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Critical Essay by James Robert Saunders
SOURCE: "Essential Ambiguities in the Plays of August Wilson," in The Hollins Critic, Vol. XXXII, No. 5, December, 1995, pp. 1-12.
In the following essay, Saunders overviews Wilson's life and career in order to illuminate the playwright's use of ambiguȯus and often paradoxical characters, details, and themes in his works.
In a 1984 interview, August Wilson intimated that the "importance of history … is simply to find out who you are and where you've been," a task made all the more difficult for African Americans because of our history of enslavement and subsequent years of slow economic advancement. Even as we struggle to find our place in the mainstream culture, we carry the added burden of color. For Wilson, that burden was further exacerbated because as was the case with James Weldon Johnson's troubled protagonist in The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man (1912), Wilson himself was the offspring of an interracial relationship. As had been the case with Johnson's narrator, Wilson suffered the consequences of having a white father who reneged on his parental responsibility. The future playwright grew up in a two-room apartment at the back of a grocery store without the benefit of a telephone, hot water, or even respect enough from teachers to keep him from being expelled when he turned in a superb essay that they thought he had plagiarized.
After a barrage of distressing events, Ex-Coloured Man's nameless narrator finally decided to "pass," desert the black race, and live out his life as a white man. Wilson, on the other hand, immersed himself in African American culture with the aim of reconciling himself with both a turbulent history and the contemporary racial situation. Though he seems to have burst suddenly on the scene with his award-winning play, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (1985), it is useful to trace a fuller development of those years that led up to his fame. From the mid-1970s to the early 1980s, he was busily honing his playwrighting skills, producing, among other things, scripts such as The Homecoming (1976)—about blues singer Blind Lemon Jefferson who died of exposure in Chicago, and Fullerton Street (1980)—about a group of African Americans struggling against the odds in the urban North. Prior to that phase of his literary endeavors, several of his poems appeared in periodicals such as Negro Digest, Black World, and Black Lines. He experimented with literary forms and pursued what he, in the 1984 interview, referred to as the "need" for African Americans to "re-examine their time spent here to see the choices that were made as a people."
In her biography, Mother of the Blues: A Study of Ma Rainey (1981), Sandra R. Lieb says:
Ma Rainey's life symbolizes the confrontation between the black rural South and the changes wrought by industrialization, urban migration, and the development of modern mass communications. She represents a collision between the unchanging aphorisms of folk poetry and the nervous rhythms of modern life.
Bom in 1886, in Columbus, Georgia, Rainey was privy to the work songs, field hollers, and ballads out of which the classic blues tradition grew. By 1900, she had begun her stage career with the Bunch of Blackberries Revue, and for the next two decades she would perform with many black minstrel troupes, including the Florida Cotton Blossoms, Shufflin' Sam from Alabam', and her most famous of these shows, the Rabbit Foot Minstrels. In those early days, her repertoire included songs such as "I Ain't Got Nobody" and "See, See Rider." the latter a song she would become the first singer ever to record.
Though she was not the first blues singer to make a recording, she was part of the "race" record phenomenon of the 1920s that saw blues singers rise to a level of popularity that had heretofore never been achieved. Columbia, Victor, and Paramount were but a few of the companies that rushed to record the great blues singers, oftentimes drawing them up out of the South to record in the Northern studios. One such studio comprises the 1927 Chicago setting for Wilson's play. Rainey arrives late for the recording session only to discover that one of her band members, Levee, has substituted his own more sophisticated version of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" for the version she knows to be closer to its black folk roots. Prior to Rainey's arrival, Levee had persuaded the other band members and the two white promoters to accept his rendition. When Rainey arrives and hears the band practicing Levee's version, she berates them: "What you all say don't count with me. You understand? Ma listens to her heart. Ma listens to the voice inside her. That's what counts with Ma."
Lieb, in comparing Rainey to other blues artists, describes how she "performed in a rougher, more down-home style." The poet Sterling Brown once said, "She would moan, and the audience would moan with her…. Ma really knew these people; she was a person of the folk; she was very simple and direct." It is significant that Paramount was the only company for which Rainey recorded. That company's acoustic methods were crude even by the standards of that time, which explains the difference in quality of product between Rainey's recordings and those of her contemporary, Bessie Smith, whose recordings have a clearer, more pungent sound. One is reminded of the point in Wilson's play where Rainey tells the two promoters that "Levee ain't messing up my song with none of his music shit. Now, if that don't set right with you and Sturdyvant … then I can carry my black bottom on back down South to my tour, 'cause I don't like it up here no ways."
