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Critical Essay by Yvonne Shafer
SOURCE: "Breaking Barriers: August Wilson," in Staging Difference: Cultural Pluralism in American Theatre and Drama, edited by Marc Maufort, Peter Lang, 1995, pp. 267-85.
In the following essay, Shafer analyzes Wilson's life and his techniques as a playwright, and chronicles the stage productions of his plays.
August Wilson is one of only seven American playwrights to win two Pulitzer Prizes, and one of only three black playwrights to receive the prize. Unlike many black playwrights he has written plays which appeal to both black and white audiences. When Ma Rainey's Black Bottom opened in 1984, Wilson was completely unknown in the theatre. In the following ten years he achieved such success that, as critic Paul Taylor has noted, "Wilson is the only contemporary dramatist, apart from Neil Simon, who is assured a Broadway production and his have been the pioneer black works at many regional theatres" ["Emptying the Contents of His Bag," Independent (London), October 21, 1993]. He has won Bush, McKnight, Rockefeller, and Guggenheim Foundation fellowships in playwriting, and Tony awards and Drama Critics Circle Awards. In 1988 he achieved the distinction of having two plays running on Broadway, Fences and Joe Turner's Come and Gone. His plays have been described as "powerful," "thrilling," and "explosive." Critic Richard Christiansen noted the unusual quality of Wilson's work which has contributed to his popularity, saying, "Wilson's genius for translating common language into poetry through rhythm, repetition and telling imagery reveals a world of myth, religion, and folk spirit" ["'Two Trains' Has Ticket to Amazing Trip," Chicago Tribune, January 26, 1993]. Remarkably, Wilson has been able to explore and communicate the black experience in America in a way which seems particular to blacks and also achieves a universality which has drawn the white audiences needed for a commercial success in the American theatre. He explores small lives in very particular places, but as Taylor commented, "They're small people in a small space but in Two Trains Running they summon up a universe." An analysis of Wilson's background, his approach to playwriting, and the stage history of his plays reveals a unique experience in the American theatre.
Wilson was born Freddy August Kittel in 1945 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His mother's maiden name was Wilson. His background seems an unlikely one to produce either a poet or a playwright who has achieved "widespread acclaim as the most invigorating new voice in our theatre" [Sid Smith, "Playwright: Blacks Should Look Back, Go South," Chicago Tribune, February 23, 1993]. His white father was a German baker named August who "was at best an infrequent and sporadic presence in the household" [Samuel G. Freedman "A Voice from the Streets," New York Times Magazine, March 15, 1987]. Young August's mother (who supported the children by a janitorial job and money from welfare), however, was determined that her children would have a chance to compete in society. As Wilson says, "My mother taught me how to read. She had six kids and taught us all how to read. I learned how to read when I was four. She kept books around the house; it was very important. We had a time that we would all sit down and she would read a few pages and then she would let us go out and play" [quoted in Yvonne Shafer's "An Interview with August Wilson," Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, Fall, 1989].
As a child Wilson suffered the effects of racism in America: when his family tried to move into a mostly white neighborhood, bricks were thrown through the windows and when he went to a largely white high school, white students left ugly, racist notes on his desk. He left one school, tried another, and at the age of fifteen dropped out of school. However, his education did not end: he spent part of his days in the library reading—especially books in the section marked "Negro." He recalls, "Those books were a comfort, Just the idea black people would write books. I wanted my book up there, too. I used to dream about being part of the Harlem Renaissance" (Freedman).
When he wasn't in the library, Wilson was hanging around bars and pool halls—his was the archetypal black American experience. From the streets he learned a rich, vibrant argot which he has transmuted into powerful, striking language in his poems and plays. He began his career by writing poetry for more than twenty years. His poems appear in numerous journals and anthologies including The Poetry of Black America. Unlike many black playwrights, his own experience and his knowledge of the history of blacks in America has not resulted in bitter, vituperative dramas. Particularly in the sixties, some black playwrights were so militant against white culture that they literally drove white audiences out of the theatre. Claude Purdy (director-in-residence at the Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul, Minnesota) knew Wilson in Pittsburgh, and encouraged his playwriting. He has commented, "August came out of the '60s with a responsible attitude, eager to explore his community's culture and do something for his people" [Hilary De Vries, "A Song in Search of Itself," American Theatre, January, 1987]. Wilson's plays both inform audiences about the cruelties of the past and indicate the possibilities in the future for blacks in America. He is keenly committed to the idea of demonstrating to white audiences the reality of African culture.
Wilson turned to playwriting during the black power movement in the United States. He began writing one-act plays to raise the consciousness of his community. He was cofounder of the Black Horizons Theater Company in Pittsburgh. In 1978 he was invited by Claude Purdy to join him in the Penumbra Theatre. In this period Wilson produced some plays at Penumbra and became a member of the Playwrights Center of Minneapolis. He began to receive grants which enabled him to focus entirely on writing plays. Although he has been closely related to the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center's National Playwrights Conference in recent years, at first he had little success there. He submitted five plays which were all rejected. However, he persevered and in 1982 his play Ma Rainey's Black Bottom was accepted. He traveled to Connecticut from his home in St. Paul and his work with director Lloyd Richards began.
