death, Levee appears totally out of control. In him one may note shades of Richard Wright's Bigger Thomas or flashes of Amiri Baraka's cynical antiheroes Walker Vessels and Rochester. As the play strongly suggests, Levee kills another African American man in a bloody ritual that provides a temporary catharsis for his hatred of Sturdyvant. Under the guise of retaliation for a temporarily soiled pair of Florsheim shoes, Levee wields a blade into another African American man with a fury that seems to be a gross over-reaction to a misplaced foot.

Although Levee's action may seem impetuous, one may note in dialogue throughout the play reasons for his pre-existing cynicism. He brings with him to the recording session a history of victimization that spans his entire life. For example, as an eight-year-old, he watched his mother as she was raped by white men:

I didn't know what they were doing to her … but I figured whatever it was they may as well do it to me too. My daddy had a knife that he kept around there for hunting and working and whatnot. I knew where he kept it and I went and got it.

Levee is further victimized when his business arrangement with Sturdyvant does not proceed as he had hoped. After agreeing to promote lyrics composed by Levee, Sturdyvant squashes the trumpet player's ambitions to start a band of his own and play his own brand of jazz.

Yet Levee's cynicism is not restricted to the white man. Like other Wilson African American men, Levee has concluded that God is on the side of the white man. Reasoning as such, he simultaneously rails against the white man for a history of abuse and against his now alien God for allowing it to persist. For example, Levee is quick to question the whereabouts of the white man's God as he recalls when the black minister Reverend Gates missed his train to Atlanta one night and was surrounded by a group of jeering whites who stripped him of his cross and Bible and made him dance until they grew tired of watching him.

What I wants to know is … if he's a man of God, then where the hell was God when all of this was going on? Why wasn't God looking out for him? Why didn't God strike down them crackers with some of this lightning you talk about to me?

Further enraging fellow band members Cutter and Toledo with his vituperative blasphemy, Levee comes to the conclusion that August Wilson suggests in each of his four published chronicles of African American life in America:

… he a white man's God. That's why! God ain't never listened to no nigger's prayers. God take a nigger's prayers and throw them in the garbage. God don't pay niggers no mind. In fact … God hate niggers! Hate them with all the fury in his heart. Jesus don't love you, nigger!

Even after Cutler hurls Levee to the floor and bludgeons his face for this sacrilegious attack on his God, Levee presses his point further, but this time armed with a knife:

We gonna find out whose God He is!… Come on and save him [Cutler] like you did my mama!… I heard her when she called you! I heard her when she said, "Lord, have mercy! Jesus, help me!"

No longer convinced that the Christian God is an ally, Levee resorts to annihilating a member of his own race to appease his frustration. Implicit in this homicidal tendency is an enigmatic love-hate relationship with whites. Although Levee must know that it is the whites who pose the greatest obstacle to his career, he uses his African American colleagues as scapegoats in order to vent his frustrations. Consequently, he self-deludes himself into thinking that he is in the white man's favor while his colleagues appear naive. After failing to negotiate a more lucrative deal for his songs with Ma Rainey's capitalistic white business manager, Levee, like many once ambitious, creative young African Americans, becomes disillusioned, self-defeating, and ultimately violent.

The frequency with which Wilson emphasizes the bleak prospects of African American men who do not embrace Christianity suggests that little good comes to those who totally abandon their God, regardless of how they perceive Him. In the wake of his offensive anti-Christian rhetoric—"Jesus hate your black ass!" (Ma Rainey)—Levee seems destined to a dead-end career, and, as Toledo's murderer, he faces certain long-term incarceration. Yet Wilson also suggests the fatalistic outlook that those who do aspire to the Christian faith still encounter overwhelming odds and frequently utter failure or an abrupt death. Thus, the various misfortunes that plague the lives of Wilson's African American men (violent deaths, forced peonage and exile, family strife, or irreparably damaging business deals) are not necessarily divine punitive measures against them. They could simply be the dealings of fate.