Lieb further observes that the song "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" has a dual meaning: it refers both to a black person's backside and to the quintessential all-black section of a small Southern town. However, Sandra Shannon, in her essay "The Long Wait: August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" (1991), gives a different, albeit intriguing interpretation. By that critic's account, Rainey is telling all those who would exploit her, or distort her music forms, that they can "kiss her ass." She sought out no better sound studio for her recordings because she recognized that the music industry was exploitative. "They don't care nothing about me," she tells Cutler, another member of her band. "As soon as they get my voice down on them recording machines, then it's just like if I'd be some whore and they roll over and put their pants on. Ain't got no use for me then." In essence, Rainey never accepted the recorded music form as a legitimate means of conveying Southern country blues. For her, the process of recording was as much a struggle against cooptation as it was an act of submitting to a necessary communications medium.
And this is the paradox we are left with by the end of the play. However much we are inclined to admire Rainey in her attempt to contend with the rapidly developing music industry, we know that her efforts will fail. By 1929, her recording career was over, supplanted by new musical trends, particularly "swing." Big bands became the craze. And blues singers who survived were able to do so by means of accomplishing the very thing that Rainey had rejected in Levee. Singers and musicians such as Ethel Waters and Louis Armstrong prospered only in proportion to the degree that they were willing to commercialize their art. Perhaps Levee's haunting words ring truer than the music that Rainey was so inclined to protect. "You got to move on down the road from where you sitting," Levee tells Cutler, "and all the time you got to keep an eye out for that devil who's looking to buy up souls. And hope you get lucky and find him!"
In Fences (1987), Troy Maxson claims to have encountered the devil who assumed the guise of an ordinary man offering credit for a furniture purchase. "Now you tell me," Maxson jabs at his audience, "who else that could have been but the devil?" Of course we know that it was no devilish fiend who extended the offer of credit, but a mere mortal doing his earthly job. Rose characterizes her husband's tale-telling habits as she issues the simple retort, "Troy lying." Maxson and his friend, Jim Bono, derive great pleasure from the act of sitting around telling each other tales. In fact, the very first dialogue of the play consists of Bono's exclamation, "Troy, you ought to stop that lying!" In that instance, Maxson had just finished telling the story of a black man who hid a watermelon under his coat because he was too ashamed to let a white man know that he liked eating watermelon. The protagonist in Maxson's story felt bound to deny what he perceived as a negative stereotype.
In telling the tale and criticizing the protagonist's feelings of embarrassment, Maxson shows himself to be someone who has already learned what it took Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (Invisible Man, 1952) twenty years to discover—that within the deep recesses of certain stereotypes lie valuable truths about African American culture. We will recall the exhilaration that Ellison's narrator felt upon acknowledging that chitterlings and hog maws were nothing to be ashamed of so much as they were foods he should embrace on the road to self-knowledge.
As it turns out, the black man in Maxson's watermelon story is a version of a worker at the sanitation department where Maxson himself is employed. Historian Lawrence Levine, in Black Culture and Black Consciousness (1977), writes that during slavery "it did not take much for … common events to become embroidered into more elaborate and fanciful tales." Now a century or more later, Maxson is still employing that slavery-time technique of revealing certain truths through a "fanciful" style. The meekness of the black man in the watermelon story is the reticence of Maxson's black coworker, who is troubled that Maxson would complain about no blacks being allowed to drive the garbage trucks. "Embroidered" though he may be, the watermelon man is, in an important sense, actually real. Similarly, it is not so very difficult to comprehend how the imaginary devil of Maxson's furniture story is indeed a "devil" in the lives of poor blacks who are enslaved to financial indebtedness. Though Maxson is frequently called a liar, we must consider what his tales reveal about African American life.
The most problematic of Maxson's stories is the one concerning his prowess as a baseball player. He is 53 years old as the play opens, set in 1957. 10 years earlier, Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier and begun playing in the modern major leagues. It is ironic that at the point of Robinson's groundbreaking accomplishment, Maxson was too old to partake of the glory in terms of playing in the majors himself. As players followed Robinson's suit, crossing from the Negro Leagues over into the majors, Maxson could only watch those others taking advantage of the opportunity he never had. "Times have changed, Troy," says Bono, appreciative about the historic turn of events. "You just come along too early." Maxson rails back at him, "There ought not never have been no time called too early!" As proud as Bono is of Robinson's accomplishment, therein also lies a tragedy.
