This essay, which serves as the preface to King Hedley II (TCG Books), was written in the spring of 2000, before the playwright had begun the final two plays in his 20th-century cycle. It first appeared in The New York Times (April 23, 2000).
In 1975 I wrote a short story titled “The Greatest Blues Singer in the World.” As it turned out, the text of the story was very short. I began, “The streets that Balboa walked were his own private ocean, and Balboa was drowning.” That seemed to communicate the idea with more clarity than I could hope to gain by adding to it, so I stopped and typed “The End.”
I had conceived a much longer story that spoke to the social context of the artist and how one’s private ocean is inextricably linked to the tributary streams that gave rise to, and occasioned, the impulse to song.
Before one can become an artist one must first be. It is being in all facets, its many definitions, that endows the artist with an immutable sense of himself that is necessary for the accomplishment of his task. Simply put, art is beholden to the kiln in which the artist was fired.
Before I am anything, a man or a playwright, I am an African American. The tributary streams of culture, history and experience have provided me with the materials out of which I make my art. As an African-American playwright, I have many forebears who have pioneered and hacked out of the underbrush an aesthetic that embraced and elevated the cultural values of black Americans to a level equal to those of their European counterparts.
Out of their experiences, the sacred and the profane, was made a record of their traverse and the many points of epiphany and redemption. They have hallowed the ground and provided a tradition gained by will and daring. I count it a privilege to stand at the edge of the art, with the gift of their triumphs and failures, as well as the playwrights down through the ages who found within the turbulent history of human thought and action an ennobling conduct worthy of art. The culture of black America, forged in the cotton fields of the South and tested by the hard pavements of the industrial North, has been the ladder by which we have climbed into the New World. The field of manners and rituals of social intercourse—the music, speech, rhythms, eating habits, religious beliefs, gestures, notions of common sense, attitudes toward sex, concepts of beauty and justice, and the responses to pleasure and pain—have enabled us to survive the loss of our political will and the disruption of our history. The culture’s moral codes and sanction of conduct offer clear instructions as to the value of community, and make clear that the preservation and promotion, the propagation and rehearsal of the value of one’s ancestors is the surest way to a full and productive life.
The cycle of plays I have been writing since 1979 is my attempt to represent that culture in dramatic art. From the beginning, I decided not to write about historical events or the pathologies of the black community. The details of our struggle to survive and prosper, in what has been a difficult and sometimes bitter relationship with a system of laws and practices that deny us access to the tools necessary for productive and industrious life, are available to any serious student of history or sociology.
Instead, I wanted to present the unique particulars of black American culture as the transformation of impulse and sensibility into codes of conduct and response, into cultural rituals that defined and celebrated ourselves as men and women of high purpose. I wanted to place this culture on stage in all its richness and fullness and to demonstrate its ability to sustain us in all areas of human life and endeavor and through profound moments of our history in which the larger society has thought less of us than we have thought of ourselves.
From Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (which is set in 1911) to King Hedley II (set in 1985), the cycle covers almost 80 years of American history. The plays are peopled with characters whose ancestors have been in the United States since the early 17th century.
They were brought across an ocean, chained in the hulls of 350-ton vessels. In the southern part of the United States, they were made to labor in the vast agricultural plantations. They made do without surnames and lived in dirt-floor cabins. They labored without pay. They were bought and sold and traded for money and gold and diamonds and molasses and horses and cows. They were fed the barest of subsistence diets. When they tried to escape, they were tracked down by dogs and men on horseback. They existed as an appendage to the body of society. They had no moral personality and no moral status in civic or church law.
After 200-odd years, as a political expediency, they were granted freedom from being the property of other men. During the next hundred years they were disenfranchised, their houses were burned, they were hung from trees, forced into separate and inferior houses, schools and public facilities. They were granted status in law and denied it in practice.
Yet the characters in the plays still place their faith in America’s willingness to live up to the meaning of her creed so as not to make a mockery of her ideals. It is this belief in America’s honor that allows them to pursue the American Dream even as it remains elusive. The conflicts with the larger society are cultural conflicts. Conflicts over ways of being and doing things. The characters are all continually negotiating for a position, the high ground of the battlefield, from where they might best shout an affirmation of the value and worth of their being in the face of a
many-million-voice chorus that seeks to deafen and obliterate it.
They shout, they argue, they wrestle with love, honor, duty, betrayal; they have loud voices and big hearts; they demand justice, they love, they laugh, they cry, they murder, and they embrace life with zest and vigor. Despite the fact that the material conditions of their lives are meager. Despite the fact that they have no relationship with banking capital and their communities lack the twin pillars of commerce and industry. Despite the fact that their relationship to the larger society is one of servitude and marked neglect. In all the plays, the characters remain pointed toward the future, their pockets lined with fresh hope and an abiding faith in their own abilities and their own heroics.
From Herald Loomis’s vision of the bones rising out of the Atlantic Ocean (the largest unmarked graveyard in the world) in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, to the pantheon of vengeful gods (“The Ghosts of the Yellow Dog”) in The Piano Lesson, to Aunt Ester, the then 349-year-old conjure woman who first surfaced in Two Trains Running—the metaphysical presence of a spirit world has become increasingly important to my work. It is the world that the characters turn to when they are most in need.
Aunt Ester has emerged for me as the most significant persona of the cycle. The characters, after all, are her children. The wisdom and tradition she embodies are valuable tools for the reconstruction of their personality and for dealing with a society in which the contradictions, over the decades, have grown more fierce, and for exposing all the places it is lacking in virtue.
Theatre, as a powerful conveyer of human values, has often led us through the impossible landscape of American class, regional and racial conflicts, providing fresh insights and fragile but enduring bridges of fruitful dialogue. It has provided us with a mirror that forces us to face personal truths and enables us to discover within ourselves an indomitable spirit that recognizes, sometimes across wide social barriers, those common concerns that make possible genuine cultural fusion.
With the completion of my latest play, King Hedley II, I have only the “bookends,” the first and last decades of the twentieth century, remaining. As I approach the cycle’s end, I find myself a different person than when I started. The experience of writing plays has altered me in ways I cannot yet fully articulate.
As with any journey, the only real question is: “Is the port worthy of the cruise?” The answer is a resounding “Yes.” I often remark that I am a struggling playwright. I’m struggling to get the next play on the page. Eight down and counting. The struggle continues.
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