Fences is even more indicative of the waning significance of Christianity in the lives of modern African American men. Set in the 1950s, the play is a domestic drama that examines the psychological battles of the secular "blues man" in a Christian oriented African American society. Although the overbearing but essentially frustrated African American garbage collector, Troy Maxson, still grapples with the effects of quitting school early to help his father at farming, of robbing and serving time for murder, and of being passed over in his bid for a baseball career, this cynical black man does not lay his burdens down at the church's altar. As is the case with each of Wilson's men, Christianity plays no role in Troy's search for comfort and direction.

Fences opens as two middle-aged African American men make their way home to celebrate another end of the work week. Troy, the more vocal one, comes in complaining of the blatant discrimination he faces on his job. He is upset that only white men drive the garbage trucks while the job of hoisting the huge trash-filled receptacles and emptying them into the compactors belongs to the African American workers. His frustration, which goes back as far as the 1920s Negro League, an unfulfilled career in major league baseball, and several years spent in jail for murder, affects his relationship with his wife Rose, his son Cory and his brain-damaged brother Gabriel.

Despite a seemingly loving and passionate relationship with his wife, an extra-marital affair with the "big-legged Florida gal" Alberta is Troy's only real joy. From this affair a daughter is born, yet Alberta dies in childbirth leaving Troy with no option but to ask his wife to become a surrogate mother to the child. He also succeeds in alienating his son by standing in the way to his playing professional football, preferring instead that Cory keep his job at the local A&P and get a good education.

Troy's often re-enacted fight against Death personified, which he describes in baseball terminology, finally becomes a reality. He dies one day while batting the rag ball he has tied to a tree in the yard. This final scene takes place at the dawn of the 1960s—a decade which will bring significant changes for African Americans. On the day of Troy's funeral, the Maxson family members tighten their bonds; Rose gently convinces their son Cory to tear down the emotional fences that have long separated him and Troy.

Troy finds his greatest solace in the blues, not Christianity. As a matter of fact, some of his most memorable lines in the play come at moments when he is most vulnerable to self pity: "Rose, I'm standing here with my daughter in my arms. She ain't but a wee bittie little old thing." The blues is more than a pastime for Wilson's characters. It is their universal means of communicating on the one hand and a means of healing emotional wounds on the other. Wilson recently explained this crucial cultural element:

The blues are important primarily because they contain the cultural response of blacks in America to the situation that they find themselves in. Contained in the blues is a philosophical system at work.

[Bill Moyers, A World of Ideas: Conversations with Thoughtful Men and Women about American Life Today and the Ideas Shaping Our Future, 1989.]

For Troy, this philosophical system apparently may not coexist with Christianity, which sanctions neither his marital infidelity nor the extortion of his brother's money.

Unlike Levee and Loomis, Troy does not openly blaspheme against God for his misfortunes, yet his obvious disregard for the saving grace of the church still reflects his less vocal form of atheism. While Christianity does not interest Troy, he adopts the game of baseball as a more relevant metaphor for his life. In addition to this sport, the play features several other substitutes for Troy's spiritual life, all of which prove futile in offering him any sort of lasting consolation.

For Troy, life is a baseball game riddled with fast balls, curve balls, sacrifice flies and sometimes strikeouts, yet too few homeruns. Although the conflict of the ball game lasts for only nine innings, Troy sees himself as being constantly at bat for much of his life. From keeping Death at bay to announcing a "full count" against his defiant son Cory, Troy adopts the language of the only game he knows. The various rules of the game become the basis for his own code of ethics—his Bible, his religion. Understandably, then, as a result of his allegiance to the laws governing a traditionally male-oriented sport stigmatized by raw competition and sauntering egos, Troy lacks candor in handling the more delicate relationships in his life. In one of the most intense moments of the play, Troy struggles to explain to his wife that he has not only been unfaithful to her but has also fathered a child outside of their marriage bed.

