Essays and Criticism
August Wilson Overview
Critics have hailed August Wilson as an important talent in the American theater since the mid- 1980s. He spent his childhood in poverty in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he lived with his parents and five siblings. Though he grew up in a poor family, Wilson felt that his parents withheld knowledge of even greater hardships they had endured. “My generation of blacks knew very little about the past of our parents,” he told the New York Times in 1984. “They shielded us from the indignities they suffered.” Wilson’s goal was to illuminate that shadowy past with plays that focus on black issues. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Fences, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, The Piano Lesson, Two Trains Running, and Seven Guitars are part of this ambitious project.
Wilson noted that his real education began when he was sixteen years old. Disgusted by the racist treatment he endured in the various schools he had attended until that time, he dropped out and began educating himself in the local library. Working at menial jobs, he also pursued a literary career and successfully submitted poems to black publications at the University of Pittsburgh. In 1968 he became active in the theater by founding—despite lacking prior experience—Black Horizons on the Hill, a theater company in Pittsburgh. Recalling his early theater involvement, Wilson described himself to the New York Times as “a cultural nationalist . . . trying to raise consciousness through theater.”
According to several observers, however, Wilson found his artistic voice—and began to appreciate the black voices of Pittsburgh—after he moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1978. In St. Paul Wilson wrote his first play, Jitney!, a realistic drama set in a Pittsburgh taxi station. Jitney!, noted for the fidelity with which it portrayed black urban speech and life, had a successful engagement at a small theater in Pittsburgh. Wilson followed Jitney! with another play, Fullerton Street, but this work failed to strengthen his reputation.
Wilson then resumed work on an earlier unfinished project, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a play about a black blues singer’s exploitation of her fellow musicians. This work, whose title role is named after an actual blues singer from the 1920s, is set in a recording studio in 1927. In the studio, temperamental Ma Rainey verbally abuses the other musicians and presents herself—without justification—as an important musical figure. But much of the play is also set in a rehearsal room, where Ma Rainey’s musicians discuss their abusive employer and the hardships of life in racist America.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom earned Wilson a trip to the O’Neill Theatre Center’s National Playwrights Conference. There Wilson’s play impressed director Lloyd Richards from the Yale Repertory Theatre. Richards worked with Wilson to refine the play, and when it was presented at Yale in 1984 it was hailed as the work of an important new playwright. Frank Rich, who reviewed the Yale production in the New York Times, acclaimed Wilson as “a major find for the American theater” and cited Wilson’s ability to write “with compassion, raucous humor and penetrating wisdom.”
Wilson enjoyed further success with Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom after the play came to Broadway later in 1984. Chicago Tribune contributor Richard Christiansen reviewed the Broadway production as “a work of intermittent but immense power” and commended the “striking beauty” of the play’s “literary and theatrical poetry.” Christiansen added that “Wilson’s power of language is sensational” and that Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was “the work of an impressive writer.” The London Times‘s Holly Hill agreed, calling Wilson “a promising new playwright” and hailing his work as “a remarkable first play.”
Wilson’s subsequent plays include the Pulitzer Prize-winning Fences, which is about a former athlete who forbids his son to accept an athletic scholarship, and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, which concerns an ex-convict’s efforts to find his wife. Like Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, these plays underwent extensive rewriting. Guiding Wilson in this process was Lloyd Richards, dean of Yale’s drama school and director of the school’s productions of Wilson’s plays. “August is a wonderful poet,” Richards told the New York Times in 1986. “A wonderful poet turning into a playwright.” Richards added that his work with Wilson involved “clarifying” each work’s main theme and “arranging the material in a dynamic way.”
Both Fences and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone were praised when they played on American stages. The New York Times‘s Frank Rich, in his review of Fences, wrote that the play “leaves no doubt that Mr. Wilson is a major writer, combining a poet’s ear for vernacular with a robust sense of humor (political and sexual), a sure instinct for cracking dramatic incident and passionate commitment to a great subject.” And in his critique of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Rich speculated that the play “will give a lasting voice to a...