Wilson is writing a play for each of the decades of this century depicting the black experience throughout the years. So far he has written five plays which are a representation and summation of a particular decade. When asked if he would start over, once he had finished, he responded, "Then I'll start over, sure. There's more than one story to tell" [quoted in Shafer interview]. In fact, Wilson takes umbrage at the suggestion that he could use up his material:
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 you if you've exhausted your experience." I'll never run out of material. 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, [quoted in DeVries]
Part of the recent controversy which revolves around Wilson's work is the charge by Robert Brustein, artistic head of the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that Wilson is limiting his development by writing about the black experience. He further stated that he had been fatigued by "Wilson's essays on racism" ["The Lesson of 'The Piano Lesson'." New Republic, May 21, 1990]. Asked to expand his remarks for The New York Times, Brustein wrote, "I feel he's explored that [the black experience] in four plays. I want to see another theme. And therefore something like that can become self-limiting" (quoted in Mervyn Rothstein, "Passionate Beliefs Renew Theater Fight over Art and Profit," New York Times, May 15, 1990]. Wilson responded to Brustein's remarks by indicating once again his amazement that someone could feel the black experience was exhausted after a few plays, and concluded, "Has anyone ever told a white playwright to write about blacks? There's no idea that cannot be contained in black life. It's full and it's flourishing. How can that be limiting? Was it limiting to Chekhov to write about his people?" [quoted in Rothstein]
The plays Wilson has written about his people include Joe Turner's Come and Gone, set in 1911, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, set in 1927, The Piano Lesson, set in 1936, Fences, set in 1957, and Two Trains Running set in 1969. As he has said, "I've got a very large story—the four hundred year biography of the black experience in America" [quoted in Janice Arkatov, "August Wilson: His Way," Los Angeles Times, June 7, 1987].
Wilson's plays were first performed in staged readings at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center's National Playwrights Conference. Wilson worked closely with Lloyd Richards, then Dean of the Yale School of Drama and Artistic Director of the Playwrights Conference. (Richards came to prominence as director of the first Pulitzer Prize winning play by a black playwright, A Raisin in the Sun.) Wilson's fruitful relationship with Richards has continued to the present. Wilson says that they have developed a way of working together which calls for very little dialogue because Richards has an intuitive understanding of the overall arc of his work and what he is trying to accomplish.
Wilson slowly moved from his work as a poet to the profession of playwriting. Although he had read many plays, the did not see a professional play until he was thirty-one. Being a poet is still important in his writing. He has commented on this aspect of his work, saying in one interview, "I think the idea of metaphor comes into the plays because I'm a poet. Writing a poem you have a very small space to work in, you compress a lot of ideas in a small space, and it is the process of thinking that allows you to do that…. Now the play is a big space, but you still think the same way" [quoted in Shafer].
Turning from Wilson's background and his approach to playwriting to an analysis of his plays, one is struck by the themes and archetypal elements which have made them engrossing both to blacks and whites in the audience. The question of self-identity seems to be the major force in his plays. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom centers on black musicians who are exploited by white managers and record producers. Cutler and Sturdyvant represent white society, responsible in the blacks' view for their unhappy lives, yet the final arbiters of their actions. In a dispute over the arrangement of the music the blacks cease to argue only when the white man says what he wants. The piano player, Toledo, chides the others, saying, "As long as the colored man looks to white folks to put the crown on what he says … as long as he looks to white folks for approval … then he ain't never gonna find who he is and what he's about."
The title of the play is a type of pun: the Black Bottom was a dance popularized by Ma Rainey's song, but, of course. Ma Rainey also has a black bottom and she and the other blacks are at the bottom of society because of their color. The play explores their position through a simple story line: the black musicians and the white managers are waiting for the famous singer, Ma Rainey. When she finally arrives she initially refuses to make the records, then finally agrees. She makes it clear throughout the play that she feels used by the white men who run the business. Saying that they care nothing about her, she concludes, "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."
A young black trumpeter, Levee, is attracted to Ma Rainey's sexy young gal, but is warned by the other musicians to keep away from her or Ma Rainey will be jealous. Throughout the play tensions are high because of the frustration the black performers feel: their aspirations are meaningless given the impotence inherent in their positions. At the end of the play, as Ma leaves with her gal after firing Levee, the frustrations turns to rage—the senseless rage of black against black. Toledo accidentally steps on Levee's new shoe and this minor act sets off an explosion of emotion in Levee:
(All the weight in the world suddenly falls on Levee and he runs at Toledo with his knife in his hand.)
LEVEE: Nigger, you stepped on my shoe!
