Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3985
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 learns that he has fathered a child by another woman, an act that destroys the bond that has held the couple together throughout their bleak life together.
At the heart of the play’s father/son conflict is an unbridgeable disparity between Troy and Cory’s abilities to believe that society can indeed change the way it treats black Americans. Although Troy’s unbending harshness often casts him in an unsympathetic light, Wilson grounds his character’s personality in the frustrations and injustices that have shaped the course of his life. Cory is unable to understand the full impact of the events that have influenced his father’s attitudes, and the two men ultimately engage in a showdown that destroys their relationship.
Fences is also a story about relationships between husbands and wives, and in Rose Maxson, Wilson has created one of his strongest female characters. Rose’s rage at her husband’s betrayal, her articulate refusal to accept his justifications as valid, and her painful decision to raise Troy’s illegitimate daughter as her own all mark her as a complex and remarkable character.
Wilson’s plays are notable for the powerful voice given to black women as well as black men, and nowhere is this more in evidence than in the compassionate, impassioned characterization of Rose. Her words speak for a generation of black women, just as her husband’s life embodies the hardships faced by black men.
The Piano Lesson
First produced: 1987 (first published, 1990)
Type of work: Play
A brother and sister argue over a family heirloom, a piano that represents their heritage as the descendants of slaves.
The Piano Lesson brought Wilson his second Pulitzer Prize in drama, and, as in Fences, its subject is a family conflict. The story is set in 1930’s Pittsburgh, where Doaker Charles lives with his niece, Berniece, and her young daughter, Maretha. The arrival of Berniece’s brother, Boy Willie, from Mississippi sets the plot in motion, as Boy Willie declares his intention of selling a piano that holds a unique place in the family’s history.
Originally owned by a man named Sutter, who had received it in payment for Doaker’s grandmother and father, the piano was carved by Doaker’s grandfather with scenes depicting the family’s life in slavery. Berniece refuses to part with such a powerful symbol of her family’s terrible history, while Boy Willie hopes to earn enough from the sale to buy Sutter’s land from his descendants.
At the center of the pair’s disagreement is the issue of confronting rather than rejecting the African American heritage of slavery. For Berniece, the piano is a source of strength; it reminds her of the courage and endurance shown by her ancestors, and she believes that selling the piano would be a denial of that history. Boy Willie believes in looking only to the future, and he cannot understand his sister’s refusal to part with the instrument.
An unexpected dimension is added to the story with Berniece and Doaker’s declarations that they have seen the ghost of Sutter’s grandson, whom Berniece believes Boy Willie murdered in order to get his land. The ghost is a very real presence in the play; Wilson was not afraid to incorporate aspects of the supernatural in his work and also did so in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.
In both plays, phenomena that might be dismissed as fantastic are embraced as an outgrowth of African culture and are incorporated into the story in imaginative and effective ways. The Piano Lesson’s dramatic conflict is resolved when Boy Willie does battle with the ghost as Berniece draws on the power of the piano itself to exorcise the spirit. The action is both dramatically compelling and a stunning symbolic evocation of the power that black history can bring to those who embrace it.
Two Trains Running
First produced: 1992 (first published, 1993)
Type of work: Play
Wilson identifies the two trains in his title as two inevitabilities that humans face: life and death.
Part of his ten-play cycle, one for each decade of the century, Two Trains Running takes place in Pittsburgh in 1969 during a period of both hope and despair for African Americans.
Early in the decade, Jackie Robinson was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, the first black player to achieve such an honor. Registration of southern black voters reached new levels. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and the following year led three thousand people on a fifty-four-mile protest march between Selma and Montgomery, Alabama. Thurgood Marshall became the first black Supreme Court Justice in 1967, and in 1968 the Civil Rights Act was passed by Congress.
Despite such progress, civil rights workers, black and white, were murdered as they attempted to secure equal rights for southern black people. Dr. King was murdered in 1968, as Malcolm X had been three years earlier. It is against such a backdrop that Wilson sets his play, which takes place in Memphis Lee’s homestyle family restaurant, a gathering place for black people that faces demolition as the neighborhood in which it is located encounters urban renewal.
The regulars at Lee’s are a mortician, a bookie, a street philosopher, and a man who is disturbed by petty injustices. Into the setting Wilson interposes Sterling, an African American who wants to preserve the spirit and philosophy of Malcolm X.
Sterling, a former convict, begins to hit on Risa, the restaurant’s sole waitress and cook, who has disfigured herself to discourage the sorts of advances that Sterling is making. Meanwhile, Memphis Lee has larger concerns, most notably his struggle with city hall to get at least a fair price for his restaurant if and when it is razed.
In this play, Wilson forces his characters to look into themselves and to discover who they really are and what they really want. Memphis certainly is ambiguous. He would like to keep his restaurant, but he also is plotting to feather his nest if he cannot do so, which is only prudent. In this play, Wilson illustrates convincingly that people are the stories that they tell. Their very identities lurk in the stories, both fictional and nonfictional, that they create.
First produced: 1995 (first published, 1996)
Type of work: Play
Five friends remember a murdered man just after his funeral.
The play opens with five friends—Canewell, Vera, Red Carter, Hedley, and Louise—gathered in the backyard of a Pittsburgh house. They have just returned from the cemetery where they paid their final respects to their friend Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton, mysteriously murdered at thirty-five. It is 1948.
Ironically, his death occurs at precisely the time that his first blues records is fast becoming a hit. The scene is somber until Louise, Floyd’s landlady, erupts with a ribald song, which imparts a joviality to what had been a sad event.
As the play develops, Floyd’s assembled friends recount memories of him and, in a series of flashbacks through which much of the play is revealed, elements of their lives and of Floyd’s are presented and assessed.
