August Wilson Drama Analysis
Each of August Wilson’s major plays dramatizes the African American experience in a different decade of the twentieth century, and the action of each play is driven by the arrival or presence of a character who has what Wilson calls the “warrior spirit,” the quality that makes a man dissatisfied and determined to change or disrupt the status quo. Each of the plays is affected by Wilson’s feeling for the blues, music that he calls the “flag bearer of self-definition” for African Americans. Characters sing the blues, music is called for in scene transitions, and the rhythms of the dialogue reflect the blues. His plays are written to be performed on a single setting with action that is chronological. While he writes within the genre of psychological realism, each play displays a different degree of adherence to structure and plotting. His characters, mostly men, are African Americans uncertain of their own places in the world.
One of Wilson’s greatest strengths is with language: The authenticity and rhythms of the dialogue and the colorful vitality of metaphor and storytelling connect him to the oral tradition of the African American and African cultures. He discussed in an interview the indirect quality of black speech, with its circling of issues and answers that are not answers. Characters answer the question they think is intended, not necessarily the one that is expressed. This language, in fact, often becomes the unique poetry of his drama. The language is full of implied meanings and dependent on tonal quality for interpretation. Wilson also places increasing emphasis with each play on the superstitions and beliefs that affect his characters. These superstitions seem to come from a mixture of Christianity, ancient African religions, and street wisdom.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
In Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Wilson uses a historical figure, “Mother of the Blues” singer Ma Rainey, and invents a story around her. The setting is a simultaneous representation of a 1927 recording studio and a band-rehearsal room. Overlooking the studio from the control booth are Ma’s white producer and white agent, their presence and location a graphic symbol of white society’s control over black music.
The dialogue seems to meander through silly and inconsequential matters. The underlying seriousness of these matters becomes apparent as the characters reveal their ways of coping with the white world. Ma Rainey plays the prima donna (note the pun in the play’s title) while she acknowledges to her band that, like all black artists, she is exploited. Her music is her “way of understanding life.” Wilson centers her in the play, a dynamic and colorful presence, but the character central to the action is Levee.
Levee has that warrior spirit. The tragic irony is that when he lashes out and kills, he kills the only educated band member in the play. His urge for self-sufficiency (to have his own band and make his own music) becomes self-destructive. By application, Wilson suggests that the misplaced rage of his race can result in self-destruction. The grimly serious resolution to this play does not describe the tone of lightness and humor in much that precedes it. It is Levee’s appetite that drives the play, sometimes comically, and it is his frustrated hunger that causes an unnecessary death.
Wilson’s second major work, Fences, won a Pulitzer Prize in Drama as well as Tony Awards for Wilson, the director, and two actors. It centers on the dynamic, volatile character Troy Maxson and takes place primarily in 1957. Troy is the warrior character whose spirit disrupts his own life as well as those of his sons and wife. Often inviting comparison with Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (pr., pb. 1949), the play dramatizes the life of a baseball player prevented from realizing his big-league dreams by the color barrier, overcome too late for him. Fences is about a man’s battle with life and his emotional, sometimes irrational way of facing unfairness, pain, love, and hate. The fence that Troy built around his life, like that built around his home, could neither shut out the world’s injustice nor protect his family or himself from his shortcomings. The final scene occurs after Troy’s death in 1965, when others can express feelings about Troy that were not articulated before. This scene provides a quietly emotional contrast to the intensely alive Troy of the previous eight scenes. It is a necessary scene and yet points up the failure of father and son to express directly what they felt in their earlier confrontation.
Troy’s brother, Gabriel, whose head injury from the war has made him believe himself to be God’s angel Gabriel, provides a kind of mystical presence. Wilson uses his madness for a theatrically effective closing to the play. When Gabriel discovers that his horn will not blow to open the gates of heaven for Troy, he performs a weird “dance of atavistic signature and ritual” and howls a kind of song to open the gates. This marks the beginning of Wilson’s increasing use of ritual, myth, and superstition in his plays.
Joe Turner’s Come and Gone
In Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Wilson reaches farther back into the historical black experience. As in the old blues song of the same title, the brother of the governor of Tennessee, Joe Turner, found and enslaved groups of black men. Herald Loomis, the mysterious central character in this play, was so enslaved in 1901 and not released for seven years. The play dramatizes his search for his wife, which is actually a search for himself. His arrival at a Pittsburgh boardinghouse in 1911 disrupts and disturbs, creating the tension and significance of the drama.
Another boardinghouse resident, Bynum, establishes his identity as a “conjure man” or “rootworker” early in the play. Bynum’s search for his “shiny man” becomes a thematic and structural tie for the play. At the end of the first act, during a joyous African call-and-response dance, Loomis has a sort of ecstatic fit, ending with his being unable to stand and walk. Some kind of dramatic resolution must relate Bynum’s vision and Loomis’s quest. It comes in the final scene when wife Martha returns and Loomis learns that his quest is still unrealized. Wilson describes Loomis’s transformation in actions rather than words. His wife does not restore him, nor does her religion restore him. In desperation, he turns a knife on himself, rubs his hands and face in his own blood, looks down at his hands, and says,...
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