Part of our Black History Month Series
I was already eighteen years old when I was first exposed to August Wilson. It seemed late at the time. After experiencing Syracuse Stage's run of Gem of the Ocean, I think I might have pretended amongst my peers that I already knew what a genius he was. I was, absolutely, faking it out of sheer shame that I hadn't already discovered his brilliance.
Thinking back, I remember the show visually more than I do textually which is odd because August Wilson crafts text with power. His power, however, doesn't become preachy. The text never overpowers the action. Instead of being caught up in message, August Wilson tells a story. That story paints a vivid, memorable picture on stage.
The brilliance of Wilson's storytelling comes from his admiration for the African oral tradition. African American history is therefore a central component of his works.
Unlike historical pieces, however, Wilson's pieces move through time. For example, his earlier works including Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (1984) and Fences (1987) are focused on the early migration of Black settlers to the United States. These pieces concern themselves with the transportation and displacement of Black families as well as the discomfort and the estrangement that the Black community experienced in the South. Contrastingly, and always relevant, his later works which include Gem of the Ocean (2003) as well as Pulitzer Prize winning Broadway play The Piano Lesson (1990), concentrate on the reunion between families and the corresponding conflicts that arise between family members as a result of having been displaced.
Beneath it all, Wilson doesn't point a finger at White communities for the living standards of Black settlers. Instead, he writes about the potential of African American populations to fight for their own future. In his words:
What I tried to do in Ma Rainey, and in all my works, is to reveal the richness of the lives of the people, who show that the largest idea are contained by their lives, and that there is a nobility to their lives. Blacks in America have so little to make life with compared to whites, yet they do so with a certain zest, a certain energy that is fascinating because they make life out of nothing--yet it is charged and luminous and has all the qualities of anyone else's life. I think a lot of this is hidden by the glancing manner in which White America looks at blacks, and the way blacks look at themselves.--1984 Interview with Kim Powers, From Theatre, 16 (Fall-Winter 1984, 50-55
As a means of portraying African American life and culture, Wilson uses music, particularly blues, throughout his works. Some of the music is descriptive and integral to the narrative, as in Ma Rainey, and other works use music metaphorically, as in The Piano Lesson. All of them integrate music somehow because Wilson believed it to be an important means of communication.
As Ma tells us in Ma Rainey, "White folks don't understand about the blues. They hear it come out but they don't know how it got there. They don't understand that's life's way of talking. You don't sing to feel better. You sing 'cause that s way of understanding life."
The final notable part of African American culture that is integrated into Wilson's works is spirituality and mysticism. Wilson uses ritual and mysticism in his works to tie his families and his communities together but also, it seems, to separate them from White communities.
A moment in The Piano Lesson stands out, on this note, wherein Boy Willie and Lymon manage to sell their Watermelons to "White folk" for an inflated price because they're able to convince their customers that the watermelons are sweeter due to them putting sugar in the ground. The absurdity wasn't true but the White women believed it because the two populations were segregated and therefore different ritualistically.
The Piano Lesson is, of course, a great example of mysticism in Wilson's work as a whole because Berniece's house is haunted by Sutter, a white man that she suspects her brother, Boy Willie, has killed as a means of acquiring his land. The symbol of a white man haunting their house is a vivid impetus for driving the entire narrative of the play forward.
Wilson's body of works prove that he is dedicated to bringing Black history to life. He is an iconic African-American playwright and, honourably, our playwright of the day.
Check out this Teleplay version of The Piano Lesson