I fooled them, Rose. I bunted. When I found you and Cory and a halfway decent job … I was safe. Couldn't nothing touch me. I wasn't gonna strike out no more…. I stood on first base for eighteen years and I thought … well, goddamn it … go on for it!

Thus, baseball jargon and traditional ethics of the game substitute for what might have been a prayer to God to save his marriage. Troy completely alienates both his son and his wife by forcing upon them his very narrow view of life. Consequently, he cannot see past immediate self gratification. He cannot compromise, nor can he ask for forgiveness.

Yet another clue to understanding Troy's secular philosophy is his rather heroic perception of his own mortality. Clearly undaunted by ideas of the life hereafter, Troy grapples with death by placing it comfortably within the context of his convenient baseball metaphor. Death, as Troy boasts, is "a fastball on the outside corner." Seen this way, its hold becomes less ominous when the victim has a role in determining his own fate.

Not only does Troy challenge death's omnipotence by likening its drama to the conflict of baseball, but he also defuses it, first, by personifying it and, second, by engaging it in a wrestling match:

We wrestled for three days and three nights. I can't say where I found the strength from. Every time it seemed like he was gonna get the best of me, I'd reach way down deep inside myself and find the strength to do him one better.

In giving form to the Grim Reaper, Troy is able to further exert his machismo and remain precariously in control of his destiny. As Mei-Ling Ching asserts in "Wrestling Against History," [Theater, Vol. 19, 1988,] "Through his intentional mockery of death, [Troy] cleanses himself of his deepest fear and reaffirms his claim to life."

In addition to the stark contrast he provides to the rowdy, domineering Troy, his brother Gabriel is yet another manifestation of Troy's futile search to fill his spiritual void. After a World War II head injury leaves Gabriel virtually mentally retarded, he is convinced that he is, in fact, Archangel Gabriel, whose task is to open the Pearly Gates in Heaven and to chase away hell hounds. The conversations of this gentle man, therefore, are exclusively devoted to religious images associated with his imagined calling. When certain of Gabriel's irreversible condition, Troy claims the $3,000 compensation awarded him and uses it to purchase a home.

Although Gabriel Maxson bears the name given to him by his parents, Wilson, no doubt, invites parallels to the Archangel of the Old Testament (see St. Luke 1:11 and 1:26; Daniel 8:16 and 9:21). Appearing throughout as a spokesman for God, Archangel Gabriel enjoys a direct line of communication with Him. Thus, by examining the many opposite features of Troy's relationship with Gabriel, one may measure the extent to which he has fallen from grace. Clearly, Gabriel is Troy's alter ego. While Troy is brash and overbearing, Gabriel is gentle and docile. While Troy is consciously manipulative, Gabriel is dishearteningly naive. While Troy is completely alienated from any sense of Christian ethics, Gabriel is consumed by it (albeit as a result of a mental disorder) to the point of self-delusion.

Despite Gabriel's apparent mental retardation, one should not dismiss his significance to the play because of his distorted sense of reality. Despite being the object of patronizing tolerance, community harassment, and Troy's suspicious handling of his finances, Gabriel maintains a self-assuredness uncharacteristic of any of the supposedly sane individuals around him. Moreover, he proves to be the purest representation of those Christian virtues that Troy lacks. Not even the long suffering Rose or her justifiably defiant son Cory emphasize as much as Gabriel how utterly blurred Troy's morals have become.

Wilson does not give much insight into the fraternal relationship between Troy and Gabriel. During the few times when Troy does engage in conversation with him, he does so with obvious indifference:

GABRIEL: Troy … St. Peter got your name in the book. I seen it. It say … Troy Maxson. I say … I know him! He got the same name like what I got. That's my brother!

TROY: How many times you gonna tell me that, Gabe?

Troy's somewhat less than enthusiastic tolerance of Gabriel betrays a very strained fraternal relationship. Although the supposedly guilt-ridden man seems to display admirable compassion for Gabriel (especially while in the company of Rose or his older son Lyons), it is Cory who touches an exposed nerve by acknowledging his father's ulterior motives: "You took Uncle Gabe's money he got from the army to buy this house and then you put him out."