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Wilson’s Nuanced Critique of African American Spiritual Organizations and Traditions
A Critical Analysis of August Wilson's Work
The Decade-long Progress and its “effects” on Black Americans
Set in 1969, Two Trains Running provides a gritty, unflinching look at the effects of a decade of great progress for black America. The progress covered many areas. The year 1962 saw the election of the first black man, Jackie Robinson, to baseball’s Hall of Fame and, thanks to the efforts of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, new highs in black voter registration in the deep South. Two years later, Dr. Martin Luther King won the Nobel Peace Prize and, a year after that, more than 3,000 people marched the 54 miles between Selma and Montgomery, Alabama. The list of breakthroughs continues. Justice Thurgood Marshall became the first black member of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967, and 1968 brought the passage of the Civil Rights Act. But many would feel let down by this landmark bill. The benefits of hindsight explains why. The failure of the act to create more equality and justice for blacks could have been predicted from the ugliness that preceded it. The murders of Malcolm X in 1965 and of Dr. King in 1968 belong in the same continuum as the slaying of civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964 and the deaths caused by riots in Watts in 1965 and Detroit in 1967.
This violence erupted for a reason. Despite the Black Power activism and the progress in civil rights legislation since 1962, blacks in America were still oppressed. Their future looked bleak. In the air were signs of the coming of cities that would be too fast, too crowded, and too smart to be easily endured by the black underclass, cities also marred by growing numbers of glue sniffers, heroin addicts, and hookers living in condemned buildings without electricity or running water. Unfolding in a transitional era, Two Trains Running (1992) describes urban blacks caught in the wash of social change. It depicts the clash of old and new energies— the relative ease of an old order faced by the anarchy of a new social agenda that includes the militant politics of the Nation of Islam. The ordeals of both the Middle Passage and the Great Migration have revived in the minds of Wilson’s people. For another population displacement is at hand; city planners are razing Pittsburgh’s Hill for an urban redevelopment plan without first providing for the residents’ relocation. There are other forebodings. Besides flattening a friendly, vibrant community that has meant home to many people, the proposed renewal scheme will create new, uglier slums that will aggravate Pittsburgh’s present ghettoization— the division of the city’s population by color and income. A larger public works program will replace neighborhood continuity with “projects,” big low-income, high-risk public housing. Symbolizing both the doomed organic community and the warm socializing buzz of the street is Memphis Lee’s homestyle restaurant, the setting for Wilson’s 1992 play. Like the jitney station in Wilson’s unpublished 1982 Jitney, Lee’s has been targeted for demolition by the city. Across the street from it stand a funeral home and a meat market, suggesting rapacity and even cannibalism. This looming devastation rivets us because the restaurant, it soon becomes clear, is more than a place of business. It’s also a makeshift community center and social club. People drop in at all hours for coffee and conversation. Neighborly and charitable, these denizens of Lee’s take up a collection to bail a local man out of jail so he can attend his wife’s funeral.
Yet Wilson is too ironic and socially aware to ride the flow of sentiment induced by the death of Bubba Boy’s wife. Capable of being tender and tough minded at the same time, he deliberately sited Trains in a climate of “urban decay” (McDonough, 153). The local supermarket, the five-and-ten, two drugstores, and the local doctor and dentist, it comes out early, have all left the Hill or gone out of business. “Ain’t nothing gonna be left but these niggers killing one another”, says Memphis, forecasting the inevitable upshot of this erosion of amenities and services. Nor can he stop the slide. Once a thriving business, his diner now has a small clientele. At the time of the first act, its larder consists only of a little coffee, some beans, frozen hamburger, and a box of rice. Memphis goes shopping during the course of the action for limited quantities of chicken, meat loaf, and pie he’d have stocked— and sold—in abundance during the diner’s earlier, palmier days.
On the subject of Memphis and his surviving clientele, Carla J. McDonough says, “a sense of detachment, decay, and dissolution pervades their talk. These men are separated from their families and are left very little in the way of companionship.” Marginalized and wounded they have become. West the mortician is the only local whose business has been thriving. He can forget the days when it took two weeks to get a broken toilet fixed. So lucrative is his mortuary that he no longer replaces broken window panes with wooden boards; his livery includes seven Cadillacs; looking to add to his millions, he has been buying up much of the real estate on the Hill so he can sell it back to the city at a profit before it’s razed. Memphis has also known prosperity, if not recently. Like West, he’s a property-owning driver of a Cadillac. But the devastation that has enriched West—including that caused by black-on-black crime—is threatening him. This wise investor sees the forced sale of the building he has divided into a diner and rental apartments taking away from him both a steady source of cash and a means of self-validation.