(He plunges the knife into Toledo's back up to the hilt. Toledo lets out a sound of surprise and agony. Cutler and Slow Drag freeze.)
He … stepped on my shoe. He did. Honest Mr. Cutler, he stepped on my shoe. What he do that for? Toledo, what you do that for? Cutler, help me.
He stepped on my shoe, Cutler.
In the published play the white man is taking charge and from the blacks the only sound is heard from Levee's trumpet: "a muted trumpet struggling for the highest of possibilities and blowing pain and warning." However, in the excellent 1994 production at the Denver Center Theatre Company only the blacks were onstage. This undercuts the point of the white men controlling the lives of the blacks, but the ending was still dramatically effective. At the end of the play, the largely white audience rose to its feet and shouted approval.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom reflects Wilson's belief in the value of the blues to American blacks and the inability of whites to comprehend either the blues or black people. (Wilson has pointed out the irony that on most recordings the notes about the music are written by white men.) The blues become a metaphor for the differences between the two races. For Wilson music, the blues in particular, are a part of the black legacy and an important element of life. He frequently states that the blues are an integral part of black people's lives, so in all of his plays he uses music both for theatrical effect and as a true element of African-American culture. Critics often note, too, the "jazz rhythms" in Wilson dialogue.
The critics greeted Ma Rainey's Black Bottom with outstanding notices. Jack Kroll spoke of the "rich and resonant work," in "this extraordinary Broadway debut by a new playwright, August Wilson" ["So Black and Blue," Newsweek, October 22, 1984]. Frank Rich wrote in The New York Times, "Mr. Wilson articulates a legacy of unspeakable agony and rage in a spellbinding voice…. He makes [the characters'] suffering into art that forces us to understand and won't allow us to forget" ["Wilson's 'Ma Rainey's Opens," October 12, 1984]. Critics praised the direction by Lloyd Richards and the ensemble acting in general. For actor Charles S. Dutton, a recent graduate from the Yale School of Drama, critics used the terms "red hot," "magnificent," and "astonishing." All aspects of the production received praise from the critics. The Downbeat critic summed things up by saying,
Simply put, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom works. The language is rich, the emotions ring true and the direction by Lloyd Richards is right on target. Black playwright August Wilson is being hailed by critics everywhere as a major new voice in the theatre. It is rare that a black drama makes it to Broadway. One only hopes that Ma Rainey's Black Bottom stays around for a long time to come. ["'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' Is a Winner on Broadway," March, 1985]
In contrast to many works by black playwrights which could not draw enough whites into the theatre to sustain a long run on Broadway, Wilson's play "stayed around" for a run of ten months and won the New York Drama Critics Circle Prize.
In his next play, Fences, Wilson is dealing with the polarities of loving and dying. In Beyond the Pleasure Principal Freud noted Eros and the death wish as the elementary powers whose counterpoint governs all the puzzles of life. Wilson establishes these two forces as governing factors in the life of the protagonist. Fences deals with the failed dreams of Troy Maxon, a black ball player who played in the minority black leagues, but was barred from the major (all white) leagues because of his race. Set in the 1950s, Fences presents conflicts familiar to blacks in the audience—indeed, one critic wrote that he was moved to tears because he seemed to see his own life on stage [Brent Staples, "'Fences': No Barrier to Emotion," New York Times, April 5, 1987].
The central metaphor in the play is that of fences: fences between the races, fences to keep people out, fences to keep people in, futile attempts at fencing in life. Troy Maxon was fenced in when he was in prison. He is literally building a fence around his house to please his wife, Rose, although he sees no use for it. Unable to fence in Troy's love, Rose is crushed when he informs her that he has another woman who is expecting a child. When the woman dies in childbirth, Troy challenges Mr. Death, and says he will fence in the yard so he can't sneak up on him again. In the following scene he enters the yard carrying the child which he asks Rose to take care of. She agrees, but tells him that he is now "womanless."
Juxtaposed with the threat of death is the attempt to find life and some meaning in life through sex. Troy's life has been blighted, and in a speech he describes an existence familiar to both blacks and whites:
I come in here every Friday. I carry a sack of potatoes and a bucket of lard. You all line up at the door with your hands out. I give you the lint from my pockets. I give you my sweat and my blood. I ain't got no tears. I done spent them. We go upstairs to that room at night and I fall down on you and try to blast a hole into forever. I get up Monday morning … find my lunch on the table. I go out. Make my way. Find my strength to carry me through to the next Friday. That's all I got to give. I can't give nothing else.
Another major motif which is familiar to blacks and whites is the difficult relationship between fathers and sons. Although Troy criticizes his own father, he gives him credit for raising him and feeding him. When Troy criticizes his grown son by a previous marriage, the son responds, "If you wanted to change me, you should have been there when I was growing up." With Cory, his son by Rose, Troy is hard and demanding, and in a strong scene between the two, grills him about his housing, his food, and his clothing, concluding, "I done give you everything I had to give you, I gave you your life…. And liking your black ass wasn't part of the bargain." Early in the play he tells Cory that he is in the batter's box and has one strike. Finally, Troy says Cory has struck out, and following an intense confrontation Troy ejects his son from his home.