The most lasting effect of Troy's egocentric philosophy comes from his extramarital relationship with Alberta. Even after he admits to the affair and the illegitimate daughter it produces, he displays a persistent self-righteousness in acknowledging his actions. He is just as blatant about upholding his obligations to both the mother and child as he is about explaining to Rose why he cheated on her: "I can sit up in her house and laugh. Do you understand what I'm saying. I can laugh out loud … and it feels good. It reaches all the way down to the bottom of my shoes."

Alberta provides a respite for Troy away from his pressing responsibilities as a family man. With her he does not have to walk the marital tightrope, nor does he feel obliged to give her any more than himself. Obviously content to let Troy come and go as he pleases, Alberta is the antithesis of Rose, who wishes to fence him in. While Gabriel provides Troy with a financial base, Alberta offers him an unconditional physical and emotional relationship. Troy understandably thinks he does not need any divine inspiration when such human substitutes are available.

How, then, does Rose fit into Troy's self-serving scheme? Is she no more than an expendable commodity—a scapegoat for his insensitive antics? Outwardly, Troy is robust in professing his love for her around his friend Bono, yet he allows himself to be consumed by an extra-marital affair. Indeed, to the disinterested observer, Rose could be perceived as merely someone who cooks Troy's food, does his laundry, gives him sex and acts as mediator in the spats between him and his two sons. Although he boasts to his lifelong protegé Bono how much he loves Rose and insinuates a healthy sexual relationship with her, Troy apparently is not satisfied with just her. Consequently, Gabriel, Alberta and Rose appear to be private pawns in Troy's game of life. His relationships with each of them noticeably lack the degree of genuine compassion found in an otherwise morally conscious man. For the most part, Troy's self-conscious tirades, his apologies, his explanations, and his excuses seem to be more rhetorical exercises to bolster his own self-righteousness than attempts to communicate with those whom he loves.

Troy Maxson came to manhood in a poor urban industrialized environment where Christianity somehow did not seem to blend with what many struggling African Americans saw as necessary survival tactics. Although Troy openly laments the many bad decisions he has made in his life, he somehow remains unchanged, unconvinced that there is a better way. Clearly, Troy's opportunism is an extension of his personal code for survival and further indication of his anti-Christian sentiments. Like that of many African American men having to provide for themselves and their families in the Pittsburgh steel mill environment of the 1950s, Troy's religion is a practical religion with the haunting overtones of Social Darwinism—survival of the fittest and self-preservation. This secular perspective on life was the only means of sustaining their very crucial masculine egos in the face of dehumanizing poverty and failed careers. When African American men like Troy did fall into the pits of depression, they did not reach for the Bible. They created their own convenient laws of behavior.

In his play Joe Turner's Come and Gone, Wilson concentrates upon cultural fragmentation; that is, the emotional and physical effects associated with the displacement of newly Americanized African Americans following the Civil War. Herald Loomis, the "prodigal son" of Joe Turner's Come and Gone, is a native son of this unstable environment. Among Wilson's four disillusioned African American men, the restless vagrant Herald Loomis perhaps best epitomizes the devastating alienation that influenced all aspects of the African American man's existence in this country. While just beginning to become accustomed to the bittersweet freedom afforded by the Emancipation Proclamation, Loomis is again enslaved—this time by the legendary white Tennesseean, Joe Turner, who forces him to labor on his plantation for seven years. As Wilson explains in a 1984 interview [with Kim Powers, in Theater],

Joe Turner would press Blacks into peonage. He would send out decoys who would lure Blacks into crap games and then he would sweep 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.

Once released, Loomis returns, disillusioned by the long separation from his wife and daughter.

