AUGUST WILSON: A LITERARY COMPANION
by Mary Ellen Snodgrass, McFarland & Company, Jefferson, N.C. 276 pp, $35 paper.
BLACK MANHOOD IN JAMES BALDWIN, ERNEST J. GAINES, AND AUGUST WILSON
by Keith Clark, University of Illinois Press, Chicago. 176 pp, $34.95 cloth, $20 paper.
THE PAST AS PRESENT IN THE DRAMA OF AUGUST WILSON
by Harry J. Elam Jr., University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor. 290 pp, $60 cloth.
August Wilson has been lionized once again in three new books, which are, for the most part, scholarly approaches to his work—approaches that seek to study, characterize and explain his intent, style, characters, even to analyze Wilson himself. Each seeks to interpret his views on African-American male attitudes, and to a far lesser extent, examine how those attitudes affect relationships with African-American women.
Mary Ellen Snodgrass’s August Wilson: A Literary Companion painstakingly chronicles Wilson’s life, from his genealogy (actually listing the incarceration details of a family member) and birth in 1945 to speculation about his future work. Her book is essentially a reference work for “those who have a limited knowledge or understanding of August Wilson’s literary contributions.”
One of Snodgrass’s main insights is that Wilson writes strictly from the black male point of view about historical causality: Most of the struggles of the black male characters in his plays are due to decades of South-to-North migration, which has resulted in numerous setbacks and losses—imprisonment, parental abandonment, rape, discrimination, isolation, fraud and other social ills. Interestingly, Snodgrass meticulously matches each of these negative issues with a female character, marking faults or weaknesses along the way: Gem of the Ocean‘s Aunt Ester shows signs of “withdrawal from the outside world,” and Black Mary is troubled by “distrust of men, grudge against an evil brother and limited interactions.” Mattie Campbell’s issue in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is that she loves a drifter.
As informative as its checklists may be, the book offers a few debatable statements and questionable facts. On African-American theatre, for instance, Snodgrass writes: “Chief among professional concerns for a lasting theatrical effort was the fact that Black people did not support their own dramas enough either with financial contributions or their presence in the audience.” Is the black community responsible for all the struggling nonprofits that have died since the ’60s? Conversely, are “white audiences” accountable for every Broadway show that fails?
Another assertion: Snodgrass labels Wilson’s use of language as a “dialect,” describing his style as “robust, ribald and peculiar to a poorly educated segment of a ghetto population.” To which one must inquire: What exactly is a “ghetto dialect”? Does she mean speech patterns of a particular area? But more important for readers to know is that Wilson’s repeated use of the word “nigger” in his plays (according to author Harry J. Elam Jr., that epithet appears 87 times in Two Trains Running) continues to be an irritant with black audiences, no matter how many accolades his work receives. Any responsible reference book should make clear the ramifications of this painful legacy.
On the subject of women, Snodgrass is on surer ground. She takes note of Wilson’s denigration of women (as do the other two authors in their books, although they work hard to justify the depictions of women’s powerlessness). Snodgrass argues that Wilson’s plays reduce some of the women to “ciphers of extreme female typecasting,” relegating them to “saint-or-sinner extremes”: for example, selfish Natasha, Tonya’s daughter, opposite Little Buddy Will’s grieving mother in King Hedley II, and Floyd Barton’s ego-affirming former love, Vera, versus Ruby the siren in Seven Guitars. The most significant women in Wilson’s plays are, with some exceptions, talked about rather than seen on stage: In Two Trains, for example, the mortician’s beloved wife is deceased. The few living women who exhibit a strong character are often placed in a limiting framework that renders them largely disempowered: Look at Risa, the waitress who mutilates herself in Two Trains, or Rose, the drudge in Fences, who loses herself in loving her husband Troy. Although Ma Rainey is explicitly named in the title, that play’s true protagonists are Levee and the band members.
Only in Gem of the Ocean does a fully realized black woman appear (Rena, Youngblood’s girlfriend in Jitney, is probably a close second)—but even Aunt Ester is part metaphor. It is necessary, however, to take into account the performance of actors who can either enhance or diminish a playwright’s intent, and, to their credit, there have been many talented female actors who have brought the kind of weight and dimension to Wilson’s women that was clearly lacking on the printed page. Certainly the late Theresa Merritt gave a definitive Ma Rainey, and the late Alfredine Brown put a very different but equally strong stamp on the part. When Lisa Gay Hamilton finally speaks out to her sheriff brother in Gem, her powerful interpretation more than compensates for the two hours the playwright has placed her by the stove. I have seen actresses who were able to bring life to Boy Willie’s stubborn sister Berniece in The Piano Lesson and Alberta in Fences—for a minute or so of monologue, they were able to escape their imprisonment. It would be interesting to see a Wilson play directed by a woman sensitive to the subtext and depth of Wilson’s women.
Keith Clark, in Black Manhood in James Baldwin, Ernest J. Gaines and August Wilson, attempts to show how these writers dismantle the existing stereotypes of black men who have traditionally been depicted as victims. Likening Wilson’s work to the collage motif of Romare Bearden, Clark declares Wilson less a dramatist of didacticism than a dramatist of ideas: Using monologues, Wilson’s black men tell their personal stories more directly than in the works of other writers.
Clark greatly admires Wilson, whom he says has followed in the footsteps of Amiri Baraka and Ed Bullins—but without the violence of those and other pioneers of the Black Arts movements. But does Clark see any correlation between the near-unanimous white acceptance of Wilson’s nonpolitical, nonthreatening work and the absence of either Baraka or Bullins on Broadway—ever?
Clark declares that Wilson’s plays are not misogynistic but “male centered.” As proof, Black Manhood offers a series of complex conclusions too involved to untangle here—but which can perhaps be best summed up in the playwright’s own words: “I doubt seriously if I would make a woman the focus of my work simply because of the fact that I am a man, and I guess because of the ground on which I stand and the viewpoint from which I perceive the world.” So be it.
Harry J. Elam Jr., author of The Past as Present and the most interesting of this current crop of Wilson devotees, chooses to stay outside the mind of the playwright, selecting instead key questions and themes which are woven throughout the cycle of plays. Without demeaning the power and force of Wilson’s work, what Elam offers is not mere conjecture about what Wilson might think, but thoughtful insight into the playwright’s chief concepts and the questions they raise.
For example: Wilson’s African-American characters are, for the most part, working-class black men who live within the geographical location of the Hill District of Pittsburgh. Elam wonders: Is this truly representative of the black experience in America? Moreover: How do Wilson’s characters reconcile their concept of Christianity with their African roots? What about the tradition of music that is frequently mentioned but rarely heard on stage—even in Ma Rainey, which is all about the blues? I would ask further: Where are the professionals, young or old, the fully developed working women, the gays, the college kids and the mixed-race blacks? In a cycle of 10 plays, there must be room for some diversity.
Curiously missing in all three books is any further discussion about Wilson’s birth father, Frederick, the Austro-Hungarian baker who left the family after the birth of the playwright. He has been described as “heavy-drinking and authoritarian.” Although one assumes the relationship with the family was acrimonious, it would be interesting to know more about this aspect of Wilson’s persona, which has surely shaped his perception of the black experience. The omission calls to mind the “double consciousness” that W.E.B. DuBois has elaborated on so effectively, explaining why we African Americans live in two (or more) worlds of consciousness.
Shauneille Perry, a writer, director and former professor of theatre and black studies, wrote the commentary for the Museum of the City of New York’s current exhibition, Harlem Is Theater.
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