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Archive for May 4th, 2019


August Wilson writing

Teach us to number our days again

The narrative Wilson’s plays tell us say that the public story of progress for African-Americans from 1960 is false: the changes in law intended to change norms and improve lives of black people have not worked. What the story over 10 decades shows is while there was some feel of progress and hope justified in the 1940s and 50s, by the 70s it had been swept away by new customs destroying the communities, individuals of black people in the US. Start with King Hedley II, then read Joe Turner Come and Gone, The Piano Lesson, and then Two Trains Running. Gem of the Ocean ostensibly about 1904 but actually mirroring 2004 tells the intermittently but consistently appalling story of grief and loss in a parable.

In the old neighborhood, each funeral parlor
is more elaborate than the last.
The alleys smell of cops, pistols bumping their thighs,
each chamber steeled with a slim blue bullet.

Low-rent balconies stacked to the sky.
A boy plays tic-tac-toe on a moon
crossed by TV antennae, dreams

he has swallowed a blue bean.
It takes root in his gut, sprouts
and twines upward, the vines curling
around the sockets and locking them shut.

And this sky, knotting like a dark tie?
The patroller, disinterested, holds all the beans.

August. The mums nod past, each a prickly heart on a sleeve.
— Rita Dove

August Wilson numbered the decades ….

Friends and readers,

Over the course of the last nine to ten weeks for a class I took at the OLLI at AU I’ve thus far read 9 out of the 10 plays August Wilson wrote in an endeavor to realize through poetic and realistic enough drama on the stage the African-American experience of life in the US from the first to the last decade of the twentieth century. I have been stunned by their brilliance, how he makes poetic drama out of the language and experience of African-Americans seen truly out of the lens of their own culture (the only exception here is Fences). His work is as important, beautiful and insightful as James Baldwin’s (who is the other black male writer where I have read a number of the texts).

Wilson did not write these plays in chronological order partly because it took time for such an aim to emerge but we read them in the order of the life and attitudes African-Americans ended up experiencing over the decades each one is intended to present, explore and realize powerful comedy and tragedy from. They are sometimes called the Pittsburgh cycle as most are set in Pittsburgh, from which city Wilson came and where he educated himself in the public library. Through his involvement and place in the African-American community there he was gradually recognized as the great playwright he was and given opportunities to stage his plays.  He was eventually given a position at Yale where the support of a few central or key dedicated artists in the drama department and theater his plays led to the staging professionally of his plays. Then some of them were performed to New York City theaters . In case you don’t know the titles and year of each, here they are:

Gem of the Ocean (2003): set in Pittsburgh in a symbolic retreat house (threatened with demolition) in 1904. The matriarch, Aunt Esther claims to be 285 years old.
Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1984): set in a Pittsburgh boardinghouse in 1911. Joe Turner, was the brother of a Tennessee Governor, who would kidnap young African-American prisoners and force them to work in hard labor for a pittance for years on end.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1982): set in 1927 in a Chicago recording studio (the ten-cycle play not set in Pittsburgh). This dramatizes the individual black musicians’s characters, conflicts, and their forced subservience to white producers.
The Piano Lesson (1986): set in 1936 in Pittsburgh. It revolves around a piano, whose early owners bought the enslaved grandparents of the present African-American owners: a brother, who wants to sell it to buy the land the original white owners are now offering for sale; and a sister to whom it stands for bitter and precious memories of her murdered husband, and a way for her daughter to become a pianist.
Seven Guitars (1995): set in Pittsburgh in 1948. Blues singer Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton is newly freed from prison when he’s asked to sign a record deal after a song he recorded months before becomes a surprise hit. I was not able to read this one as it is so drenched in supernatural ghosts I could not tell who was really alive and who not. One of its overt themes is the perpetual killing of black men with impunity by whites, which we see in most of the plays.
Fences (1984): set in 1957 Pittsburgh. Troy Maxson, a former Negro Baseball League player, is a bitter man in his 50s who works as a garbage man. His frustration and disappointments in life affect his two sons; he betrays his wife Rose. It almost seems modeled on Miller’s Death of a Salesman, and is the most white and bourgeois of all the plays. No surprise that it is the one which has been commercially filmed.
Two Trains Running (1990): set in 1969, the play revolves around a restaurant in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, which has suffered a long economic decline; the city wants to seize and demolish it (just as it wanted to seize and demolish Aunt Esther’s house).
Jitney (1979): set in 1977 in an black people’s taxi station (one which has emerged because no cabs run by white people will pick black people up) threatened with demolition. It was Wilson’s first play.
King Hedley II (1991): set in Pittsburgh in 1985, an ex-con tries wants to support a family and aims to get the money to open a video store by selling stolen refrigerators. This is the darkest and bleakest of the plays: major characters murder or beat up or threaten people viscerally; the protagonist says:  “It used to be you got killed over something. Now you get killed over nothing.”
Radio Golf (2005): set in 1990 Pittsburgh, the last play he completed before his death. We are back in Aunt Esters home, still threatened with demolition to make way for real estate development in the depressed area (for whites). Investors include Harmond Wilks, who wants to increase his chance of becoming the city’s first black mayor. I will probably not read this one as I have had to buy them all and will not be in the US for the last class (I will be in Cornwall) and I feel I have understood the cycle. But I regret not reading it.