But when Loomis seeks shelter at a boarding house, he learns that his wife Martha Pentecost has become saved and no longer wishes to be his wife. Left with the custody of his daughter Zonia, Loomis, like Troy, feels especially incomplete now that he is without his wife. Frustrated, disillusioned, heartbroken, Loomis slashes his chest in a ritualistic act of exorcism, declaring "I don't need nobody to bleed for me! I can bleed for myself." Loomis's final gesture is one of frustration rather than reverence. This obviously inverted religious gesture parodies the Judeo-Christian belief that Jesus Christ's crucifixion was the ultimate sacrifice. Although extreme in its example, the blood shed by Loomis undermines the crucifixion of Jesus as a broken agreement. Sensing abandonment and betrayal by his God, Loomis assumes responsibility for his own salvation in one quick stroke of his own knife. Thus, Loomis's self-sacrificing bloodletting offers an unmistakable commentary upon the African American man's frustrations with the inherent "lie" of traditional religion within the framework of this country's society.

Herald Loomis's personal quest to find his wife, Martha Pentecost, becomes more than a desire to locate a lost mate. Indeed, his predicament strongly suggests allegorical parallels to the entire race of African Americans who have been separated from their past. Driven by an obsession to reconnect with his family, Loomis enlists the services of the self-proclaimed "People Finder," Rutherford Selig. In one of several highly emotional displays, the melancholy Loomis notes,

I just wanna see her face so I can get me a starting place in the world. The world got to start somewhere. That's what I been looking for. I been wandering a long time in somebody else's world. When I find my wife that be the making of my own.

Once re-united with the now "saved" Martha, Loomis resists her attempts to convert him, having lost all faith in her God.

In clinical psychologists' terms, Loomis's drastic behavior may be explained away as symptoms of a nervous breakdown. However, such a neat assessment ignores the play's larger message concerning the root causes of the African American man's rage against himself, other African Americans, and—as evidenced by the sustained pattern in Wilson's plays—against God and religion. Joseph T. Washington, author of an extensive re-examination of the role racial segregation has played in shifting theological significance in African Americans and whites alike, notes:

The ethical preoccupation in the religion of the Negro has been accepted by many as merely a one-sided emphasis; with the decrease of social problems and the increase in educated Negro leaders, it is assumed that the slightly askew religion of the Negro will be corrected. Rather than being diagnosed and treated as a symptom of a critical malignancy, the religious expressions of the Negro have been dismissed as understandable nervous disorders. (viii)

Quite noticeable in each of August Wilson's plays is the cynical regard for Christianity as a positive force in the lives of his African American men. In Loomis's case, a dollar bill given to a so-called "People Finder" substitutes for what might have been a fervent prayer for God's assistance. Moreover, displays of religious devotion are met with biting cynicism. For example, during a scene in which the doubting Loomis and the saved Martha finally confront each other, he reveals that Jesus Christ, to him, has become not more than a "Great big old white man":

Your Mr. Jesus Christ. Standing there with a whip in one hand and tote board in another, and them niggers swimming in a sea of cotton. And he counting. He tallying up the cotton.

Loomis's disgust for the Deity as well as religious rituals represents a complete reversal from his earlier pious life as a Deacon in the Abundant Life Church. Once concerned about saving the lost souls of gamblers, he now wants no part of "the white man's God." Consequently, this total abandonment of Christianity may be seen as the cause of his obsessive dependence upon a mortal (his wife Martha) for direction.

The harsh undertones implied by Loomis's blasphemy and bloodletting represent an extreme denunciation of Christian belief by an African American and an extreme act to compensate its loss. Herald Loomis is, no doubt, a tormented African American man, yet, instead of renewing his faith in God, he not only viciously blasphemes Him but also resorts to self-inflicted bloodletting as a measure of his disgust. Loomis's self-flagellation forces one to examine this man and others like him within the entire context of their sufferings—internal and external. They each stagger from the weight of antagonistic forces around them, which seem to favor their being nomads rather than the crucial cohesive element in their families. Indeed, the sardonic tone of Loomis's language as well as his willingness to draw his own blood reflect a kind of exasperation that is relatively new to African American theater.