He and his cronies lead half lives, a sad truth suggested by their mostly being known by one name. Holloway has no woman, and West is a widower (widowers outnumber widows in Wilson). Hambone, Wolf, and Bubba Boy (another widower) are known only by their nicknames. Memphis Lee, whose first name is probably also a nickname, has a wife he rarely sees. Loneliness also frets the two characters who develop the play’s love interest. By default, the orphan-turned-bank-robber Sterling Johnson took the last name of an adoptive family he no longer sees. His putative mate, Clarissa Thomas, is always called Risa, denoting a loss of clarity or brightness in her life. The others share her plight. Gloom has gripped the doomed neighborhood with its shards of broken glass, thriving mortuary, and Bubba Boy’s newly dead wife. Wilson told Mark William Rocha in a 1992 interview that his intention in Two Trains Running was to show “that by 1969 nothing . . . changed for the black man.” In 1969, the efforts of the deceased Malcolm X and Dr. King, like the high-profile 1968 Civil Rights Act, did look futile. But futility hasn’t swallowed all, thanks to the synergy created by the play’s fusion of vision and voice. Supported by dialogue sinewy, charged, and sometimes hilarious, the ambiguity that permeates Wilson’s beliefs about social progress for blacks provokes more debate than grief.
Life on the Edge By all reasonable standards, the people in Trains qualify as losers—depressing to think about and painful to watch. That they fuse as a winning, engaging group whose doings fascinate us counts as a small miracle. This feat hinges in part on the deft and always entertaining techniques Wilson uses to drive a grim story. In part it hinges on Wilson’s belief in the inadequacy of reason to explain life’s mysteries. This belief, if unoriginal, is both hard won and moving. Wilson is the opposite of an ideologue. He hates ideologies and dogmas. To him, they’re narrow and partisan, and they do great harm. They also make politicians look clumsy and stupid at times when they need flexibility and breadth of outlook. This truth explains a great deal in Trains. A minute into the play a character says, “The NAACP got all kinds of lawyers. It don’t do nobody no good.” Wilson would probably approve this verdict. He’s as hostile to collective solutions as was Ellison in Invisible Man. Pereira sees him directing that hostility toward recent attempts by black activists to improve their people’s chances for justice and equality. The death of Wilson’s Prophet Samuel, Pereira claims, coming soon after those of Malcolm X and Dr. King, signals the failure of the civil rights movement in the United States. The ballyhoo created by both Prophet Samuel’s funeral and the monster rally for Malcolm X supports Pereira’s claim.
Prophet Samuel confirms Wilson’s genius for driving a plot with a character who never shows his face to the audience. That face is seen off-stage, though mostly by the undertaker West, since the prophet died just before opening curtain. But others have been thronging not only to see that face but also to touch it. Prophet Samuel had enjoyed roaring success preaching the doctrine of freedom and dignity through the acquisition of wealth. Though this dovetailing of material and spiritual blessings squares with mainstream Yankee Protestantism, Wilson rejects it with the same scorn he aims at the Black Power movement. Signs that Prophet Samuel represents a false direction include his sleazy background. Like Rinehart in Invisible Man, he’s a huckster of religion with a criminal past who bleeds his own people. His death, which might have been caused by poison, suggests the same spiritual paralysis called forth by the dead priest in James Joyce’s “The Sisters,” from Dubliners. Sisters are what Prophet Samuel’s devotees might have called themselves, but the bonds he had with them were rumored to have been sexual. In fact, the poison that may have killed him would have been fed to him by a jealous female retainer.
Though based on hearsay, this possibility stays alive. For poison could have driven the disorder that follows his death: a fight caused by someone who tries to crash the line of mourners waiting to pay their last respects, an opportunist who would charge admission to see the corpse, and an attempted late-night burglary of the funeral parlor where the corpse was laid out all imply a poisoning of the social order Prophet Samuel had allegedly set out to redeem. He always walked with corruption and fraud. Shannon has discussed the carnival atmosphere he liked surrounding himself with both to amuse his followers and to distract them from his ignorance of the living God: “Even after his death, Prophet Samuel is able to attract hordes of people—the hopeless, the desperate, or simply the curious. While alive, he enjoyed a popular ministry based upon a mixture of showbiz antics, con artistry, and an immodest display of religiosity: he wore robes, went shoeless, and with much fanfare, baptized converts in a nearby river.”