Joe Turner Come and Gone — Roger Robinson and Marsha Blake (see NYTimes review below)

The plays have recurring characters, often move into symbolic realms and modes. While many are set in Pittsburgh, through the memories and backstories of the characters, places in the south, up north (Chicago) and elsewhere on the East Coast mostly are realized vividly so the plays do present a cross-section of African-American experience, including enslavement (with memories of the original kidnapping in Africa and hideous passage in torture ships), in most of the plays horrific violence inflicted on them by whites determined to keep them in subjection, the various forms of harsh injustice and discrimination typical of each era, and also the characters’ own strong effective will to survive and achieve some measure of self-fulfillment and joy and friendship, family life, their gifts (musical, from playing instruments and singing, and as central to their community lives), the important function religion plays for many.

The one flaw or lack that is seen in many is that these are written from a strongly masculine perspective; some plays have just one female character; females are in the minority, seen as wives, girlfriends, sisters, and presented as “good” and valuable when they spend their lives serving the males food, having their children, accepting their sexual promiscuity or mistresses, and just support the men absolutely. Some are comfort pillows (there for sex); others downright Victorian heroines transposed. The teacher called them angels. I found many self-negate, are all self-sacrifice but in a way that refuses to go aggressively after individualistic desires that presented by our society as instinctive, natural, normal or conformist (and thus demanding of these males that they make good money) and as it were retreat into yourself, refusing all these you gain autonomy and self-ownership, a space to be yourself in –- or to find yourself in. In Two Trains Running, there is a heroine who practices self-harm to keep others at bay. They can win out this way or be pro-active by holding onto lieux de memoires: in The Piano Lesson, Beatrice holds onto her precious piano and the memories that sustain her.  She was my favorite character across all the plays.  Wilson did not side with her (I found).

On the other hand, it must be said that even in these limited roles and small space allowed in the plays, Wilson empathizes strongly with many of women enough to transcend the limits they are circumscribed in and one can see were they allowed far more living space, realization of multiplicities of traits (as the male characters are) they could appear in Lorraine’s Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun, Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls who have considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf — the only two plays by black women that I have seen and remember. There is an underlying current through much Afro- literature so I will also say the female types found in Wilson include those found in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions and black British males in Andrea Levy’s Small Island and the writing of Zadie Smith. The question of who you are, what is your identity is central to Levy and Wilson.

Here is an excerpt from King Hedrick II where Viola Davis as Tonya explains in anguish to Brian Stokes Mitchell as her husband, Hedrick why she must get an abortion or has gotten one: she cannot bear to watch another daughter grow up and lead a life of violence:

I feel inadequate before these plays because as a white person I have not myself experienced except by analogy (having been poor, excluded by virtue of my class, parentage, and disabilities) and imaginative understanding (not the same thing as experience) what these plays put before us. I do know I was often deeply moved and could remember analogous experiences of my own, and found (much to my discomfort) that when in a classroom with others (all middle class white older people in the class, with the teacher a black man who is a librarian at Howard University) that I would risk my own emotional safety trying to explain to the others the roots of devastation these plays register in these characters’ reveries of deep emotional trauma, desperate, circumstances, often profound resentment and loss of self-esteem, anger at one another.

I cannot say I enjoyed the class because I found it a stressful class to be in. The contexts presented were not literary but became personal: intertextuality beyond the inevitable Bible was not recognized or just didn’t interest these people. You might say the identity crises in Wilson’s plays transferred to these readers. I wish I could have gotten myself to say less.

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore. …
Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
—Langston Hughes, from his poem Harlem (1951) — but what if you never had that dream …

FWIW, I found Joe Turner Come and Gone and The Piano Lesson to be the finest masterpieces of the ten.  Piano Lesson shows the characters getting what they want; it has buoyant comedy at moments.  Gem of the Ocean is a summing-up parable (like Shakespeare’s Tempest). Great anger in Ma Rainey, poignancy in Two Trains Running. I saw the movie made from Fences and while it was superbly well done (Denzel Washington was perfect as Troy, Stephen Henderson as Bono, his loyal friend), and I felt for the son, Corey (like Biff in Death of a Salesman), so liked the son, Lyons, rooted strongly for the wife, Rose (Viola Davis did win an Oscar), I felt the justification of Troy perverse (based on shoring up his punitive masculinity). It has a recurring type: the male so traumatized that he lives in a child-like state (Gabriel, his symbolic name in this play). King Hedley II is as tragic and desperate as Lear; I felt the black people there (representative of the 1980s) had been Americanized much (gun culture on display and deadly, fatal) to their own detriment; they are insecure, unsafe, paid no attention to by those whites whose access to technology, contracts and justice the black people need. Jitney is revealing as a first play and there is a valuable staged reading to watch in YouTube form:

There are numerous good essays on Wilson if you know where to look. Unfortunately on the Internet, much is behind paywalls except for immediate reviews of particular plays (which are highly uneven), but there is Ben Brantley’s powerful Wilson’s Wanderers, Searching for Home (New York Times, April 16, 2009) on Joe Turner Come and Gone. I also recommend reading John Lahr’s Been Here and Gone (New Yorker, April 8, 2001), or the introductory essays to separate volumes, especially those published by “Theater Communications Group; also an afterword essay by Paul Carter Harrison called “August Wilson’s Blues Poetics” in a volume called August Wilson’s Three Plays; this has an introduction by Wilson plus his own notes to the three chosen plays.

But the best thing is to read and to see Wilson’s work, and there is a superb dramatization of the whole of The Piano Lesson on YouTube, so gentle reader now take the time to feel deeply, be uplifted, and come alive with the actors.

Ellen

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