Some of the people who attended the funeral swear that they saw angels at the cemetery. Vera insists that she saw six angels, one for each of the mourners and one for Floyd. Louise doubts the presence of angels at Floyd’s funeral, but hers is a minority opinion.
Wilson uses the angels to represent the roles that Floyd’s friends played in his life and the role Floyd played in the lives of his friends who are assembled in his memory. Wilson points to the exploitation that African Americans suffer at the hands of white society. Floyd has been exploited, but now that success is palpable, he will not be alive to enjoy it.
Part of the success of Seven Guitars is attributable to Wilson’s intimate knowledge and understanding of African American society. In one of the flashbacks, Wilson reveals to the audience that Vera and Floyd were once lovers but that their romance was tempestuous. Floyd, in his frequent trips to Chicago, had become involved with Pearl Brown, the knowledge of which drives a wedge between him and Vera.
Floyd attempts to remove this wedge by sending Vera a love letter. Not trusting himself to write a sufficiently beguiling letter to her, however, he turns to a friend at the workhouse who specializes in writing letters for others. He pays him fifty cents to produce a letter that he hopes will bring about a reconciliation with Vera.
Floyd, who has been in the workhouse, has kept records of what will be owed him upon his release for the work he did there. He hopes to start a new life with the paltry sum that he is owed. He dreams of getting out of pawn the electric guitar that he hocked earlier. Upon his release, he finds that the documentation he needs to receive what is due him has disappeared and that the payment date to redeem his guitar has passed.
Floyd’s situation is comparable to that of playwright Jonathan Larson, whose play Rent (1996), having been rejected by several producers, was finally accepted for a production at a 150-seat Off-Broadway theater. During rehearsals, Larson complained of chest pains and, twenty-four hours before Rent’s premiere, died of an aortic aneurysm. His play was highly successful and was moved to Broadway for a long run. Larson’s situation was in the forefront of Wilson’s mind as he wrote Seven Guitars.
King Hedley II
First produced: 2001 (first published, 2005)
Type of work: Play
Set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District in the 1980’s, the play focuses on King Hedley, recently granted a parole from prison, where he has been confined after being convicted of killing a youth who had slashed him in a knife fight.
King Hedley II is the eighth play in August Wilson’s ten-play cycle that, decade by decade, examines African American life in the United States during the twentieth century.
King Hedley’s wish, now that he has returned to Pittsburgh from prison, is to support himself by selling refrigerators and to start a family. Some of the characters in this play were presented earlier in Seven Guitars; this leads to a bit of confusion, as Wilson anticipates that audiences will remember these characters from a play produced seven years earlier. If they fail to remember them, then they may at times be bewildered by a lack of information about them in the present play.
Despite this limitation, King Hedley II is a remarkable achievement. In the play, Wilson reached new pinnacles of expression, writing at times with the lyricism that he had been developing in his earlier work but that he had never achieved to quite the extent that he does in King Hedley II. One reviewer compared the structure of the play to that of a Gothic cathedral, with its intricate design, flying buttresses, and multipurpose gargoyles.
The play is set during the Reagan administration, with its emphasis on supply-side economics aimed at providing trickle-down benefits to all Americans. Most African Americans are still awaiting the trickling down that is supposed to improve their economic conditions.
The new parolee, King Hedley, has left prison with the resolve to control his temper, which has gotten him into trouble in the past. He is also determined to become legitimate, but not before he has, through illegal activity (notably selling stolen refrigerators), accumulated a nest egg so that he can settle down and start a family.
Hedley becomes haunted by this past when his mother, Ruby, suggests that King Hedley I might not have been his father. He also must cope with having impregnated Tonya, whose own seventeen-year-old daughter is an unmarried mother. Tonya wants to terminate her pregnancy, but King wants an heir and will not consent to an abortion for her. To add stability to their economic situation, King robs a jewelry store, leading to his downfall.
Wilson deals in this play, as in many of his other plays, with the inability of many African Americans to better themselves because the dominant society has stacked the cards against them. In King Hedley II, audiences are presented with the consequences of this social disbalance.
Gem of the Ocean
First produced: 2003 (first published, 2006)
Type of work: Play
Set in 1904, this play is chronologically the earliest in Wilson’s ten-play cycle.
This ninth play in August Wilson’s ten-play cycle examining African American life in the United States during the twentieth century had one of the shortest runs of any Wilson play. The play, which originally ran for over three hours, was reduced to a two-and-a-half hour production when it was brought to Broadway after its Los Angeles premiere.
Audiences are immediately forced to suspend their disbelief when they learn that the play’s protagonist, Aunt Ester Tyler, is 287 years old. She was born when the first slave ships left Africa for the New World, has survived more than two centuries of slavery, and now experiences a freedom legally granted by the Emancipation Proclamation but withheld by most of the dominant, white society.
The characters that Wilson creates in this play are arresting. Besides Aunt Ester, in whose house in Pittsburgh’s Hill District much of the play takes place, there is Solly, a slave who escaped to Canada but returned at his own peril to help slaves escape via the Underground Railroad. He points to sixty-two slaves whom he has helped to free in this way. Citizen Barlow is a troubled character who has committed a murder that was pinned on an innocent man, who drowns himself rather than face prosecution in white-dominated courts.
Much of the action of the play involves discontent among black mill workers. This unrest results in the torching of the mill by Solly and Citizen Barlow, who have to flee from Caesar, the constable out to find the perpetrators of the unrest and subsequent fire.
As in all the plays in this cycle, Gem of the Ocean exudes an irony that demonstrates how it is almost impossible for poor African Americans to lead ethical lives in a society that is unwilling to grant them equal opportunities. If black people commit crimes far in excess of those committed by white people, then it is largely because their backs are to the wall in an unjust society.