The year before Robinson broke into the majors, an extraordinarily gifted baseball player, James "Cool Papa" Bell, was playing out his final year of top Negro League competition. He was 41 years old and still one of the fastest players in the game. But at the point of baseball integration he, like Maxson, was too old to benefit personally. Satchel Paige once said of Bell that in his prime he "was so fast that he could turn off a light switch and jump into bed before the room got dark." That sounds like a Maxson-type exaggeration. Nevertheless it is an appropriate testament to the skills of a baseball phenomenon. In his book Only the Ball Was White (1970), a comprehensive study of the Negro Leagues, Robert Peterson acknowledges that "Bell was probably the fastest runner who ever played baseball." Bell himself claimed to have stolen 175 bases in 1933, which presumably would have made him not only better than Ty Cobb but also better than more modern-day base stealing champions including Lou Brock and Ricky Henderson. But since Bell was not allowed to play in the majors, we will never know how good he was.
What are the psychological effects of such an injustice? At one point, Maxson's son, Cory, informs him that Hank Aaron has hit his 43rd home run. Maxson responds bitterly, "Hank Aaron ain't nobody…. Hell, I can hit forty-three home runs right now!" Keep in mind that Maxson is 53 years old, "over the hill" by baseball standards. It is highly unlikely that he at this age can keep pace with the man who eventually will break Babe Ruth's home run record. But how about Maxson in his prime? Could he have been as good as Hank Aaron if only he had not "come along too early?"
And Maxson holds special venom for Jackie Robinson:
I done seen a hundred niggers play baseball better than Jackie Robinson. Hell, I know some teams Jackie Robinson couldn't even make! What you talking about Jackie Robinson. Jackie Robinson wasn't nobody.
Notwithstanding Maxson's proclivity for storytelling, we are made to consider the possibility that there were 100 Negro League players who were better than Robinson. Negro League rosters that Robinson could not have made? It sounds inconceivable. Yet Peterson cites several players who indeed were not impressed with Robinson's skills. Walter (Buck) Leonard, known during the 1930s and 1940s as the black Lou Gehrig, expressed surprise at the Robinson selection and explained, "We thought we had other ballplayers who were better players than he." The first black man in the modern major leagues had to be a certain type of person. In addition to being athletically gifted, he had to be willing to withstand the inevitable barrage of racial epithets. Representatives from the majors had been searching for decades for just the right man. How many were overlooked in the process? Maxson was perhaps one.
In a 1987 Hudson Review article, theater critic Richard Hornby praised James Earl Jones's Broadway performance:
He still has the physical strength and agility he had twenty years ago in The Great White Hope, and although, like the character he played in Fences, he shows his age, he also convinced you of his underlying athletic ability, which is so important to the role. When Troy insisted that he "can hit forty-three home runs right now!" Jones made you believe it.
As improbable as it might sound that Maxson could hit 43 home runs at the age of 53, it was important for Jones to convince us that Maxson could possibly have done it. Buck Leonard played professionally until he was 48 years old. Baseball historians argue over whether or not Satchel Paige was actually 48 years old when he broke into the majors one year after Robinson. Whatever his age, he was still able to amass a pitching record of 28 victories and 31 defeats. He had been cagey about his age in order to increase his baseball longevity, anticipating that his talents would linger long enough for him to get a shot at playing in the majors.
Such was not to be the case for the man many refer to as the best ever (black or white) to play the game of baseball. Josh Gibson was said to have hit 89 home runs in one season and 75 in another. Babe Ruth's record was 60. However, some of the teams Gibson played against were only semiprofessional. And how does one compare two players who did not even play against the same competition? As was the case with "Cool Papa" Bell, Gibson was also closing out his career the year before Robinson broke the color barrier. Another player who "come along too early," Gibson is said to have died of a broken heart the year after Robinson got the opportunity to do what players like Gibson had been denied their entire athletic careers.
In some ways, Maxson epitomizes Gibson's tragic plight. Both men were powerful hitters, deprived of occupational opportunity. Consequently, Maxson now can only think of life in baseball terms, saying at one point, "You born with two strikes on you before you come to the plate." He equates his own extramarital affair with trying to "steal second." Even death, as far as he is concerned, "ain't nothing but a fastball on the outside comer." By comparison, baseball was so substantially a part of Gibson's life that once his playing days were over, he quite likely lay down and died. Just as we cannot know how good Maxson was in his prime, we will never know how good Josh Gibson was, or hundreds of others who were barred from the majors in the pre-Jackie Robinson era.
