Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2711
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, “I’m standing. My legs stood up! I’m standing now!” It is at this point that he has found his “song of self-sufficiency.” Wilson’s rather poetic stage directions articulate a redemption that Loomis cannot verbalize, risking audience misinterpretation.
Bynum’s final line of the play recognizes Loomis as a shiny man, the shiny man who can tell him the meaning of life. The suggestion of a Christ figure is unmistakable, and yet Loomis’s soul is not cleansed through religious belief. He has denied the Christ of the white man, despite Martha’s pleading. His epiphany is in finding himself. Joe Turner has come but he has also gone. Herald Loomis finds his identity in his own African roots, not in the slave identity that the white Joe Turner had given him.
The Piano Lesson
With his fourth major play, Wilson crafts a more tightly structured plot. In fact, The Piano Lesson is stronger thematically and structurally than it is in character development. The characters serve to dramatize the conflict between the practical use of a family heritage to create a future, and a symbolic treasuring of that heritage to honor the past. The piano, which bears the blood of their slave ancestors, is the focus of the conflict between Boy Willie and his sister, Berniece. Its exotic carvings, made by their great grandfather, tell the story of their slave ancestors who were sold in exchange for the piano. Its presence in the northern home of Berniece and her Uncle Doaker represents the life of their father who died stealing it back from Sutter.
Berniece is embittered and troubled not only by the piano and her father’s death but also by her mother’s blood and tears that followed that death and by the loss of her own husband. In contrast, Boy Willie is upbeat and funny, an optimistic, ambitious, and boyish man who is sure he is right in wanting to sell the piano to buy Sutter’s land. He has the warrior spirit. Throughout the play, the presence of Sutter’s ghost is seen or felt. Sutter’s ghost seems to represent the control that the white man still exerts over this family in 1937. Boy Willie chooses to ignore the ghost, to accuse his sister of imagining it, but ultimately it is Boy Willie who must wrestle with the ghost.
Wilson has said that this play had five endings because Berniece and Boy Willie are both right. The conflict is indeed unresolved as Boy Willie leaves, telling Berniece that she had better keep playing that piano or he and Sutter could both come back. The lesson of the piano is twofold: Berniece has learned that she should use her heritage, rather than let it fester in bitterness, and Boy Willie has learned that he cannot ignore the significance of this piano, which symbolizes the pain and suffering of all of his ancestors. There is little in the play that deviates from the central conflict. The skill of Wilson’s writing is seen in the interplay of characters bantering and arguing, in the indirect quality of questions that are not answered, and in the storytelling. While characters may serve primarily as symbols and plot devices, they are nevertheless vivid and credible.
Two Trains Running
The disruptive character in Wilson’s fifth play is Sterling, but the theme of Two Trains Running, set in 1969, is found in the character Memphis, the owner of the restaurant in which the action occurs. Memphis came north in 1936, driven away by white violence. He has always meant to return and reclaim his land. In the course of the play, he learns that he has to go back and “pick up the ball” so as not to arrive in the end zone empty handed. He must catch one of those two trains running south every day. He must not surrender.
The major characters in the play represent varying degrees of tenacity. Wilson skillfully builds a plot around two threads: Memphis’s determination to get the city to pay his price for his property, and Sterling’s determination to find a place for himself and gain the love of Risa. Hambone is a crazy character, driven mad almost ten years ago when the butcher Lutz across the street refused to pay him a ham for doing a good job of painting his fence. Hollaway, a commentator character, observes that Hambone may be the smartest of them all in his refusal to give up—each day going to Lutz and asking for his ham. The unfortunate fact is, though, that his life has been reduced to this one action; all he can say is “I want my ham. He gonna give me my ham.” Risa, a woman determined not to be dependent on a sexual attachment, has scarred her own attractive legs to make herself less desirable. In spite of herself, she is attracted to the vitality and optimism of Sterling, and Sterling is most tenacious of all. His warrior spirit has landed him in prison and may do so again, but his zeal and good humor are compelling.