As is shown by the disruptions following Prophet Samuel’s death, such extravaganza inhibits both social and spiritual uplift. Wilson, duly warned, resists imposing either an arbitrary aesthetic order or a political agenda on his materials. Reflecting the disarray he sees around him, his theater addresses the challenge of maintaining a belief that defies reason. Warrior spirits like Troy Maxson and Boy Willie Charles break so many rules making this provocative leap of faith that they foil themselves. The issue revives in Trains, a work that posits a new ontology with its fusions of logic and nonsense and of the outlandish and the factual. Defying huge odds, the number 621 hits for the second time within a week. Sterling’s number will also win but with mixed results, since it’s cut in half, paying only 300 to 1 rather than the customary 600 to 1. Reason and common sense come under question as early as midway through the first scene when, moments after claiming that she has been cleaning a chicken, Risa admits that the diner is out of chicken. Undeterred, her boss, Memphis, will soon tell her to fry the nonexistent chicken, to which she replies that she’s already frying it.
Obviously, the world of Wilson’s people regulates itself by a mystique far removed from Western pragmatism. Embodying this mystique is a 322-year-old woman named Aunt Ester, who lives at 1839 Wylie, just minutes away from Memphis’s diner, the Wylie Avenue address of which is 1621. But the August Wilson of Trains varies his usual practice of siting salvation close to the miseenscène. Though suggesting sexual passion, the red door of Aunt Ester’s apartment leads to inner peace and self-acceptance. But these blessings aren’t open to all. She speaks in riddles, and, like that of Bynum in Joe Turner, her wisdom is more of a challenge than a quick fix. She makes Sterling come to her three times before admitting him. Her standards are high. She will rid people like Sterling of their bad energy, but anyone who approaches her with selfish motives will walk away empty-handed. In particular, she refuses to help those who want her to show them how to get rich. Indicative of the times they’re living in, five characters in the play (four speaking parts and Prophet Samuel) ask her help. What she says to them reaches us only in rough outline, Wilson deliberately avoiding telling all. As he should; one of the privileges of being alive consists of moving forward in the dark. Were all life’s riddles and mysteries disclosed to us, faith would be drained of meaning, and the afterlife would lack purpose. Thus Risa, a follower of the charlatan Prophet Samuel and a no-show at Aunt Ester’s, gives Sterling his winning number, 781, but withholds its import from him. Defying reason, she also claims that the deranged Hambone has more sense than any of the other patrons of the diner.
Perhaps insight into the play’s larger meaning lies in its title. Memphis says that every day two trains run back to his hometown of Jackson, Mississippi. He hopes that he’ll soon board one to reclaim the farm that was stolen from him in 1931. He has judged his prospects well. Any train is a blind, amoral force, like money, a subject the characters argue about often. Memphis could hop on either of the two trains that leave daily from Pittsburgh. The sense of mission impelling him will endow the morally neutral train he takes with value; the moral drama must come from him if it’s to come at all. Observing unity of place, Wilson ends the play before Memphis’s long-awaited train ride to Jackson. But he does talk about the play’s title in terms applicable to Memphis. His words appear both on the back cover of the 1993 Plume paperback reprint of the play and in the playbill (p. 34) of the 1992 Broadway production at the Walter Kerr Theater: “There are always and only two trains running. There is life and there is death. Each of us rides them both. To live life with dignity, to celebrate and accept responsibility for your presence in the world is all that can be asked of anyone.”
Dignity and personal responsibility are virtues that members of an underclass, particularly a transient one, can rarely afford to cultivate. The frequency in the canon of both trains and the blues, Wilson’s main source of artistic inspiration, calls forth the idea of transience, specifically the Great Migration and the many family breakups it caused. Romare Bearden, the black American painter and collagist whose work inspired both Joe Turner and The Piano Lesson, referred to trains more gently when he said in 1977, “Negroes lived near the tracks, worked on the railroads, and trains carried them North during the migration.” Wilson prefers the darker tones. Doaker, who spent 27 years working on the railroad, says in Piano Lesson about train passengers, “They leaving cause they can’t get satisfied.” To him, trains symbolize failure to cope. Rather than staying home and trying to solve their problems, the fainthearted think that riding a train to a new town will make them go away.
They’re wrong. Rather than staying behind in Mississippi, Sutter’s ghost spent the three weeks before the opening curtain preparing for Boy Willie’s arrival in Pittsburgh. Moreover, a train will sooner or later carry Boy Willie back to the Mississippi town where his journey began. Both the sound made by an approaching train at the end of the play and Boy Willie’s last question “Hey, Doaker, what time the train leave?” reinstate the realities that rule most of Wilson’s people—anxiety and the illusion of freedom.