Cory of course belongs to a different sports era. Gifted at football, it is at the point where he is being recruited by a North Carolina college that his father demands he quit the football team because "the white man ain't gonna let you get nowhere with that football noway." Maxson is so trapped in the tragedy of his own athletic experience that he cannot believe things will be any different for his son. One is tempted to conclude immediately that Maxson is doing Cory a disservice, depriving him of not only an athletic but also an educational opportunity. Or is he sparing Cory a heartache that is reminiscent of what past black athletes had to endure? In his essay entitled "The Black Athlete on the College Campus" (1969), Harry Edwards characterized the process of college recruiting as the "modern-day equivalent of the slave trade." Specifying low graduation rates and social alienation, Edwards renders a portrait of college athletics that is as fraught with tragedy as Maxson's own pre-integration athletic experience. How can we say the father does not have his son's best interests at heart as he forbids any further participation?
Not altogether different from her husband. Rose wants a fence built to keep out all would-be intruders. This goal, however, is as much destined to failure in Fences as it is in Wilson's next play, Joe Turner's Come and Gone (1988). Wilson elucidates in a 1984 interview:
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.
Actually, Tennessee is not the only state where this sort of atrocity occurred. In Toledo, Ohio, during the 1980s, I met a woman from Mississippi who recounted the tale of how her son was kidnapped and made to pick cotton for a period of several years before he was finally released. She, in fact, had come to Toledo to escape the bad memories. Wilson's play is set in 1911. The woman I met insisted that such things were going on well into the 1950s.
In Wilson's play, Herald Loomis is the victim who has been wrested from his family and made to work on Joe Turner's plantation for seven years. When he is finally freed, he discovers that his world has been, as Wilson says in his interview, "torn asunder and his life is turned upside down." He no longer knows where his wife and daughter are, and thus begins the search. Wilson actually uses the seven-year imprisonment period as a metaphor for the long centuries during which legal slavery existed. The process whereby slaves were transported from Africa resulted in extreme alienation. As the conjure man Bynum (binder) tells Loomis, "You forgot how to sing your song." The song that Loomis has forgotten how to sing is indicative of how he is no longer connected with his wife. The song that African Americans in general have forgotten is a consequence of forced separation from their African roots.
In this play is a rather intriguing character, Rutherford Selig, who is a peddler of pots and pans. Also known as the People Finder, he, by virtue of his occupation, knows how to find everybody. For a fee, he will even find Loomis's wife. He succeeds in this, but the reunion between husband and wife is ambiguous. "Now that I see your face," Loomis says to his long lost wife, "I can say my goodbye and make my own world." Wilson seems to be telling us that 400 years of separation from Africa is too long to hope now for any ultimate reconnection. After seven years, Loomis cannot put the pieces back together to make his life what it once was. Similarly, African Americans will have to reconcile themselves to the task of creating a culture that may or may not resemble what exists on the African continent.
Selig finds people. As he tells Loomis, "We been finders in my family for a long time. Bringers and finders." In using the term "bringers," the peddler alludes to the fact that his great-grandfather "used to bring Nigras across the ocean on ships." Selig's father hunted runaway slaves. And now that slavery is over, Selig himself finds black people who were separated from their relatives during the "peculiar institution." From our perspective, Selig's work is much more palatable than the jobs held by his great-grandfather and father. Yet the youngest Selig is inextricably linked to the family tradition. His skills are grounded in the duties that his ancestors undertook. The fact that he, of all people, is the one who finds Loomis's wife poses a major dilemma, for we are left to wonder if blacks will ever evolve from the shadow of slavery. And if we do, will we ever be able to overcome the influence of whites who have profited from the centuries-long period of black subjugation?
Human bondage continues as an issue in Wilson's next play, The Piano Lesson (1990). Though the setting is 1930s Pittsburgh, the play concerns a piano that, generations earlier, had been the "currency" used to purchase two slaves. The slaves that had been sold were the father and grandmother of the elderly Doaker Charles who now lives with his niece (Berneice) who adamantly refuses to play the piano but just as adamantly refuses to let her brother, Boy Willie, sell it. Boy Willie wants to sell it for money towards the purchase of the same tract of land upon which their ancestors were slaves.
When his wife and child were sold. Doaker's grandfather was ordered to carve their pictures into the newly acquired piano. Doaker explains. "Miss Ophelia got to missing my grandmother … the way she would cook and clean the house and talk to her and what not. And she missed having my daddy around the house to fetch things for her." After the grandfather had finished the carvings. Miss Ophelia "had her piano and her niggers too." But the grandfather did more than just carve the two images that had been required of him. He carved his family's whole history—birthdates, marriages, deaths, the sales of individual family members. This in part is why Berniece cannot bring herself to sell the piano. And the no longer plays it because, as she declares, "I don't want to wake them spirits."