The constant reminders and presence of death give resonance to the lives and efforts of these people. When the play opens, the Prophet Samuel has already died and the offstage mayhem surrounding the viewing of his body is evident. Characters talk about several other deaths, and no sooner is Prophet Samuel buried than Hambone is discovered dead (again offstage). The reactions to his death make up the ending of the play. Memphis and Sterling, trusting in the prophecies of the 322-year-old seer Aunt Ester, both triumph. Sterling runs across the street, steals a ham, and presents it to Mr. West, the undertaker, to put in Hambone’s coffin. This final flourish of the play is an assertion of character identity and life. Two Trains Running may be Wilson’s most accomplished work in blending character, plot, and theme.
Two Trains Running was followed in 1995 by Seven Guitars. Set in the 1940’s, it tells the tragic story of blues guitarist Floyd Barton, whose funeral opens the play. The action flashes back to recreate the events of Floyd’s last week of life. Floyd had arrived in Pittsburgh to try to get his guitar out of the pawn shop and to convince his former lover, Vera, to return with him to Chicago. A record he made years earlier has suddenly gained popularity, and he has been offered the opportunity to record more songs at a studio in Chicago.
The play’s central conflicts are Floyd’s struggle to move forward in his musical career and his personal strife with Vera and his band mates. A subplot centers on Floyd’s friend Hedley and his deteriorating physical and mental health as his friends attempt to place him in a tuberculosis sanitarium. The play contains some of Wilson’s familiar character types, including the mentally aberrant Hedley; the troubled-by-the-law young black male protagonist, Floyd; the capable and independent woman, Louise; and the more needy, younger woman, Ruby. It also contains elements of music, dance, story telling, violence, and food.
Wilson reworked an earlier, short play Jitney. Becker, a retired steel-mill worker, runs a jitney station, serving the unofficial taxi needs of the black community of Pittsburgh’s Hill district during early autumn of 1977. The jitney drivers are a rich collection of troubled but hard-working men. The station offers the men a living and a sense of independence that is threatened by the city’s plans to tear down the neighborhood in the name of urban renewal. Becker also faces a personal crisis. His son, Booster, is about to leave prison after serving twenty years for murdering his well-to-do white girlfriend. Father and son have not spoken for two decades. Becker is bitter that his son threw away a promising career, and Booster sees his father’s lifetime of hard work and submissiveness to white landlords and bosses as demeaning. Father and son never reconcile, but they indirectly attempt to redeem themselves to each other. Becker decides to organize the jitney drivers and fight the urban renewal. Yet, just as Becker begins the move to resistance, he falls victim to his rigorous work ethic and dies unexpectedly. As the dispirited drivers praise his father, Booster begins to respect his father’s accomplishments and prepares to carry on Becker’s mission to save the jitney station.
King Hedley II
King Hedley II takes place in the back yard of a few ramshackle houses in the Hill District of Pittsburgh in 1985. Its protagonist, King Hedley II, is a petty thief and a former convict engaged in selling stolen refrigerators. Believing that he is being held back while everybody else is moving forward, Hedley dreams of a better life. His partner in crime is a shady character named Mister. Hedley’s wife, Tonya, is pregnant with a child she does not want to raise in the rough life she knows. Hedley’s mother, Ruby, is a former jazz singer who is reunited with an old lover, the con man Elmore. The next-door neighbor, Stool Pigeon, is a crazy old man who stacks old newspapers in his hovel. He is the play’s mystic messenger who buries a dead cat in the backyard and brings to its grave various tokens that he believes will bring the animal back to one of its nine lives. The yard, barren except for weeds and garbage, is a major symbol. Hedley tires to raise plants in it, even fencing off a small patch with barbed wire. However, like Hedley’s efforts to better himself, the attempt to grow something is doomed.