In the final scene of the play Cory returns for Troy's funeral. The play ends with a climactic event as Troy's deranged brother Gabriel initially fails in his attempt to blow his horn so Troy can get into heaven, then does a "slow, strange dance, eerie and life-giving. A dance of atavistic signature and ritual." As he finishes his dance the stage is diffused with light as "the gates of heaven stand open as wide as God's closet." Gabriel has succeeded in playing Troy into heaven and states with satisfaction, "That's the way that go!"
Fences has been Wilson's most successful play to date. It broke the record for non-musical plays by grossing $11 million during the first year in New York. First presented at the Yale Repertory Theater (a pattern for Wilson's first five plays), the play subsequently moved to Broadway in 1987 where it was hailed by the critics as an outstanding play. Howard Kissel wrote, "Wilson is one of the few American playwrights you can call a poet. His characters are simple but deeply felt, and his language ennobles their troubling live" ["One Man's Failure Is Another Man's Smash," Daily-News (New York), March 27, 1987]. William A Henry III said, "Wilson's greatest gift is his ability to make sense of anger: he writes naturalistic scenes of genial humor turning into an explosive violence that flows from his characters and from the warping effect racism has had upon them" ["Righteous in His Own Backyard," Time, April 6, 1987]. In his review entitled "Fiery Fences," Clive Barnes stated, "It is the strongest, most passionate American dramatic writing since Tennessee Williams" [New York Post, March 27, 1987]. Several critics commented on Wilson's ability to depict the black American experience but extend the field of interest beyond that specific area. Edwin Wilson remarked, "Another impressive quality of Mr. Wilson's play is that it is not a polemical piece. Because the play is set in the late '50s, just before the civil-rights movement exploded, racial discrimination is very much a part of the fabric of the play, affecting the situation of every character. As important as it is, however, that is not the main focus. Rather it is the universal quality of the people ["Theater: Wilson's 'Fences' on Broadway," Wall Street Journal, March 31, 1987].
Fences won both the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. It also won four Tony awards including best play, best direction of a play (Lloyd Richards), best performance by an actor in a play (James Earl Jones), and best performance by a featured actress in a play (Mary Alice). The play has enjoyed enormous success in regional theatres as well.
Following Fences came Joe Turner's Come and Gone in which the question of identity is central. Into a boarding house in Pittsburgh comes a strange lost man with a child seeking his wife. Almost everyone in the play is seeking someone, and they appeal for assistance to two wondrously mythic types—similar in many ways to the Rat Wife in Ibsen's Little Eyolf—the People Finder and the Binder of What Clings. The white man, Selig, is in a line of People Finders, but in contrast to his father who found runaway slaves for the plantation bosses, he is a beneficent figure who finds black people separated after the end of slavery and reunites families. Bynum is in a line of African conjure men and works spells. He, however, is in search of his own song; in a vision his father revealed to him that if he could find a "shiny man"—a man who is One Who Goes Before and Shows the Way—"I would know that my song had been accepted and worked its full power in the world and I could lay down and die a happy man." In the course of the play it is revealed that the stranger, Loomis, was entrapped into seven years of indentured servitude by the notorious Joe Turner (an actual historical figure) and thereby lost not only his wife, but his whole sense of the world and his place in it.
In an electrifying climax to the first act Loomis speaks like a crazy man of a vision of bones which rose out of water and walked on top of it, speaks in tongues, dances, and ultimately collapses, unable to stand up, skittering wildly across the floor. The play as a whole concludes with a number of people finding themselves or being found. The People Finder returns with Loomis' missing wife and Loomis turns their daughter over to her. Still lost, Loomis laments the past and the attempts people have made to bind him, "Well, Joe Turner's come and gone and Herald Loomis ain't for no binding. I ain't gonna let nobody bind me up!" The play rises to a climax as his wife prays and tells him he must be washed with the blood of Jesus, "You got to be something, Herald. You can't just be alive. Life don't mean nothing unless it got a meaning." But Loomis suddenly finds himself and responds, "I don't need nobody to bleed for me! I can bleed for myself…. You want blood? Blood make you clean? You clean with blood? (Loomis slashes himself across his chest.) I'm standing! I'm standing. My legs stood up! I'm standing now!" Having found his song, the song of self-sufficiency, and accepting the responsibility for his own presence in the world, Loomis is free. And Bynum, the Binder, has found his song because he has found his shiny man. He cries, "Herald Loomis, you shining! You shining like new money!"