A character whose financial and emotional distress converts to physical disquiet in Trains is Sterling. Recalling Wilson’s other jobless young men just out of jail, such as Booster in Jitney and Lymon in Piano Lesson, Sterling is afraid that his new freedom offers no promise of a happy, productive life. So haunted is he by the fear of returning to jail that at times he seems to be inviting arrest. Self-preservation has never been his forte. Ten minutes after he robbed a bank, he was spending the stolen money. Yet, as Shannon says, he’s no more of a monster than was the boyishly endearing Lymon: “Sterling is a strangely off-beat character. Far from presenting the hard-core image one might expect, he appears painfully naive—almost childlike.” The good luck he claims to have been born with has deserted him. Unable to find work, he tries in vain to sell his watch. The job he held after his release from prison lasted only a week, at which time he was laid off. Or so he says; according to Memphis, Sterling quit. Holloway, the play’s griot figure, agrees; if Sterling wanted to work, he’d have a job, Holloway believes. Holloway and Memphis could be right. It’s possible that Sterling’s youthful charm stems from his immaturity. One of the most intriguing questions posed by Trains is whether Sterling (the Laurence Fishburne role in the 1992 Walter Kerr Theater production) can ever become a contented, peaceable member of society.
Alas, most of the evidence is negative. Lacking a sense of process, the boyish Sterling wants the rewards of labor without the toil: he steals some flowers from a memorial to give Risa because “it’s silly to buy flowers” ; he also steals a five-gallon can full of gasoline. And it may also have been Sterling who broke West’s window while trying to burglarize the mortuary after dark (he’ll break a storefront window later in the play). Spending five years in prison didn’t wipe out his criminal streak. Giving up his job search quickly, he buys a handgun, which he believes will help him access the material goods he wants but lacks the patience to work for. Holloway and Memphis both judge well when they envision him back in jail within weeks. Judging from his recklessness, they’ve skewed their timetables in his favor.
The person he’d sadden most by returning to prison is Risa. Like Lymon of Piano Lesson, he charms women rather than trying to over-power them. Risa is moved by his gentleness. He rejects her offer of beans in act 1, scene 1, explaining that he has been eating beans for the past five years. But a couple of days later, he gladly eats the beans she serves him, even asking for a second bowl. He has touched Risa. Within minutes, she twice uses the phrase “the right person” while discussing dancing partners, implying that she might welcome his attentions. But what kind of future would these attentions foster? Though uneducated, Risa is both sharp and caring. Other characters have misread this beguiling combination. Memphis miscues when he calls her “a mixed-up personality”, and the numbers runner Wolf falls just as wide of the mark with his reductive summary, “all she need is a man.” Risa defies definitions and formulas. Although constantly rebuked by Memphis, she’s confident she won’t be fired. She and Memphis both know that the diner is more than just a business establishment. To maintain its status as a surrogate home, it needs the female presence she gives it. Thus, without admitting it, Memphis prizes her kindness and warmth. What’s more, the success he attains could well come from the wisdom he exercises by emulating her rarest quality—a fierce independence.
Like the others in the play, Risa is a lonely person awaiting redemption through love. But she wants love on her own strict terms, and it can only be shared with “the right person.” Wilson fills in the background to the formation of these requirements. Some time before the play’s present-tense action, perhaps as long as six years ago, she slashed her legs. Her scars depict her protest to being classified sexually or appraised as a possible bedmate. In the interest of building a long-term bond, she wants to turn the attention of any would-be male admirer to her inner self. She doesn’t regret the 15 scars on her legs. To her, they still express a wish to be appreciated in her totality. There’s much in her to appreciate. She speaks gently to Hambone, gives him a coat to wear, and feeds him whenever he comes into the diner. Though a follower of the Prophet Samuel, she’ll attend neither his funeral nor the big rally for Malcolm X. She doesn’t need the support of crowds to shore up her beliefs. Her values are personal, not collective, and she rates any leader’s example over his mortal remains. (She will skip Hambone’s funeral, too.)
Like everybody else, she knows, too, that love on one’s own terms misses love. Thus she’ll have to relax her agenda, fine as it is. Without protesting, she hears both Wolf and Sterling call her “baby.” Protests wouldn’t help her, anyway. She wants to share a special bond with a man she hopes might be Sterling. But she sees with a sinking heart that Sterling’s sexual interest in her has put him on a par with all the other men who have courted her for the past six years; “You just want what everybody else want”, she tells him. She wasn’t expecting the reply she gets from him. By slashing her legs, he says, she violated nature. What’s natural, he continues, is for a man to notice the charms of a pretty woman and then take steps to enjoy them. Instead of marring her legs, she should have simply used them to walk away from any man whose advances she found unwelcome.
