What role do generations play in August Wilson's work?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It is not accidental that the drama encompasses the African- American experience through the lens of characters at different points of the generational trajectory.  Bynum embodies the older generation whose link to the past is essential for African- American identity.  His opening desire to search for the "shiny man" and his knowledge of the "Binding Song" helps to enhance the idea that much in way of the direction for African- American identity rests in understanding its rich and intense past.  The ending in which Bynum calls out to Herald that he is "shining like new money" represents how the past should be able to look to the present and future as its extension.

The current generation is seen as searching for identity.  Given the emergence out of slavery, the Great Migration, and what Wilson sees as struggling with the present and future in the shadow of the past, the current generation is one in which there is a sense of fluctuating definition. Herald searches for his identity, thinking that it rests in finding his wife.  The ending in which he leaves Martha after having found her is one in which Wilson, through his stage directions, makes a direct statement about the current generation.  The current generation has to accept "the responsibility" for their own presence in the world.  This is challenging when so many forces make this less than lucid.  Mattie seeks to retreat back into a condition of enslavement of sorts in order to evade the pain of having to make critical and defining choices about her present, while Molly strides confidently towards the future with no hesitation about closing the door of the past. Jeremy's talent and his sense of distinction is impacted with a rootlessness that defines the current generation of African- Americans in the work that struggle with understanding the present in the "lightness" of being.  Bertha is a part of this current generation, even though she is on the aged side of the spectrum.  A maternal figure who is able to offer insight and advice to those who are younger, she awaits to see if her words will be embraced, while her husband, Seth, seeks to make a life of relative comfort from his talents in a condition that does not fully embrace them, placing obstacles of discrimination and challenge in his path.  This current generation is one in which the verdict of how the arc of identity will be formed is far from complete.

The youngest generation is seen in characters like Zonia and Reuben.  There is much in way of hope in this generation.  Zonia and Reuben share a pure love for one another, and will heed the call of "the binding song" when they are older.  Reuben rejects materialism in his own way and honors the wishes of his past, in the form of Eugene, regarding his pigeons.  Zonia sets out with her father to find her mother and does so, going with her in the end.  In the future generation, Wilson sees a spark of hope in that they will be able to absorb the lessons from the current generation's challenge.  Standing on their shoulders, they will be able to advance into a generational definition that is more clear than their predecessors.  It is in this light where generations play a vital role in understanding the cultural dimensions of identity in Wison's work.

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Joe Turner's Come and Gone

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