The critics received the play enthusiastically. Noting that Wilson had two plays running on Broadway, "an unprecedented feat for a black playwright," Jack Kroll stated, "'Joe Turner' is Wilson's best play to date and a profoundly American one. Like all of his plays it resonates far beyond its explicit details" ["August Wilson's Come to Stay," Newsweek, April 11, 1988]. This was noted by several other critics including David Patrick Stearns who wrote, "There are flashes of profundity—Loomis is universal enough that he could be a Vietnam vet or anyone else who has suffered dehumanization. Indeed, the rooming house is in many ways a metaphor for the splintering of modern society. Characters reel about like pinballs, bouncing off their own self-perpetuating neuroses" ["'Turner' Comes to a Near Halt," USA Today, March 29, 1988]. Ron Cohen praised the play saying, "Playwright August Wilson is at the crest of his power in Joe Turner's Come and Gone at the Ethel Barrymore Theater…. The interaction of his people builds to a stunning climax that resonates with the power to overcome. Joe Turner is as evocative as Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning Fences and more original in scope."
The power of the climax was noted by a number of other critics including Douglas Watt who praised the play and the performance: "The cast of 11 is exceptionally directed by Lloyd Richards right up to the orgiastic climax, as striking a moment of theater as our stage has to offer" ["Second Thoughts on First Nights," Daily News (New York), April 8, 1988]. Describing the impact of the climax, Jack Kroll offers insight into Wilson's process of playwriting:
When he was writing the climactic scene in Joe Turner, in which Loomis slashes himself across the chest [Wilson says], "I had no idea where it was going. When Loomis cut himself it was a surprise to me. I looked down at the page and said, "Where did that come from?" I was drained. I was limp. But I felt good. I knew I had something." ["August Wilson's Come to Stay"]
Wilson's next play, The Piano Lesson, was first performed at Yale and then in a number of other regional theatres before opening on Broadway in April 1990. The setting is again a boarding house in Pittsburgh. A group of blacks who live there are displaced from their roots and their acquaintances in Mississippi. Doaker and his niece Berniece are surprised by the unexpected arrival of Berniece's brother, the high-spirited Boy Willie, and his friend Lymon who have driven from Mississippi with a load of watermelons. Boy Willie hopes to make a large amount of money from selling the watermelons so he will have part of the money he needs to buy a farm. He also hopes to persuade his sister Berniece to sell the family piano so that he can get the rest of the money he needs. The play becomes a struggle over the family inheritance, an elaborately decorated piano with pictures of family members carved on the legs. As critic Michael Billington noted in his review of the London production, "a bitter family dispute becomes a powerful social metaphor … in a play about the need to acknowledge the past without being in thrall to it" ["Family Discord," Guardian (London), October 9, 1993].
A history of tragedy is connected with the piano and each of the characters relates to it in a different way. The great-grandfather of Berniece and Boy Willie carved the piano for a white man. Later he was murdered and burned in a railroad car on the Yellow Dog Line by several white men. Each of these men has subsequently died mysteriously. Berniece claims that she has seen the latest, Sutter, standing upstairs in a blue suit. Boy Willie is alarmed, but claims she has made the story up as a means of getting him out of the house.
The play examines both the significance of death and the struggle in which blacks from Mississippi attempt to acclimatize themselves in the North. There is a powerful mood of the past which keeps a hold on the characters, and the voices of the dead are likened to the wind. It is not clear if the playwright intends the audience to accept the actuality of a struggle with a ghost or whether the implication is that the struggle is against the past history of the blacks in America. The present generation cannot disassociate itself from the past struggle against "the man." Even in Pittsburgh, the "ghost" of "the man" pursues Boy Willie. But in the final moments he and Berniece achieve a closeness which seemed impossible early in the play and the mystical ending gives the audience a sense of elevation and hope.
Several critics noted the increased ambiguity and complexity of this play by Wilson. Mimi Kramer noted,
The central object in this play—the piano, a beautifully carved upright, decorated with faces and scenes—means something different to everyone. To Boy Willie, who wants to use money from the sale of the piano to buy the land his family worked as slaves and sharecroppers, the piano means the future and his spiritual emancipation. To his widowed sister Berniece whose father died stealing it from the man who owned it, the piano means a heritage of grief and bitterness and women without men. ["The Theatre," New Yorker, April 30, 1990]
Some American critics and several British critics objected to the supernatural element in the play and to its length. However, Michael Billington commented that because of the inherent vital theatricality, "I can easily forgive Wilson's wordiness and the play's final descent into the supernatural in which the ghost of the slave-owning Sutter is noisily exorcised." Critics in general noted the preeminent position Wilson had reached with this play. The critic for Time Magazine wrote, "In just over five years, since his first professionally produced play. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, reached Broadway, Wilson has established himself as the richest theatrical voice to emerge in the U.S. since the post-World War II flowering of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. Just as significant, he has transcended the categorization of 'black' playwright to demonstrate that his stories, although consistently about black families and communities, speak to the entire U.S. culture" ["Two-Timer," April 23, 1990].
Critics also noted the powerful use of music throughout the play. Frank Rich concluded his rave review by saying, "That haunting music belongs to the people who have lived it, and it has once again found miraculous voice in a play that August Wilson has given to the American stage" ["A Family's Past in Wilson's 'Piano Lesson,'" New York Times, April 17, 1990].
It was no surprise that Wilson's The Piano Lesson garnered the major prizes for the year. First, the Pulitzer Prize, then the Drama Critics Circle Award. At this stage in his career critics began to ask, "How long can he keep it up?" Wilson responded with a new play which opened in New Haven while The Piano Lesson was running. Concluding his praise for The Piano Lesson, Time Magazine critic commented on the newest play by Wilson, "The episodic structure and co-medic tone differ radically from The Piano Lesson and Fences. The main thing the newest play has in common with them is that it, too, is terrific" ("Two-Timer").
With his play Two Trains Running, Wilson explored the decade of the '60s. The play opened at Yale, then toured for two years to regional theatres, then in April 1992, opened on Broadway. Although some critics felt the critical political and social events of the period were too removed from the play, in fact, they are constantly in the air and from the underpinning of a period of great change, some of it good, some of it bad for the blacks. The play is set in Memphis' small diner in a section of Pittsburgh which has disintegrated and is scheduled for demolition. The decay of the inner cities is reflected in the conversation about the black businesses which have closed and the absence of opportunity for the blacks. Another change is in the world view of blacks. Holloway the 65 year-old neighborhood philosopher says he has lasted this long because he stayed out of other people's business. His allegiance is to Aunt Ester, a seer who claims to be 322 years old. The waitress Risa believed in the Prophet Samuel who is lying in state in West's funeral parlor across the street. In contrast, Sterling, the wild young man just out of the penitentiary and looking for some chance in life, hands out posters about a rally in memory of Malcom X. Risa will have no part of it because there might be a riot. In the event, she is wooed by Sterling and does go to the rally. The characters discuss it the next day and bring out the daily events of the '60s:
Wolf: I saw you all down at the rally last night. Wasn't that something? Everybody was down there Even the niggers that swear up and down on two sacks of Bibles that they ain't black … they was down there. Ain't but five hundred chairs and three thousand people. Wasn't no fight or nothing. It was real nice.
Sterling: The police was down there taking people's pictures.
Wolf: I seen that. Wasn't that something? They don't go out there where the white folks at and take their pictures…. It's hard to live in America.
Wolf is content to run the numbers which he feels is a legitimate operation offering the blacks hope. But Memphis has been run off his farm in the South by a white man named Stovall and is determined to take pragmatic action to better his life. He hires a white lawyer who knows the white man's rules, and demands a fair price from the city before they tear down his building. He refuses to display a poster for the rally, saying:
I don't want this up in my place. I ain't putting no sanction on nothing like that. That's what the problem is now. All them niggers wanna do is have a rally. Soon as they finish with one rally they start planning for the next. They forget about what goes in between. You rally to spur you into action. When it comes time for action these niggers sit down and scratch their heads. They had that boy Begaboo. The police walked up and shot him in the head and them same niggers went down there to see the mayor. Raised all kind of hell. Trying to get the cop charged with murder. They raised hell for three weeks. After that it was business as usual. That's the Sterling boy bringing that stuff in here. Something wrong with that boy. That boy ain't right. (To Risa:) If I was you I'd stay away from him. He ain't gonna do nothing but end up right back down there in the penitentiary.
In fact, Risa intends to stay away from Sterling and from all men. Through her character, Wilson subtly introduces another element of change in the '60s, the attitude of black women about themselves. Risa, a beautiful woman, has deliberately scarred her legs so that men will not consider her as a sex object, but will look deeper into her character.