Whether this argument convinces her is not clear. More obvious is her inability to fight the attraction she feels for him. Her reason tells her to resist him: “You ain’t got no job. You going back to the penitentiary. I don’t want to be tied up with nobody I got to be worrying is they gonna rob another bank or something.” Her message is clear. She’s doomed if she builds her life around an ex-con who doesn’t know right from wrong. But within minutes of explaining to Sterling his unfitness as a mate, she’s dancing with him and then kissing him. Her instincts have defeated her judgment. Wilson supplies the foreshadowing to show that Sterling has been wearing down her judgment longer than she suspects. Just as she violated her principles by accepting his bouquet of stolen flowers, so will she later accept him as a lover.
This cautious, self-protective woman’s worst nightmare threatens to burst into reality. As has been seen, Sterling and the job that was waiting for him after he served his jail sentence parted company after a week. Nor has he learned from this setback. When told that he lacks the education to get “one of them white folks’ jobs making eight or nine thousand dollars a year,” he replies in terms redolent of Troy Maxson or Boy Willie: “I can do anything the white man can do. If the truth be told . . . most things I can do better.” This arrogance can only land him back in jail. Within moments of voicing it, he starts shopping for a handgun. And not only is the handgun he buys illegal; it’s also one he had already owned and gotten rid of because it malfunctioned. Spending five years in prison hasn’t improved his judgment. Later, he takes the gun to the racketeer who halved the payout for the number that hit on the day Sterling bet on it. The four or five gorillas, or bodyguards, surrounding Mr. Albert show Sterling that his unannounced visit to the crime boss was a bad mistake. Wisely, he didn’t start brandishing his gun in Albert’s stronghold. He’s probably as ready for an audience with Aunt Ester as he’ll ever be.
Rocha says of this ancient conjuress whom death seems to have forgotten, “Aunt Ester is to be taken as the original African American, as old as the black experience in America” (Nadel, 128). Regardless of her exact age (three figures are mooted, ranging from 300 to 349), it approximates the length of time that Africans have been living in North America. The matriarch of the Charles family of Sunflower County, Mississippi, in Piano Lesson has the name Mama Ester. Perhaps the two like-named women embody the same ancestral wisdom. Holloway’s claim regarding Aunt Ester, “She ain’t gonna die, I can guarantee you that”, besides reflecting a Borgesian acceptance of the bizarre, puts her beyond human processes. Her exemption from the categories that define the rest of us empowers her to boost Sterling’s spirits. Before meeting her, Sterling believed that the world was about to end. Afterwards, he determines to marry Risa. Aunt Ester vitalizes him by advising him to be the best person he can, using the qualities given him. These qualities, she believes, will suffice him. If he stays within himself and cultivates what he finds there, he’ll prosper. She closes their session with her usual mandate—that he throw $20 into the Monongahela River.
The session helps him, perhaps most of all because he obeys her mandate. Soon after returning to the diner, he sings. Then he and Risa dance and kiss to the accompaniment of an Aretha Franklin tune coming from the diner’s recently repaired jukebox. Music has again promoted uplift and cheer in a Wilson playscript. But how long will its happy sway last? The next morning, Sterling robs a local store, reopening a path for himself to the jail where he just served time. He no longer regrets having been born. He’ll even help further the continuance of the world he thought was about to end by having the children he had earlier forsworn. In fact, he may have fathered one in the hours that lapsed between the torrid kiss he shared with Risa at the end of act 2, scene 4, and the opening of the play’s final scene the next morning.
But the criminal streak he discloses several times during the action implies that Risa will have to raise any offspring she has with Sterling alone. Having gone six years without sex, this paradigm of restraint and integrity finally lowers her guard for an amoral adolescent. His not being a Black Power activist has made him an anomaly among his peers. What brings this 30-year-old into the mainstream is his lawlessness. The numbers runner Wolf’s comment, “every nigger you see done been to jail one time or another”, applies more strictly to Sterling than to anyone else in the play. Unfortunately, the person who stands to suffer the most from its recoil action is Risa. In a truth borne out by Rose in Fences and Berniece in Piano Lesson, the women in Wilson’s plays often suffer the most for the misdeeds of their men.
Source: Peter Wolfe, “Forever under Attack,” in August Wilson, Twayne Publishers, 1999, pp. 110–20.