We sympathize with Berniece's position. The piano is an heirloom rife with meaning. Yet Boy Willie is determined to sell it. Michael Morales, in his essay "Ghosts on the Piano" (1994), characterizes Boy Willie as "the consummate materialist." That brother seems not to comprehend the piano's spiritual significance. Berniece accuses him of selling his soul, whereupon the brother retorts, "I ain't talking about selling my soul. I'm talking about trading that piece of wood for some land…. You can always get you another piano." Those do indeed sound like the words of a person who cares only about the "bottom line."
Still, it is important to consider what Richard Hornby had to say in yet another Hudson Review article (1990). There, he addressed the issue of how relatives can respond to crucial phenomena in different, yet equally vital ways. Said Hornby:
The controversy over selling the piano is not just a simple conflict between sentimentality and practicality. The piano is a symbol for Berniece…. On the other hand, for Boy Willie, selling the piano is not just a means of getting some cash. Buying a hundred acres of the old plantation is a way of getting control over the family's terrible past. The land for him functions as the carvings on the piano did for his great-grandfather. Taking something that belonged to the master and making it into his own is a means to power, a way to go on record and be somebody.
In the final analysis, the piano is not sold. But Hornby's comparison of Boy Willie with his great-grandfather still merits some evaluation. What would that great-grandfather have wanted? He might very well have thrilled at the prospect that one of his offspring could own the very land upon which he was a slave. Nevertheless, the great-grandfather did go to great lengths, carving his family's history into the wooden structure. The dilemma is a difficult one, made no less problematic by the passage of time since that original unspeakable deal.
Wilson's latest play, Two Trains Running (1993), also takes place in Pittsburgh, and while this time the year is 1969, the issue remains one of how blacks should best proceed in their struggle for basic human dignity. Memphis is the owner of an inner city restaurant scheduled to be razed as part of an urban renewal plan. He and several others are engaged in conversation about various subjects of concern to the African American community.
When Sterling, just released from prison, announces that there is going to a rally to celebrate Malcolm X's birthday, Memphis declares. "Malcolm X is dead…. Dead men don't have birthdays…. I ain't going to no party for no dead man." It is not that Memphis cannot comprehend the validity of celebrating the birthday of a deceased great man. It is just that he does not feel Malcolm X is deserving of such respect. "That's what half the problem is," Memphis insists, "these black power niggers. They got people confused."
It is Memphis who first invokes the name "Martin." "They killed Martin," he says. "If they did that to him you can imagine what they do to me or you. If they kill the sheep you know what they do to the wolf." This equating of Martin Luther King with "sheep" must be juxtaposed with the long held view of Malcolm X as a person who was determined to achieve a certain victory, even if violence was the necessary means.
Contrast in perspectives becomes further evident as another customer, Holloway, tells his version of what happened to Hambone. The former tells how nine and a half years earlier, the owner of Lutz's Meat Market promised Hambone a ham for painting his fence. Once the fence was painted, however, Lutz was only willing to give Hambone a chicken.
Immediately, Memphis objects:
That ain't how it went. Lutz told him if he painted his fence he'd give him a chicken. Told him if he do a good job he'd give him a ham. He think he did a good job and Lutz didn't. That's where he went wrong—Letting Lutz decide what to pay him for his work: If you leave it like that, quite naturally he gonna say it ain't worth the higher price.
Memphis's explanation is an attempt to ameliorate the injustice. He advances the most brutal techniques of the marketplace as a legitimate basis for one-on-one human interaction. What Memphis has temporarily forgotten is that almost four decades earlier, he was in a situation similar to what Hambone had suffered one decade ago. In 1931, that entrepreneur was summarily chased off his farm in Jackson, Mississippi, because such acts were facilitated by a racist climate. He, like Hambone, knows what it means to be socioeconomically violated. A question, however, concerns who between the two of them has the appropriate response.
In a 1992 interview, Wilson stated rather bluntly, "Hambone shows us that a new black man was created in the 1960's who would not accept a chicken." And indeed for nine and half years, Hambone has stood outside Lutz's market demanding his ham, rejecting Lutz's insistence that he just take a chicken. Ironically, Memphis has the potential to be just as demanding. "One of these days," he says, "I'm going back and get my land." He still has the deed, but will he be moved to action?
Memphis may not know how to get back to Jackson. Yet, he maintains. "I ain't even got to know the way." What he does know is that at the depot, "They got two trains running every day." Lisa Wilde, in her essay "Reclaiming the Past: Narrative and Memory in August Wilson's Two Trains Running" (1990), interprets the phrase "two trains" to be symbolic of a choice incumbent upon blacks to either bypass or retrieve the essential elements of their history. Wilson for his part has chosen retrieval, and in creating these plays, he has left us to ponder the question: Now where do we go from here?
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