Although several critics felt the social matter of the period was too much in the background, Frank Rich said the play "makes its own chilling point" and quoted Sterling's line relating to the pointless destruction in cities like Detroit and Watts, "You take something apart, you should know how to put it back together" ["August Wilson Reaches the '60s," New York Times, April 14, 1992]. Some critics commented that there was no central struggle in the diffuse, three-hour-long play which, as Edwin Wilson wrote could "give the play focus and move the plot forward" ["Two Trains Running," Wail Street Journal, April 20, 1992]. These critics were correct insofar as the structure involves the interweaving of all the characters, each of whom relates to the past and present in different ways, and each of whom tells a story. For example, Hambone is a man cheated out of a ham nine years earlier and whose mental state has deteriorated so much that he can only say, "He gonna give me my ham. I want my ham." Sterling tries to help him by teaching him to say "Black is beautiful" and "Malcolm lives." As Davin Ansen summed up the play,
As thematically rich as it is dramatically discursive, Two [Trains] Running isn't organized around any single dramatic event. It unfolds as a succession of street-wise arias, and the monologues, in Lloyd Richards's impressively acted production, often rise to musical eloquence. Wilson leaves it to the audience to pull together his interlocking themes of economics, self-esteem and spirituality. What we witness is not a play about the '60s, but a form of oral history, in which we're invited to eavesdrop on the timeless continuum of the African-American experience. These are the stories behind the political slogans, Wilson implies: listen and learn. ["Of Prophets and Profits," Newsweek, April 27, 1992]
Ultimately, Wilson ties up all the stories. Sterling has finally lured Risa out of her nun-like existence and they have what seems to be a meaningful relationship. Memphis enters in the last moments, drunk and hilarious, having got $35,000 from the city. On Aunt Ester's advice, he plans to settle his feelings about the past by going back to see about his farm: "I'm going back to Jackson and see Stovall. If he ain't there, then I'm gonna see his son. He enjoying his daddy's benefits he got to carry his daddy's weight. I'm going on back up to Jackson and pick up the ball." Finally, Hambone gets his ham. Although he has died and the white grocer Lutz refused to the end to give it to him. Sterling breaks into the store, takes a ham and the play ends as follows: "(Sterling enters, carrying a large ham. He is bleeding from his face and his hands. He grins and lays the ham on the counter.) Say, Mr. West … that's for Hambone's casket."
Many critics noted that the play ended happily and that there was a great deal of comedy throughout. (The comedy is present in all of Wilson's plays, but critics have not given it much attention.) David Patrick Steams observed, "this is Wilson's most moving play in years. While his writing can often be diffuse, Trains is well-focused and intermingles extremes of comedy and tragedy with breathtaking elegance" ["Wilson's 'Trains' On Track," USA Today, April 14, 1992]. Much of the comedy is just tossed off in causal conversations. Talking about bad luck reminds Holloway, "A man was driving a truck … hauling a whole truck full of mirrors … lost the brakes and ran into a telephone pole. He wasn't hurt or nothing. He looked back there and saw all them mirrors broke … he was staring at two hundred years of bad luck. They had to carry him away in a straitjacket." As John Beaufort noted, "Two Trains Running seems the most comic of the Wilson cycle thus far. Wilson doesn't write jokes. But he finds constant humor in the speech patterns and verbal idiosyncracies of his characters" ["Wilson's 'Two Trains Running' Scores," Christian Science Monitor, April 28, 1992]. Critics of the regional theatre performances of the play, too, noted the comedy and its obvious appeal for audiences. In Chicago, Julian Frazin wrote:
Once again under the sensitive direction of Lloyd Richards, Trains is a tale built upon almost 350 years of disappointment and shattered dreams; yet little of the bitterness emerges in this story of joy, laughter and the continual hope for change…. Unlike many of the recent films of Spike Lee and others depicting rage and violence in the African-American neighborhoods, Wilson's play is one of little heroes who survive and prevail in spite of life's calamities. ["'Two Trains' Runs Faster than An Alleycat," Chicago Lawyer, March, 1993]
While not all the critics in New York or throughout the country were satisfied with this play, a number felt it was his best to date. In it he explores the interaction of life and death, his title indicating the literal two trains which run down to Jackson every day, and, as Wilson wrote in a program note, there are "always and only two trains running. There is life and there is death. Each of us rides them both. To live life with dignity, to celebrate and accept responsibility for your presence in the world is all that can be asked of anyone" [quoted in Linda Winer, "Grappling with Their Stations in Life," New York Newsday, April 14, 1992]. Writing in Time, William A. Henry III called the play "Wilson's most delicate and mature work" ["Luncheonette Tone Poem," April 27, 1992]. The critic John Simon, notoriously difficult to please, wrote a long thoughtful review in New York in which he said,
What I find a step forward here in Wilson's stagecraft is the ability not to rely on such obvious dramatics as onstage violence, supernatural phenomena, vicious heavies, mysterious strangers, ponderous symbols, and the rest. Indeed, the play's eponymous symbol, the place to and from which only two trains are running, is mentioned but once, and left open to several interpretations—my own being that you can live your life blindly forward, or go back into the past and try to mend the old mistakes. ["Two Trains Running," April 27, 1992]
During the pre-Broadway tour the play Wilson was awarded the American Theatre Critics Association 1990–91 New Play Award. The play itself did not receive any major awards after the New York opening, but Larry Fishburne won a Tony Award for his dynamic portrayal of Sterling.
In the 1994–95 season, Wilson's first play after a break of several years will be presented at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, directed by Lloyd Richards. Seven Guitars, Wilson says, is about a jazz musician whose death is explored in a series of flashbacks. "The point is not who killed him but the content of his life. Barton was in and out of jail and a vagrant in some ways. But one of the issues I find fascinating is the separate relationships between these '40s musicians and the black and white communities" [quoted in Smith].