Wilson's latest published play, The Piano Lesson, gives numerous lessons on the dreams of one African American man. As he does in two other plays featuring bitter confrontation within the black family (Joe Turner's Come and Gone and Fences), Wilson examines the divisive forces which the African American man has to expel in order to achieve the American Dream. This recent addition to Wilson's ten-play mission also prominently features an African American man having to devise and abide by his own code of ethics.

Central to The Piano Lesson's conflict, an old piano simultaneously functions as an emblem of both African folk tradition and American capitalism. The pictorial history carved into its surface by the great grandfather of the currently embattled siblings, Berneice and Boy Willie, appreciates both its monetary and sentimental values. Thus, it becomes just as endearing to Bemeice's memory of her family's past as it is valuable to her brother's future security.

Despite his sister's refusal to sell the family heirloom, Boy Willie maintains that he can reap more practical good from the otherwise useless object by investing his share of the sale in a small plot of land. With impeccable logic, he rationalizes against Berneice's less forcibly argued need to preserve the common link with their family's history. Like the obsessed Walter Lee of Lorraine Hansberry's Raisin in the Sun, who extorts a reward to which he has only partial birthright, Boy Willie wants to use the family heirloom to purchase a piece of the American Dream. Unfortunately, Boy Willie's sincerity distinguishes him only marginally from his character's antecedent—the hot-headed, impetuous Walter Lee—who risks and loses his family's cash reserve in his bid to purchase a liquor store.

In much the same way as Troy Maxson, Boy Willie challenges the family's unity as well as Christian ethics by his desire to advance his station in life. He does not buy into Berneice's more nostalgic regard for the musical instrument, nor is he moved by the Christian rhetoric of his aspiring brother-in-law and minister Avery. Boy Willie confronts Bemeice, her boyfriend Avery, as well as their indifferent Uncle Doaker Charles, with the single-minded intent of actualizing his ambition to own land. If this means forcibly removing the piano from his sister's home, sawing it in half, facing possible bodily harm or risking alienation from his family, Boy Willie is prepared to endure the consequences.

When romantic idealists (such as Berneice) unconditionally embrace their African heritage and Christians (such as the would-be minister Avery) advise humility, the African American man seems to have no better alternative than to formulate a separate consciousness. For Boy Willie, therefore, this resulting eclectic philosophy is necessarily part survivalist, part self-made moralist, and, most noticeably, part agnostic or atheist. Thus, what may seem like over-ambition to some could more aptly be described by others as heeding opportunity's one and only knock.

For Boy Willie, heeding opportunity involves neither naiveté nor passivity. He is fully aware of the moral and cultural forces that oppose his efforts and knows that his success depends upon his ability to exorcise each of them. To do this, he must transcend the heavy emotional bonds that consume his sister. Consequently, he replaces accepted rules of good Christian behavior with roughshod "street smarts." This having been done, the choice between revering symbols of African ancestry and converting them to functional use becomes less of an issue to him.

One such opposing force which Boy Willie must exorcise in order to accomplish his goal is the pesky ghost of the piano's former owner, Robert Sutter. Also apparently obsessed with retrieving the controversial piano, Sutter's ghost makes several appearances in Berneice's home. According to Doaker Charles, who relates the rather dubious legend of Sutter's ghost, the white man's spirit that haunts Berneice's home was once the grandson of their family's original slave master. As a result of a barter to acquire slaves from Sutter's grandfather, another white slave owner offered a piano as collateral. The result of this deal was the transferred ownership of Doaker's father and grandmother. Thus, the piano came to represent not only the memory of Doaker's immediate relatives but also the spirit of each extended family member from Africa to America.

