August Wilson Essay - Critical Essays

August Wilson American Literature Analysis

Since he first gained recognition with the Broadway production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in 1984, Wilson was hailed by critics as one of the most important writers to appear in the American theater in the late twentieth century. His work has received numerous awards, including two Pulitzer Prizes, and Wilson himself was the recipient of several grants and fellowships, including the McKnight Fellowship in Playwriting, the Whiting Writer’s Award, and Bush, Rockefeller, and Guggenheim Fellowships. He was hailed by The New York Times as “the theater’s most astonishing writing discovery in this decade” and by William A. Henry III, the theater critic for Time, as “certainly the most important voice to emerge in the Eighties, maybe the most important in the last thirty years or so.”

Wilson brought to the American theater a fresh perspective on a subject he knows intimately: the lives of African Americans struggling to survive in a society riddled with prejudice and hatred. Declaring that “language is the secret to a race,” Wilson gave voice in his plays to the rhythms, cadences, and phrasings heard in the homes and on the streets of the black community, bringing to life characters whose experiences had previously been given little exposure outside of that community.

From Troy Maxon in Fences, who opposes his son’s athletic scholarship because he believes it will lead only to disappointment, to Levee, the jazz musician in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom who sells the rights to his music to a white recording company, to Hambone in Two Trains Running, who has been driven to the point of madness by his obsessive quest for the ham that he is owed in payment by a white employer, Wilson’s characters capture the pain and struggle of the African American experience with a complexity and power that transform everyday life into compelling drama.

Wilson believed firmly that the road to empowerment for African Americans must include a willingness to embrace their heritage and draw on the sense of history it provides. He urged black America to study its complex legacy, from the culture of Africa itself through slavery, segregation, and the Civil Rights movement, and search there for the examples of courage and endurance that lie at the heart of any people’s sense of pride and self-awareness.

In a 1987 interview, Wilson said, “Blacks in America want to forget about slavery—the stigma, the shame. That’s the wrong move. If you can’t be who you are, who can you be? How can you know what to do? We have our history. We have our book, which is the blues. And we forget it all.” As a playwright, Wilson set out to explore African American history, in all of its diversity, through dramatic means.

Beginning with his earliest full-length work, Jitney, he embarked on an ambitious cycle of plays, each set in a different decade, focusing on different aspects of the black experience in the twentieth century. The plays were not written in chronological order; Jitney, although the first written, is set in the 1970’s. It concerns Pittsburgh’s black jitney bus drivers, who created jobs for themselves by driving fares into black neighborhoods where white cab drivers refused to go.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is set in a 1920’s Chicago recording studio, where a great blues singer is working in a setting seething with racial tensions. Fences, the next play in the cycle, depicts the conflicts within a black family in the 1950’s, as a father and son clash over the son’s future.

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is set in 1911 and tells the story of a man who has made his way to Pittsburgh after enduring years of illegal enforced servitude in the South. The Piano Lesson takes place in the 1930’s and focuses on the Charles family and their conflict over a piano that represents the family’s heritage.

Two Trains Running is set in a Pittsburgh restaurant and explores the lives of urban black people amid the turmoil of the 1960’s. Gem of the Ocean is set in 1904, the earliest setting of the plays in Wilson’s cycle.

These plays examine widely differing facets of the black experience, yet similar themes and messages pervade all of them: the destructive results of racial discrimination; the need for courage, determination, and pride in the face of the staggering legacy of black history; and an appreciation for black culture itself—both artistic and social—as a means of survival.

Wilson’s characters are frequently flawed and always complex, their individual personalities shaped by the experiences that have made up their lives. Their despair and hardships can be traced to the crushing denial of their worth by the dominant white society, and their salvation comes only through self-reliance and self-acceptance. In many of Wilson’s plays, rage and frustration that remain unresolved are directed not at white people but at other black people, perpetuating the destructive cycle.

Like all great writers, Wilson himself was influenced by other artists whose work he admired. His early influences included the poets Dylan Thomas and John Berryman as well as Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man (1952). Wilson named as his principal inspirations a quartet he termed “my four B’s”: playwright Amiri Baraka, the Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges, the artist Romare Bearden (whose paintings inspired both Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and The Piano Lesson), and, heading his list, the blues.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

First produced: 1984 (first published, 1985)

Type of work: Play

A group of blues musicians in the 1920’s deal with the effects of racial injustice.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the first of Wilson’s plays to win wide acclaim, is among his finest work. Set in a recording studio in the 1920’s, the story takes place over the course of an afternoon, as a group of musicians and the legendary blues singer Ma Rainey record several songs. Much of the play takes the form of discussions and arguments among the four musicians, each of whom brings his own perspective to questions of prejudice and the problems facing black people in American society.

Toledo, a thoughtful, serious man, speaks of racial pride and the need for self-determination. Cutler places his trust in religion. Slow Drag is uncomplicated and unwilling to question his lot too deeply. Levee believes that his musical talent will bring him respect and power. Ma Rainey is outspoken, demanding, and well aware that she will be tolerated only as long as her records make money for her white producers.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom contains many of the themes that run throughout Wilson’s subsequent work: the devastating effects of racial discrimination, the callous indifference with which white society has traditionally regarded black Americans, and the idea that the key to black self-reliance and salvation lies in developing a sense of heritage and history. The play’s central message is contained in a comment made by Toledo: “As long as the colored man looks to white folks to put the crown on what he say . . . as long as he looks to white folks for approval . . . then he ain’t never gonna find out who he is and what he’s about. He’s just gonna be about what white folks want him to be about.”

Ma Rainey is as aware as Toledo of the harsh realities of black life in American society, commenting that “they don’t care nothing about me. All they want is my voice.” Fiercely determined to play her hand well for as long as it lasts, she demands star treatment and respect from her producers, knowing that she can expect nothing from them when her popularity wanes.

For Toledo and Levee, however, Toledo’s words will have tragic repercussions. As Levee sees his dreams of fame and success dissolve into the reality of the producer’s offer to pay him five dollars per song to “take them off your hands,” his anger turns to murderous rage against Toledo, who has accidentally stepped on his shoe. The opening Levee thought he saw in the white power structure was an illusion, and it is Toledo who pays the price for his despair.


First produced: 1985 (first published, 1985)

Type of work: Play

A black family is torn apart by the father’s adultery and his refusal to let his son accept a football scholarship.

Wilson received his first Pulitzer Prize for Fences, which also won several Tony Awards during its Broadway run. The powerful family drama is set during the 1950’s, when the first hints of change in race relations often gave rise to generational conflicts between hopeful young black men and their wary, experience-scarred parents.

The play was inspired by Wilson’s memories of his own stepfather, a onetime high school football player who had hoped to win an athletic scholarship and study medicine, only to find that no college in Pittsburgh would give a scholarship to a black player.

In Fences, Wilson’s stepfather, Troy Maxson, is a proud, hardworking garbageman who once played baseball in the Negro Leagues. Embittered by the disappointments of his own life, Troy refuses to believe that times have changed when his son, Cory, is offered a football scholarship. Certain that athletics hold no hope of a better life for his son, Troy refuses to sign the necessary papers, effectively denying Cory his chance at a college education. Troy also deeply angers his wife when she...

(The entire section is 3985 words.)