August Wilson is only 48 and as a playwright he is still developing and perfecting his art. Compared to someone like Eugene O'Neill his body of work is small. Yet, he is already one of the most honored playwrights in America. It is inevitable that his work will be compared to that of Eugene O'Neill as there are many similarities. In fact, Clive Barnes called his review of Joe Turner's Come and Gone "O'Neill in Blackface," writing, "Wilson starts his play with the leisureliness of a Eugene O'Neill slowly pinpointing this family—a boarding house in industrial America, filled with transients…. The mood, however, is funny, odd, eccentric … very cozy, very O'Neill himself in blackface" [New York Post, March 28, 1988]. Reviewing The Piano Lesson in London, Michael Billington wrote "As in Ibsen or O'Neill, the past constantly informs the present." Wilson is associated with O'Neill in critics' minds in part because his first opportunities occurred at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center. Just as O'Neill provided great roles for black actors including Charles Gilpin and Paul Robeson, so Wilson has provided great roles for black actors including James Earl Jones, Yaphet Kotto, Charles S. Dutton, Mary Alice, and Larry Fishburne. Both playwrights have won the Pulitzer Prize more than once. Like O'Neill, Wilson envisions a cycle of plays about the history of America. But more important than these similarities are their shared viewpoints about the seriousness of writing. Like O'Neill, Wilson writes about serious subjects but mixes comedy and tragedy. As O'Neill wrote about matters which disturbed him emotionally, Wilson says he is writing plays "about the stuff that beats in my head" [quoted in Arkatov]. Critics rarely commented on the comedy in such plays as O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh in which, as in Wilson's plays, each of the characters has stories to tell, and many of them are very funny. Although critics occasionally comment on the comic element in Wilson's plays, not enough attention is given to his ability to create strong, memorable comic characters and speeches. A final similarity with O'Neill is that both playwrights are motivated by the urge to create works of art, rather than by financial gain. Wilson said once, "All I ever needed was a few dollars for cigarettes and beer" quoted in William A. Henry III, "Exorcising the Demons of Memory," Time, April 11, 1988]. Although he quit his four-pack-a-day habit, he has changed little else. In 1993 he told a critic that he prefers smaller cities to New York's glamour, doesn't drive, and prefers a simple life, "Give me my books and records and I'm happy" [quoted in Misha Berson, "The Story Weaver," Seattle Times, April 11, 1993]. He presently lives in Seattle and has continued his connection with O'Neill Center working with a young playwright as Lloyd Richards worked with him.
At a time when many American playwrights write about transitory problems Wilson seeks the great themes. When asked about his opinion about the state of playwriting in America, he responded that he thinks the present generation of American playwrights has been spoiled by a childhood spent with television rather than literature. Of those he has met, "There were not very many who knew authors and writers, who had read novels: they were actually in a very small world. They talked about TV and movies." He says that most of the playwrights he knows have little to say and nothing beating in their hearts that drives them. Making a distinction between the artist and the craftsman, he cast his lot with the former, saying, "I think that plays should be considered a part of literature…. I aspire to the highest art" [quoted in Shafer]. However, he regards his own work with modesty, and commented amusingly about his slow process of work on his latest play. It took him a long time to complete the play which was initially called Moon Going Down and was set in a turpentine camp down South: "The more I got into it, the more I realized I didn't know much about turpentine camps" [quoted in Peter Vaughan, "After Three Year Break from Writing," Star Tribune (Minneapolis), April 30, 1993]. His modesty is also expressed in his reaction to theatre critics' comments about his work: "I read all my reviews, of course I do. I think writers who say they don't aren't being entirely honest. And I learn something from every review" [quoted in Berson].
August Wilson occupies an unusual position in American theatre. Although he feels very passionate about the historical treatment of blacks in American society, his characters break through the barriers of race and speak to both whites and blacks because they relate to archetypal themes and questions: What is true freedom? What is it to be a man or woman? How does a family relate? What is the nature of responsibility? What, ultimately, is the purpose of life and how does one "find one's own song?" How does one become (or find) a "shiny man"? In plays filled with poetic images, Wilson explores these questions. So far his record is amazing: in the terminology of baseball which occurs in Fences, Wilson has never struck out, he is batting a thousand, and there is nobody else in his league. One critic wrote, "He is the playwright that in forty years we will still be hearing about" [De Vries]. He has a long career ahead and looks forward to it with zest. He has recently agreed to write a play to premiere at the Alliance Theatre Company in Atlanta during the Olympic Arts Festival in 1996. He looks forward with pleasure to completing his cycle of plays: "I think I'll do the 80s and 90s first and then go back to the first decade. It would really be something to have all ten finished" [quoted in Vaughan]. Wilson's fans and many of the critics share that feeling. Writing in 1993, Misha Berson summed up Wilson's achievements so far:
Wilson will leave behind his own record. At age 47, the largely self-educated author has racked up a rare achievement: five plays successfully produced on Broadway and nationwide, two Pulitzer Prizes, and the forging of a distinctive voice, a sensibility, a style not to be mistaken for that of any other taleteller.
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