Boy Willie sees the separation of the spiritual from the physical world as imperative to his mission and ultimately convinces Berneice of this. Frustrated with Avery's use of awkward religious incantations to exorcise the ghost, Boy Willie intercedes by simply sprinkling the air with water from a pan on the stove and shouting profanity: "All this old preaching stuff. Hell, just ask him to leave. (He grabs a pot of water off the stove and begins to fling it about the room.) Hey Sutter! Sutter! Get your ass out this house!" Once he succeeds in bringing Sutter's image into view, both he and his sister instinctively collaborate in two final symbolic rituals of liberation: Berneice plays the once shunned piano, and Boy Willie engages Sutter's ghost in "a life and death struggle fraught with perils and faultless terror."

This apparent reconciliation between agents of two distinct ideologies resounds with didactic importance. What Wilson suggests in the play's resolution is a call to fellow blacks to renounce ties with the spiritual world and to cultivate a healthier awareness of the more immediate, more tangible features of their lives. As exemplified in the stubborn spirit of Sutter's ghost which attaches itself to the piano, the African American man's African heritage is, by design, a mixture of nightmare and reverence. Only through sensible adaptations of the more pragmatic virtues of his past can he succeed. Although this preference for the here and now runs counter to Christian ideals of the life hereafter, the world in which Berneice and Boy Willie live demands a reassessment of tradition.

Berneice's boyfriend Avery could very well be considered as Boy Willie's alter ego. He becomes an important part of a dialectical lesson on the advantages and/or disadvantages of being a good Christian as well as a proud African American man. At odds are his more immediately successful survival tactics and the less measurable benefits of Christianity. Exhibiting paradoxically similar ideals, the con artist and the minister go about achieving their goals with equal persistence. While Boy Willie is set on selling the piano to purchase land, Avery is determined to borrow enough from the local white-owned bank to erect his own church. Their common desire to drum up capital to support investments prompts impressive emotional appeals: Both are masters of persuasive rhetoric—Avery, by quoting the scriptures and Boy Willie, by citing street logic.

Avery is a toned-down version of the frequently caricatured Baptist minister. Although not as extreme as similar examples in James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain or Amiri Baraka's The Baptism, he does exemplify familiar tendencies toward passivity. He prefers going through the frequent frustration and delay of proper channels to get what he wants rather than assuming a more direct, assertive approach. From finance to romance, each attempt to improve himself is met with lukewarm reception.

As seen through the eyes of the play's other African American men, Avery is a shyster. They refuse to believe that he was "called" to the ministry, choosing instead to believe that, like them, Avery has found a lucrative scheme to support himself. Boy Willie casually cajoles him at their initial encounter: "How you get to be a preacher, Avery? I might want to be a preacher one day. Have everybody call me Reverend Boy Willie."

With a foreboding resonance, each of Wilson's four published plays addresses the difficulties the African American man has had in accepting Christianity as a moral frame of reference. Levee, Herald Loomis, Troy Maxson and Boy Willie do not stop short of lambasting white society for their misfortunes. They blaspheme against Christianity with ease and run roughshod over any obstacle to their respective ambitions. But they are not above acknowledging themselves as villains. Having conceded this, they choose to pass over Christianity as practiced by fellow African Americans in favor of less restrictive adaptations of their own brand of survival. Consequently, the language and actions associated with their makeshift ideals reflect a new means of compensating for their previously unquestioned belief in God.

Quite unlike the sorely tried though patient Job of the Old Testament, Wilson's African American men have given up on their God. No longer content to "wait on the Lord," they make impetuous, often foolhardy decisions about their lives. They are no longer so easily appeased by spewing profanity and threats at white America or by finding solace in the word of God. Neither are they intimidated by the moral consequences of their infidelity. Where once the sanctity of Christianity may have been reinforced by a heavy hand like that extended by Hansberry's uncompromising Lena Younger: "In my mother's house there is still God" (Raisin, Act I.i), its ethics are being either challenged or totally ignored. Consigned to a life of subjugation, the African American men who dominate Wilson's plays discard Christianity in favor of more flexible, man-made commandments.

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Critical Essay by Sandra G. Shannon from Literature Criticism Series. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.
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