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
If you're looking for a strong, political, female playwright for a role model, seek no longer, I've found her.
Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti is a a British Sikh writer whose works have premiered at the Soho Theatre and Birmingham Repertory Theatre in England. Bhatti has also written extensively for radio and film.
I recently came across her work today when the headlines told me of a censorship dispute between Bhatti and the BBC (http://bit.ly/12aHZl5). Bhatti, whose works have been known to centre around women and female identity within religious institutions, had written a new radio show for BBC entitled Heart of Darkness. The show was centred around the story of the murder of a 16-year old Asian girl. In the play, the murder is alluded to have been an honour killing. The article cited above gives details as to which lines are being taken out and why they are, according to Bhatti, completely misunderstood. Her fight for understanding is the reason why I've made her today's playwright of the day.
I sat and enjoyed Bhatti's Behzti (Dishonour) this afternoon and I was struck by her ability to dramatize mundanity. Bhatti does such an incredible job constructing her characters and their relationships to one another from the start of the play. The stakes of the show grip the audience from the beginning despite the fact the little more is happening than a doubtful love interest and a trip to the temple. In the second half of the play, when rape and murder are intertwined into the narrative through subtleties as gorgeous as a slight costume change or offstage drama, I actually jumped, just reading the play, out of compassion for the characters.
The show is incredibly dramatic with only the slightest bit of theatricality. Despite her beautiful depiction of terror, the play was protested on opening night. Bhatti had offended the Sikh temple to the point of violence erupting resulting in a cancellation of the show.
Bhatti's bravery is under-spoken but it is fascinating. She holds her head high above censorship and protest and we hold our hands high in support of her incredible contribution to the contemporary dramatic canon.
Photo courtesy of http://bit.ly/Y6RmO4
Last night Heart in Hand Theatre opened Cowboy Mouth in Toronto and, though I'm not sure I'll be able to see it until next weekend, I'm really excited that they are tackling such a provocative Sam Shepard piece.
Sam Shepard is nothing if not provocative. There is almost always a moment in his works where you stop and think "yeah. He went there." Somehow, however, he rarely elicits an eye roll from me. Shepard has a way of crafting oddities into poetry thereby avoiding cliche. If you haven't experienced it yet, it is masterful.
He's has contributed about 50 plays to the canon of American drama. He has won many highly-regarded awards including the Pulitzer Prize for Buried Child. He is shameless, fearless and a creative machine.
Comedic? Barely. His award winning work first full-length piece La Turista (1967) is actually pretty funny until its pace takes a turn for the crazy at the end of the show and things become horrifying.
"Horrifying" doesn't begin to describe the series of beautifully freaky family tragedies that Shepard has penned beginning with Curse of the Starving Class (1978) through to Buried Child (1979), True West (1980), Fool for Love (1983) and A Lie of the Mind (1985). After reading each of these pieces, it becomes clear that, not only is Shepard fascinated with the back-alley absurdities of the "redneck" American West but he is really good at transforming these absurdities into eery realities. Shepard explores themes of abandonment, incest, wayward reunion and the unfortunate result of being tethered to a family whom you may not get along with, may not even like. These themes become vivid and moving even amongst the constant twists and turns that we're faced with when experience one of his pieces.
Other than family dramas, Shepard has explored theatre from a number of different angles. "Avante-Garde" is what he is usually taken for and, in many respects, Shepard has absolutely always been ahead of his time. For example, works such as Cowboy Mouth (1971) The Tooth of Crime (1972, Tongues (1978) and Suicide in B♭ (1976) incorporate Shepard's love for music. Through these works he has been able to express his fascination for the 1970s adornment of rock stars. He was before his time in his exploration of celebrity worship and the theme shines brilliantly in these works.
For a Sam Shepard experience, go see Cowboy Mouth produced by Heart in Hand Theatre and being performed at The Cameron House in Toronto until Feb. 14: http://www.heartinhandtheatre.com/
Today is the 110th anniversary of the Broadway premiere of The Wizard of Oz. In honor of the occasion, we've made Frank L. Baum (May 15, 1856 – May 6, 1919), author of the original story and musical, our playwright of the day.
Baum was a lifelong thespian. After reading about him, I've discovered that he was one of the original "indie" theatre artists. His practice mirrored that of many young artists today in that he worked full-time at a different trade, he allowed his love of theatre to lead him into debt without it bothering him very much and he wore every hat he needed to when producing one of his own works. While recovering from financial shock, Baum would write short stories and children's works but he couldn't stay away from the theatre for too long. It's a good thing his father was a supportive and wealthy businessman because eventually, when Baum was 24 years-old, his father built him a theatre, thereby igniting Baum on the path to becoming a musical theatre legend.
It's well-known that Baum grappled with the form the musical took, eventually losing control to commercial interests. The story has taken many forms over the years. It was a long journey to Andrew Lloyd Webber's current Broadway version (2011). The liberties that others have taken over Baum's work teaches contemporary playwrights a valuable lesson: our writing is always unfinished and therefore vulnerable to the influence of other artists. I prefer to believe that the malleability of our work, as playwrights, is what makes being a playwright so fantastic. Baum's writing, though re-interpreted many times over, proves that magic can come from reinvention.
To Baum and The Wizard---May there be many more.
See a silent version of The Wizard of Oz: