August Wilson

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August Wilson with Kim Powers (interview date Fall/Winter 1984)

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SOURCE: "An Interview with August Wilson," in Theater, Vol. 16, No. 1, Fall/Winter, 1984, pp. 50-5.

[In the following interview, Wilson discusses various aspects of his works, including themes, symbols, and characters.]

August Wilson's play Ma Rainey's Black Bottom garnered rave reviews at the Yale Rep last Spring. It met with even greater success this Fall in New York, where the play opened at the Cort Theatre on October 11, with the same production staff, including director Lloyd Richards, and a majority of the original Rep cast. Wilson leapt from virtual obscurity as a playwright to the leading ranks with only this one play. Ma Rainey, originally produced at the Eugene O'Neill National Playwrights Conference in 1982, is, in part, an examination of race relationships in America, set in 1927 against the backdrop of one of the legendary blues singer's recording sessions at a "race division" of Paramount Records. The battling egos of the musicians, and the transitory status of the blues itself, become metaphors for rage and injustice.

At our interview, conducted in New Haven in mid-May, 1984, Wilson had just returned from the O'Neill's "Pre-Conference", during which each playwright reads his or her play aloud. August had read his play Mill Hand's Lunch Bucket (retitled Joe Turner's Come and Gone during the summer), and was both exhilarated by the new creation and alerted to the hard revisions ahead. Our focus on this play in the interview is indicative of his excitement. Joe Turner is set in a boardinghouse in Pittsburgh in 1911 and uses a sort of "Grand Hotel" strategy to take in a number of characters who are searching for a racial and spiritual identity. As Wilson explains in the interview, the play has a more mystical and less realistic base than Ma Rainey. The Yale Rep has already optioned Joe Turner for its 1985–86 season. (Wilson is quickly becoming a sort of resident playwright at the Rep. His play Fences, read at the 1983 O'Neill Conference, will be directed by Lloyd Richards at the end of the 1984–85 season.)

August Wilson says he came to playwriting out of arrogance and frustration, certain he could write just as well as other playwrights about the Black experience in America. He didn't use other plays as a primer on how to write, but combined his poetry background with fledgling efforts as a director at a small theater in Pittsburgh, which devoured the plays from the early 70's anthologies of Black drama. His first play written for that theater was called Jitney: it concerned a group of jitney cab drivers, two of whom are involved in a pivotal father/son conflict. The play was an SRO success; a large portion of the black audience going to the theater for the first time refused to leave when told the show was already sold out. The play came back the next year to satisfy the demand. In his second play, Wilson deliberately tried to expand the dramatic world from the rather narrow "slice" of the first play. Although Wilson considers the play a failure, it did lay the groundwork for the expanded fictional realm and overlapping scenes of Ma Rainey.

August Wilson was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and now lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. He is a member of New Dramatists, and an Associate Playwright at the Playwrights Center in Minneapolis. Mr. Wilson is the recipient of Bush, Rockefeller, and McKnight Foundation Fellowships in playwriting. In addition to his summers at the O'Neill National Playwrights Conference (1982, '83, and '84), Mr. Wilson's poetry has been published...

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in various magazines and anthologies.

[Powers:] You've written other plays before Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, but is that the one you wanted to hit the public first? Did you instinctually know it might be a bigger play?

[Wilson:] Oh, no—I wanted to hit the public with all of them. But about Ma Rainey I felt that I was growing as a playwright and moving toward learning more about the craft and how to articulate my ideas dramatically. I had submitted a couple of other plays to the O'Neill, but I'm glad they weren't selected. I'm glad my exposure was with Ma Rainey because I think it is a stronger play than the others I had submitted.

You've mentioned a cycle of history plays you have in the works. What is that?

As it turns out, I've written plays that take place in 1911, 1927, 1941, 1957, and 1971. Somewhere along the way it dawned on me that I was writing one play for each decade. Once I became conscious of that, I realized I was trying to focus on what I felt were the most important issues confronting Black Americans for that decade, so ultimately they could stand as a record of Black experience over the past hundred years presented in the form of dramatic literature. What you end up with is a kind of review, or re-examination, of history. Collectively they can read, certainly not as a total history, but as some historical moments.

Why did you switch from writing poetry to playwriting? Did you need something as "big" as a play?

I would describe my poetry as intensely personal. I needed something as big as a play because my ideas no longer fit in the poems, or they fit in a different way, for myself only. I needed a larger canvas that would include everyone.

Your concern with history hasn't been evidenced by many other American playwrights. Although there is a contemporary tone to your historical plays, what would you write in a 1984 play, a play without a past framework?

I don't know. But if, as you pointed out, my historical plays are contemporary in tone, I think you can write a play set in 1984 that is historical in tone. A play set in 1984 would still have to contain historical elements—as the lives of the people do not exist in a vacuum. The importance of history to me is simply to find out who you are and where you've been. It becomes doubly important if someone else has been writing your history. I think Blacks in America need to reexamine their time spent here to see the choices that were made as a people. I'm not certain the right choices have always been made. That's part of my interest in history—to say "Let's look at this again and see where we've come from and how we've gotten where we are now." I think if you know that, it helps determine how to proceed with the future.

What is your response to some of the Ma Rainey reviews that said you were just repeating incidents and attitudes from the past that people already knew existed?

I would hope that the play as a whole provides a different view—which is what art and literature are about—to present the familiar with a freshness and in a manner never quite seen before. What I tried to do in Ma Rainey, and in all my work, is to reveal the richness of the lives of the people, who show that the largest ideas are contained by their lives, and that there is a nobility to their lives. Blacks in America have so little to make life with compared to whites, yet they do so with a certain zest, a certain energy that is fascinating because they make life out of nothing—yet it is charged and luminous and has all the qualities of anyone else's life. I think a lot of this is hidden by the glancing manner in which White America looks at Blacks, and the way Blacks look at themselves. Which is why I work a lot with stereotypes, with the idea of stripping away layer by layer the surface to reveal what is underneath—the real person, the whole person.

What do you think of the angry young Black playwrights of the early 70's—Ed Bullins, Leroi Jones, Papp's people?

I think it was an absolutely great time, much needed, and I'm sorry to see it dissipated. It was a response to the time, the turbulence of the 60's. I think it goes back to a person like Malcolm X, who began to articulate for the first time what the masses of Black people were saying on the street corners. It was all a part of the people's lives; they had been given a platform, and there was an explosion of Black art and literature comparable to the Harlem Renaissance.

When you write your 60's play, will you write about a real historical figure such as Malcolm X or Martin Luther King, or will you use that as a background for imagined characters?

So much has been written about them that I don't think I would attempt it. Here again, I would try to find the major idea of the decade and examine that. The play I write about the 60's will be about what happened prior to the 60's, its historical antecedents. I think the ideas of the 60's are rooted in the morality of American society of the 50's. I would try to uncover what made the 60's a troubled, turbulent and violent decade not only for Black but for White society as well.

Let's start with your historically earliest play, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, set in 1911. You pervade the storytelling with alien folklore, or mysticism.

I set the play in 1911 to take advantage of some of the African retentions of the characters. The mysticism is a very large part of their world. My idea is that somewhere, sometime in the course of the play, the audience will discover these are African people. They're Black Americans, they speak English, but their world view is African. The mystical elements—the Binder, the ghosts—are a very real part, particularly in the early 20th century, of the Black American experience. There was an attempt to capture the 'African-ness' of the characters.

And yet there are characters, such as Seth and Bertha, who own the boarding house, who seem very 'American.'

Well, they are of African descent though their experiences in America have been different. Seth is a Northern free man. His father was not a slave. His grandfather was not a slave. He was born in the North. So his experiences are totally different from the rest of the characters who have come up from the South, whose parents have been slaves. The fact that he owns the boarding house and that he is a craftsman, that he has a skill other than farming, sets him apart from the other characters. That was also a part of the Black experience.

There is a part of the character of Loomis that is similar to Levee from Ma Rainey—an anger or drive, a sense of something not being accomplished.

I don't know if Levee's angry. For some reason I don't like that word. Levee is trying to wrestle with the process of life the same as all of us. His question is, "How can I live this life in a society that refuses to recognize my worth, that refuses to allow me to contribute to its welfare—how can I live this life and remain a whole and complete person?" I think Loomis and Levee are very similar in some elements of their character, as you pointed out, but Levee has a firmer sense of who he is—where Loomis is more clearly on a search for identity, on a search for a world that contains his image.

How did you get the ideas for the characters of the People Finder and The Binder in Joe Turner?

Well, the first title of the play was the title of a painting by Romare Bearden, Mill Hand's Lunch Bucket. It's of a boarding house in Pittsburgh in the 20's. There is a figure in the painting that my attention was drawn to. The figure of a man sitting at a kitchen table in a posture of defeat or abandonment. And I wondered, "Who is this man and why is he sitting there and what are the circumstances of his life?" That became Herald Loomis. It occurred to me that at the time and particularly after slavery there was a lot of dispersement among Blacks. Families were separated. I had been working on a series of poems called "Restoring the House" in which a man set out in search of his wife who had been sold from Mississippi to a family in Georgia maybe five years before the Emancipation. Of course, when he finds her, all kinds of things have happened in the interim. That idea of people leaving each other, of people being separated—there has to be someone who wants to heal them and bind them together. So that's how the idea of the Binder came about. I gave him the name Bynum, which was my grandfather's name, and which seemed appropriate. The People Finder is almost the same concept, but it's a White application of it. Rutherford Selig is a peddler of pots and pans. He travels about knocking on people's doors, and as a result he's the only one who knows where everybody lives. So if the people were looking for someone, it's only logical they would ask Selig. I don't think he called himself the People Finder—this is something the people of the community called him.

Do you see him as more evil than Bynum?

Oh, no, he's not evil at all. In fact, he's performing a very valuable service for the community. The fact that his father was a "People Finder" who worked for the plantation bosses and caught runaway slaves has no bearing on Selig's character. That was his job. That was something he did and got paid for. His grandfather was a "Bringer" working on a slave ship. Selig doesn't make any apologies for any of this. It's not his fault. It was his grandfather's job. It was hard work. His grandfather got married and had some kids. This contact with Blacks, of being paid for performing some service that involved Blacks, has been going on in his family for a long time. Selig is the guy who opens up a hardware store in a Black community. He's got a long history of involvement.

What about the story of Joe Turner, who took slaves and kept them for seven years?

Joe Turner was a real person. He was the brother of Pete Turner who was the Governor of Tennessee. Joe Turner would press Blacks into peonage. He would send out decoys who would lure Blacks into crap games and then he would swoop down and grab them. He had a chain with forty links to it, and he would take Blacks off to his plantation and work them. The song "Joe Turner" was a song the women sang down around Memphis. "Joe Turner's got my man and gone."

When I became aware of this song somehow it fit into the play. Because the seven years Loomis is with Joe Turner, seven years in which his world is torn asunder and his life is turned upside down, can in fact represent the four hundred years of slavery, of being taken out of Africa and brought to America. At some point someone says, "Okay, you're free." What do you do? Who are you, first of all, and what do you do now that you're free, which is Loomis' question. He says, "I must reconnect and reassemble myself." But when he goes to the place where he lived, his life is no longer there. His wife and daughter aren't there. He is, in effect, a foreigner to the place. So he goes off on a search. He searches for a woman to say goodbye to and to find a world that contains his image, because there's nothing about the world that he finds himself in that speaks to the thing that's beating inside his chest. And in the process of that search he falls into an ancestral drove and is witness to bones rising up out of the ocean, taking on flesh and walking up on the land. This is his connection with the ancestors, the Africans who were lost during the Middle Passage and were thrown overboard. He is privileged to witness this because he needs most to know who he is. It is telling him, "This is who you are. You are these bones. You are the sons and daughters of these people. They are walking around here now and they look like you because you are these very same people. This is who you are." This is what Bynum tries to guide him toward. And the scene where Loomis reveals his vision can be read as a baptism, as a naming. Loomis' recognition of that, his "learning to sing his song", and his acceptance of that is what makes him luminous.

When did you find the end of the play, with Loomis slashing his own chest?

When I wrote it. It's something that just happened. I said to myself, "What was that?" and I looked and examined it. At first it read as a liberation, a severing of the bonds, a blood-letting rite. But I think its larger meaning especially in relation to the Christian context, is that Loomis accepts the responsibility for his own presence in the world, and the responsibility for his own salvation. It says, "I don't need anyone to bleed for me, I can bleed for myself." Because your god should resemble you. When you look in the mirror you should see your god. If you don't, then you have the wrong god.

Were you conscious that Ma Rainey also ended with a knife?

There are knives in the two, but that's the only similarity. In Joe Turner it's accepting the responsibility for your own salvation. In Ma Rainey, it's a transference of aggression from Sturdyvant to Toledo, who throughout the play has been set up as a substitute for the White man. It happens in a kind of blind rage as opposed to something that comes from an inner life. When Loomis slashes himself, he's conscious of all the meanings. He knows he must do it. The thing he's been looking for those four years he finds in that moment.

Are you consciously writing religious symbols in the plays?

I don't try to. I write whatever's there. Whatever comes out of me.

As we've said, one of the aspects of your plays is a sort of looking back at history, or even a contemporary involvement in that history. (For example, in compiling program notes for Ma Rainey, you didn't want primary source documents from the Harlem Renaissance writers of the 20's and 30's, but rather contemporary writing examining that period.) In Joe Turner, the integrations of both worlds seems particularly complete, even forging an unknown sort of "otherworld" through an elevation of language and ideas.

I think you just said it—the ideas are universal ideas. When I started I knew it wasn't like my other plays. I knew I wanted to create the sense of a whole other world. It's a blending together, an overlap. You're looking at the familiar in a new way.

Do you have a total stage picture from the audience's perspective as you write, or do you write from the viewpoint of each character, dropping into each voice as you write?

The characters actually do what they want to do. It's their story. I'm like Bynum in Joe Turner: walking down a road in this strange landscape. What you confront is part of yourself, your willingness to deal with the small imperial truths you have accumulated over your life. That's your baggage. And it can be very terrifying. You're either wrestling with the devil or Jacob's angel, the whole purpose being that when you walk through that landscape you arrive at something larger than you had when you started. And this larger something should be illuminating and as close to the truth as you can understand. I think if you accomplish that, whether the play works or not, you've been true to yourself and in that sense you're successful. So I write from the center, the core, of myself. You've got that landscape and you've got to enter it, walk down that road and whatever happens, happens. And that's the best you're capable of coming to. The characters do it, and in them, I confront myself.

The characters in your plays are each trying to find their songs, or they receive a gift from someone who perceives what their songs might be. In your 50's play, Fences, the father has a beautiful speech that sums up his life, his song. Would you quote that?

"I come in here every Friday. I carry a sack of potatoes and a bucket of lard. You all line up at the door with your hands out. I give you the lint from my pockets. I give you my sweat and blood. I ain't got no tears. I done spent them. We go upstairs to that room at night and I fall down on you and try to blast a hole into forever. I get up Monday morning … find my lunch on the table. I go out. Make my way. Find my strength to carry me through to the next Friday. That's all I got. That's all I got to give. I can't give nothing else."


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August Wilson 1945–2005

American playwright.

The following entry provides an overview of Wilson's career through 1997.

Wilson emerged in the 1980s as a significant voice in American theater. His dramas, for which he has variously received such coveted prizes as the Tony Award, the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, and the Pulitzer Prize, are part of a planned play-cycle devoted to the story of black American experience in the twentieth century. "I'm taking each decade and looking at one of the most important questions that blacks confronted in that decade and writing a play about it," Wilson explains. "Put them all together and you have a history." The leisurely pace and familial settings of Wilson's dramas have evoked comparisons to Eugene O'Neill's works. Praised for their vivid characterizations, Wilson's plays often center upon conflicts between blacks who embrace their African past and those who deny it. His rich yet somber explorations of black history prompted Samuel G. Freedman to describe Wilson as "one part Dylan Thomas and one part Malcolm X, a lyric poet fired in the kiln of black nationalism."

Biographical Information

Wilson grew up in a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania ghetto called the Hill. He gained an early pride in his heritage through his mother, who worked as a janitor to support her six children. Frustrated by the rampant racism he experienced in several schools, Wilson dropped out in the ninth grade, thereafter deriving his education from his neighborhood experiences and the local library. In a collection of books marked "Negro," he discovered works of the Harlem Renaissance and other African-American writers. After reading works by such authors as Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, and Arna Bontemps, Wilson realized that blacks could be successful in artistic endeavors without compromising their traditions. In his early writings, Wilson was so heavily influenced by other styles that it was difficult for him to find his own. In 1968, inspired by the civil rights movement, Wilson co-founded Black Horizon on the Hill, a community theater aimed at raising black consciousness in the area. The playhouse became the forum for his first dramas, in which Wilson purposely avoided the study of other artists in order to develop his own voice. Wilson's first professional breakthrough occurred in 1978 when he was invited to write plays for a black theater in St. Paul, Minnesota. In this new milieu, removed from his native Pittsburgh, Wilson began to recognize poetic qualities in the language of his hometown. While his first two dramas garnered little notice, his third, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (1984), was accepted by the National Playwrights Conference in 1982, where it drew the attention of Lloyd Richards, the artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theater. Upon reading the script, Richards recalls, "I recognized it as a new voice. A very important one. It brought back my youth. My neighborhood. Experiences I had." He directed Ma Rainey at the Yale Theater and later took the play to Broadway. Since then, with Richards in the role of mentor and director (with the exception of Seven Guitars (1995) with which Richards was unable to be involved due to illness), all of Wilson's plays have had their first staged readings at the Playwrights Conference followed by runs at the Yale Repertory Theater and regional theaters before opening on Broadway.

Major Works

Set in the 1920s, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is an exploration of the effects of racism. It is based on an imaginary episode in the life of legendary black singer Gertrude (Ma) Rainey, regarded by some artists as the mother of the blues. The action takes place in a recording studio and focuses mainly on four musicians who are waiting for Ma's arrival. As the details of the musicians' lives unfold, the audience becomes aware of the racism that these successful black performers have had to face throughout their careers. The attitudes of the group's white manager and the owner of the studio reveal continuing exploitation of Ma and her band. The play climaxes when one of the musicians, Levee, vents his frustrations on the others. In his next play, Fences (1985), Wilson again examines the destructive and far-reaching consequences of racial injustice. Set in the late 1950s, on the eve of the civil rights movement, Fences revolves around Troy Maxson, an outstanding high school athlete who was ignored by major league baseball because of his color. Struggling through middle age as a garbage man, Troy's bitterness results in family conflicts. His son, who also aspires to an athletic career, must battle his father's fear and envy of him, and Troy's wife is humiliated by his adultery. Joe Turner's Come and Gone, (1986) debuted while Fences was still running on Broadway. Joe Turner, which is regarded as more mystical than Wilson's other works, centers upon the struggles of migrants in the post-Civil War North. The play takes place in 1911 in the Pittsburgh boardinghouse owned by Seth and Bertha Holly. Following seven years of illegal bondage, Herald Loomis, a black freedman, travels to Pennsylvania in search of the wife who fled north during his enslavement. The critical issue of white oppression is symbolized in Herald's haunted memories of Joe Turner, the infamous Southern bounty hunter who captured him. His sojourn ends at the Holly boardinghouse, where the black residents are also searching for some kind of connection and wholeness in their lives. Partially assimilated to white America, they nevertheless embrace the African traditions of their past. At the play's end, the boarders sing and dance a juba, an African celebration of the spirit. Their shared joy represents an achievement of unity, having come to terms with the trauma of slavery and the harsh reality of white persecution. The Piano Lesson (1987), which examines the confrontation of black heritage with the possibilities of the future, won the Pulitzer Prize before appearing on Broadway. A piano serves as a major element in this play, which is set in 1936 in Doaker Charles's Pittsburgh home. Decades earlier, the white master of the Charles family traded Doaker's father and grandmother for the piano, and the grief-stricken grandfather carved African totems of his wife and son in the piano's legs. Later, Doaker's older brother was killed in a successful conspiracy to steal the piano, which now sits in Doaker's living room untouched and revered. Conflict arises when Boy Willie, the son of the man who stole the piano, wants to sell it to purchase the land on which his ancestors were slaves. Two Trains Running (1990) opened on Broadway in 1992; this play is set in a run-down diner on a single day in 1969 and concerns the reactions of the diner's regular patrons to the imminent sale of the diner as well as the burial preparations occurring across the street at a funeral parlor. Seven Guitars, which is set during the 1940s, debuted in 1995 and relates the tragic undoing of blues guitarist Floyd Barton. At the opening of the play, Floyd's friends have gathered to mourn his untimely death. The action flashes back to Floyd's last week of life, revealing that Floyd recently recorded his first hit record and has another opportunity to make a recording if he can travel to a studio in Chicago. Floyd tries to acquire the money for his trip to Chicago and also seeks to reconcile with his former girlfriend, Vera.

Critical Reception

The numerous awards and accolades Wilson has received reflect the widespread critical appreciation of his mastery of poetic language, humor, and tragic realism in his dramatic works. Wilson's treatment of his subject matter—a first-hand history of black people in twentieth-century America—has also been highly praised by critics, who assert the various ways in which Wilson's brilliance as a playwright illuminates the complex nuances and themes encompassed by his characters' experiences. In an interview, Wilson's long-time friend Nick Flournoy summed up the playwright's career: "August Wilson is on a trek. He's saying who you are and what you are are all right. It's all right to be an angry nigger. It's all right to be whatever you are. It's what the great Irish writers did. They took that narrow world and they said, 'Here it is.' Here it is and its meaning is universal."

Hilary DeVries (essay date January 1987)

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SOURCE: "A Song in Search of Itself," American Theatre, Vol. 3, No. 10, January, 1987, pp. 22-5.

[In the following essay, DeVries examines the recurring themes in Wilson's cycle of plays regarding the black experience. She identifies the most pervasive theme as "the need for black Americans to forge anew their identity, an identity that is at once African and American."]

In August Wilson's most recent play, The Piano Lesson, the young protagonist Boy Willie declares: "That's all I wanted. To sit down and be at ease with everything. But I wasn't born to that. When I go by on the road and something ain't right, then I got to try and fix it." The speaker is the son of a slave determined to transform his family's racial legacy into a self-determining future; but the words also bear witness to their author's aspirations as one of this country's leading black playwrights.

In the black American theatrical tradition, often distinguished as much by political circumstance as individual accomplishment, August Wilson has emerged as a compelling new voice. Chronicling the history of black Americans through the 20th century, Wilson draws on his background as a poet to enrich his more recently honed talents as a dramatist. His three best-known plays, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Fences and Joe Turner's Come and Gone, evince both their author's fecund use of language and a storyteller's narrative touch.

The plays' cumulative intent, however, is as pedagogic as it is expository. Wilson describes his artistic agenda as an attempt to "concretize" the black American tradition, to demonstrate how that tradition "can sustain a man once he has left his father's house." Indeed, the theme that surges through Wilson's work is the need for black Americans to forge anew their identity, an identity that is at once African and American.

In the seven years he has been writing plays—his first efforts resulted in a handful of seldom if ever produced one-acts—Wilson has undertaken an ambitious, systematic project: each work is to be set in a different decade from 1900 to the present. "I'm taking each decade and looking back at one of the most important questions that blacks confronted in that decade and writing a play about it," says Wilson. "Put them all together and you have a history."

The dramatic chronicle that has resulted thus far is peopled by striking protagonists earmarked by the eras in which they lived: Levee, the impetuous young trumpeter of Ma Rainey, struggles to survive in a white entertainment world during the '20s; Loomis, the forbiddingly Dickensian protagonist of Joe Turner, fights to regain his identity after seven years of forced labor in the early 1900s; Troy, the tyrannical patriarch of Fences, rages at social injustice prefiguring that of the explosive '60s. Collectively they constitute Wilson's overt literary intent: "You should be able to see a progression through the decades from Loomis to Levee to Boy Willie [in The Piano Lesson] to Troy. Says drama critic Ernie Schier, "August is a better chronicler of the black experience in this country than Alex Haley. In 40 years, he will be the playwright we will still be hearing about."

Ironically, Wilson is emerging at a time when few black American playwrights are finding and keeping a national audience, when politically and artistically the country is more attuned to the racial injustices of South Africa than to the dilemmas of its own black population. Nonetheless, after nearly two decades of writing both poetry and drama and four years of almost exclusive collaboration with director Lloyd Richards at the O'Neill Theater Center and Yale Repertory Theatre, Wilson is entering a new and broader arena.

The Piano Lesson received its first staged reading at the O'Neill this past summer. A trio of Wilson's other plays are currently crisscrossing the country. Fences, starring James Earl Jones, is set to open in New York in March after runs last season at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago and (with a different cast) at Seattle Repertory Theatre. The Yale production of Joe Turner has just completed the first of its regional theatre stopovers at Boston's Huntington Theatre Company. And—although Ma Rainey never recouped its investment during its commercial New York run two years ago, despite its critical heralding and a 1984 Tony nomination—Wilson is tilting anew at Broadway. In addition to the upcoming New York run of Fences, Wilson has just completed the book for a new musical about black jazz musician Jelly Roll Morton, which is to star Gregory Hines and open on Broadway in the spring under Jerry Zaks's direction. "I consider this a jazz-blues folk opera," says Wilson, "an encapsulation of the history of black music until 1928."

The undertaking is further evidence of Wilson's commitment to his delineated literary turf—history, that individual and collective process of discovery that, as the author says, "becomes doubly important if someone else has been writing yours for you." His plays maintain a contemporary involvement with the past, and punctuate each era with its own particular totems. By mining black American music, which Wilson sees as one of the few traditionally acceptable venues for black American culture, Wilson is able to reveal the cumulative history informing his protagonists: nearly all his characters are in search of their individual songs of identity. Wilson describes Loomis's meta-physical journey in Joe Turner, for example, as a "song in search of itself."

Its musical allusions aside, Wilson's writing is a poetic melding of African and Western imagery. His use of ethnographically specific folklore borders on the mystical and reinforces the distinctively non-linear narrative style which the playwright ascribes to an "African storytelling mode." While some have been slow to warm to this non-traditional dramatic structure, others have praised it as indigenous to the black oral tradition, a heritage that embraces African as well as Bible Belt oral patterns and serves as Wilson's own palimpsest. "It is writing based on centuries of 'hearing'," says director Claude Purdy, who staged Wilson's Fences at GeVa Theatre in Rochester, N.Y.

Wilson describes his work as an attempt to confront "the glancing manner in which white America looks at blacks and the way blacks look at themselves." By probing the sociological archetype with sufficient metaphor but without conspicuous didactism, Wilson has set himself apart from many of the so-called angry young black playwrights, including Ed Bullins and Amiri Baraka, whose work proliferated during the late '60s. "I can only do what I do because the '60s existed," Wilson reasons. "I am building off that original conflict."

Although he maintains that "the one thing that has best served me as a playwright is my background in poetry," Wilson first came to the theatre out of a search for a broader forum in which to voice his social concerns; initially he thought about a legal career. But after a boyhood spent on the streets of Pittsburgh—Wilson dropped out of school at age 15—the playwright says "my sense of justice [became] very different from what the law says. It just happened that my talent lies with words." Claude Purdy, now director-in-residence at St. Paul's Penumbra Theatre, confirms Wilson's motives: "August came out of the '60s with a responsible attitude, eager to explore his community's culture and do something for his people."

As a co-founder of Pittsburgh's Black Horizons Theatre, Wilson wrote his early one-acts during the height of the black power movement as a way, he says, "to politicize the community and raise consciousness." Today Wilson prefers the label of "cultural nationalist."

"An interviewer once asked me if having written these plays I hadn't exhausted the black experience. I said, 'Wait a minute. You've got 40,000 movies and plays about the white experience, and we don't ask if you've exhausted your experience.' I'll never run out of material. If I finish this cycle, I'll just start over again. You can write forever about the clash between the urban North and the rural South, what happened when [blacks] came to the cities, how their lives changed and how it affected generations to come."

It is an outspoken assertion from this usually reserved 41-year-old Pittsburgh native now residing in St. Paul. Wilson's conversational style only hints at his transplanted Midwest roots. With his soft-spoken affability and almost old-fashioned politeness, he hardly appears the source for the chorus of vibrant voices—by turns soft and genial, angry and defiant—one hears in his plays.

"After I turned 20, I spent the next 10 to 15 years hanging out on streetcorners, following old men around, working odd jobs. There was this place called Pat's Cigar Store in Pittsburgh. It was the same place that Claude McKay mentioned in his book Home to Harlem. When I found out about that, I said. 'This is a part of history,' and I ran down there to where all the old men in the community would congregate."

Although Wilson originally channeled his literary efforts into poetry, his move to Minnesota in the early 1970s served as a catalyst, permitting those colloquial voices and his own skills as a dramatist to come into their own. Initially working as a script writer for the local science museum's children's theatre while firing off "five plays in three years" to the O'Neill, Wilson did not conceive of himself as a playwright until he received the first of several writing grants. After submitting Jitney to Minneapolis's Playwrights' Center, Wilson was awarded a Jerome Foundation fellowship in the late 1970s. (He has subsequently received Bush, Rockefeller, McKnight and Guggenheim fellowships.) "I walked in and there were 16 playwrights," Wilson remembers about that encounter with the Playwrights' Center. "It was the first time I had dinner with other playwrights. It was the first time I began to think of myself as one."

It was this "two hundred bucks a month for a year" that afforded Wilson the opportunity to rework a one-act about a blues recording session into what became the full-length Ma Rainey, his first play accepted by the O'Neill and the most naturalistic of his dramas. Set in a Chicago recording studio in 1927, the play is a garrulous and colloquially accurate look at the exploitation of black musicians. Through Wilson's carefully orchestrated verbal riffs, the characters' struggle for identity slowly escalates to a violent conclusion.

In Ma Rainey, the struggle is predicated not only upon friction between the while recording executives and the black musicians but also upon subtle conflicts within the black community itself. Ma, the recording star, knows the limits of her commercial success, admitting, "It's just like I been a whore"; the elderly pianist, Toledo, is an African nationalist who argues, "We done sold ourselves to the white man in order to be like him"; Levee, the headstrong trumpeter, is intent on making it in the white world, on seeing his name in lights. Unable to confront his white oppressors, Levee fatally lashes out at his own. Wilson describes Levee's condition in a rhetorical question: "How can I live this life in society that refuses to recognize my worth, that refuses to allow me to contribute to its welfare?"

It is a question that Wilson probes again in Fences, written partly as a response to criticism of Ma Rainey's bifurcated focus. "Fences was me sitting down saying, 'Okay, here is a play with a large central character.'" It was also the writer's attempt to create a protagonist who, unlike the impatient and intransigent Levee, had achieved a grudging parity with his times, albeit a smoldering suppression of desire suitable to the political realities of the 1950s. "Unlike Levee, Troy didn't sell his soul to the devil," says Wilson.

A former Negro League ballplayer past his prime by the time Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, Troy Maxson can be considered Wilson's most overtly didactic character. "I had to write a character who is responsible and likes the idea of family," says the playwright. This sense of responsibility—for one's own destiny as well as one's own family—is pivotal for Wilson, not only in its metaphysical ramifications but in its more pragmatic applications as well. "We have been told so many times how irresponsible we are as black males that I try and present positive images of responsibility," says the writer. "I started Fences with the image of a man standing in his yard with a baby in his arms."

It is this sense of individual accountability that Wilson's other protagonists—Loomis in Joe Turner and Boy Willie in the yet-to-be-produced Piano Lesson—confront in more mystical terms. "In Ma Rainey and Fences," Wilson explains, "the two roads into white American society traditionally open to blacks, entertainment and sports, fail the characters." As a result, the leading figures in the subsequent plays do not establish their identities relative to the white world; they rediscover themselves as Africans. "If black folks would recognize themselves as Africans and not be afraid to respond to the world as Africans, then they could make their contribution to the world as Africans," says Wilson.

Set in 1911 in order to get closer to this "African retentiveness," Joe Turner is infused with so much non-Western mysticism and folklore—ghosts, myths, chants and spells—that the narrative can be seen as a spiritual allegory. Based partly on a painting by black artist Romare Bearden, "Mill Hand's Lunch Bucket," as well as the legend of the actual slave hunter Joe Turner, the play is rife with historical detail as well as religious feeling. Loomis's search for his own past after seven years of bondage symbolizes the quest of an entire race. "As a whole, our generation knows very little about our past," explains Wilson. "My generation of parents tried to shield their children from the indignities they'd suffered."

For Loomis, the journey towards self-knowledge includes two apocalyptic moments—baptismal exorcisms that bracket the play's two acts and reverberate with violence. In the first of these cathartic steps, Loomis confronts his vision of "bones walking on top of water," a mythic image of ancestral suffering. In the final scene, Loomis faces both Christianity and African myth, and with a single symbolic act, finds himself purged from his past and a free man. As Loomis states, "I don't need anyone to bleed for me, I can bleed for myself."

It is a moment of individual transmogrification that Wilson examines again, and to even stronger effect, in The Piano Lesson. Although Wilson intends to rewrite this latest entry in his historical cycle next summer, the play's inherent dramatic conflict—a brother and sister argue over their shared legacy, the family piano—and its crisp scenic construction bode well for its arrival on stage. The piano itself is Wilson's clearest, most fully realized symbol, one that resounds with African and Western significance while forming the fulcrum of the play's metaphysical debate. "The real issue is the piano, the legacy. How are you going to use it?" says Wilson.

There are two choices, one taken up by Berneice, who wants to preserve the blood-stained piano as a totem to the family's violence-wracked past. Her brother, Boy Willie, however, is intent on literally capitalizing on the family's history to create a new future; he wants to sell the piano and buy the land which their father originally farmed as a slave. "I ain't gonna be no fool about no sentimental value," Boy Willie says. "With that piano I get the land and I can go down and cash in the crop." As Wilson describes his character's position, "I often wonder what the fabric of American society would be like if blacks had stayed in the South and somehow found a way to [economically] develop and lock into that particular area. That's what Boy Willie is articulating. He wants to put his hands to better use."

Willie's desire encapsulates the playwright's overall intent. "I think it's largely a question of identity. Without knowing your past, you don't know your present—and you certainly can't plot your future," Wilson says. "You go out and discover it for yourself. It's being responsible for your own presence in the world and for your own salvation."

Principal Works

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The Homecoming (drama) 1976
The Coldest Day of the Year (drama) 1979
Fullerton Street (drama) 1980
Black Bart and the Sacred Hills (drama) 1981
Jitney (drama) 1982
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (drama) 1984
Fences (drama) 1985
Joe Turner's Come and Gone (drama) 1986
The Piano Lesson (drama) 1987
Two Trains Running (drama) 1990
Seven Guitars (drama) 1995

The Piano Lesson was adapted for television and broadcast as part of the "Hallmark Hall of Fame" series on CBS in 1995.

Margaret E. Glover (essay date Summer-Fall 1988)

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SOURCE: "Two Notes on August Wilson: The Songs of A Marked Man," in Theatre, Vol. 19, No. 3, Summer-Fall, 1988, pp. 69-70.

[In the essay below, Glover examines the role of blues music in Wilson's plays.]

A black man walks into a bar. The words "for whites only" do not hang over the neon sign in the window, but as he enters he senses that the bartender and his patrons wish he were not there. He is thirsty and does not know the city well enough to look for another bar where he would be welcome. He takes a seat at the bar and orders a drink. The bartender serves him; the next song begins to play on the juke box. He recognizes the music as the same music he would hear coming out of a juke box on the other side of town. He begins to breathe more deeply; he stops trying to make himself invisible; he rests his arms firmly on the bar; he moves the beer bottle to the right, his glass to the left and marks out his space at the bar. "If they are playing my music, this is where I belong."

The man is August Wilson. The year is 1987. The voices of his characters come back to him. Ma Rainey in Sturdyvant's Chicago recording studio. "Wanna take my voice and trap it in them fancy boxes with all them buttons and dials … and then too cheap to buy me a coca-cola." Bynum to Jeremy in Seth Holly's boarding house [in Joe Turner's Come and Gone]. "You ought to take your guitar and go down to Seefus … That's where the music at … The people down there making music and enjoying themselves. Some things is worth taking the chance going to jail about." And Wining Boy at one of the stops along his road [in The Piano Lesson].

You look up one day and you hate the whiskey, you hate the women, and you hate the piano. But that's all you got. You can't do nothing else. So all you know is how to play that piano. Now, who am I? Am I me … or am I the piano player? Sometimes it seem like the only thing to do is shoot the piano player 'cause he's the cause of all the trouble I'm having.

This is the dilemma. His music gave the black man a place in the white man's world, but at the cost of losing his right to that music and the part of himself he put in it. Ma Rainey knows that once Sturdyvant and Irvin have gotten what they want from her music, "then it's just like I'd been some whore and they roll over and put their pants on." But the same music she sold to make a name for herself was the blues that "help you get out of bed in the morning. You get up knowing you ain't alone. There's something else in the world … You get up knowing whatever your troubles is you can get a grip on them 'cause the blues done give you an understanding of life." Ma Rainey chooses to believe that the blues from which she took the melodies for her own songs will always be there, just as the blues has always been there waiting for the people to find their own songs in its fullness.

But does that music remain whole and free when strains of it are sold to the white man? Berneice and Boy Willie struggle to resolve a similar question in The Piano Lesson. Berneice argues that to sell the piano for a stake in a new life is to sell one's soul. Boy Willie counters that to guard the piano as a shrine to those who died for it is to bind him to the slavery and homelessness of the past.

The underlying agony is between the personal freedom that the music and its songs provide and the fact that just singing the music for one's self is not enough to live free in the white man's world. It is through music that Levee seeks a way to tell the stories that gnaw at him [in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom], but he is denied the right to tell people how to play it. Where is the law preventing him from leaving his mark on the world by playing his own music? Others have left their mark on him while exercising what they called their "Freedom." For Levee, as for the other marked men in August Wilson's plays, personal freedom is not enough.

In Joe Turner's Come and Gone Bynum tells the story of how he found his Binding Song as a lesson to Loomis. "All you got to do is sing it. Then you'll be free." But Joe Turner took Loomis' song to fill his own emptiness, and Herald Loomis may never get it back. In The Piano Lesson Wining Boy calls his music an albatross. It has become a way for others to name him without knowing him. He looks at the piano and sees something the white man gives him to play on.

Others hear what they want to, but do not really listen to what the words, the rhythms and the melodies of Levee's songs of the city or Wining Boy's and Doaker's songs of the road tell them about the souls of these men.

There is something frightening in this music "that breathes and touches. That connects. That is in itself a way of being, separate and distinct from any other." (August Wilson) It frightens the white man because it is something the characters in August Wilson's plays are not only willing to go to jail for but to fight each other for. It frightens the singers because they know they can neither control nor contain it. To find their songs they must open themselves to be consumed by this music.

Its warmth and redress, its braggadocio and roughly poignant comments, its vision and prayer … instruct and allow them to reconnect, to reassemble and gird up for the next battle to which they could claim both victim and ten thousand slain.

Sandra G. Shannon (essay date Fall 1989–1990)

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SOURCE: "The Good Christian's Come and Gone: The Shifting Role of Christianity in August Wilson Plays," in MELUS, Vol. 16, No. 3, Fall, 1989–1990, pp. 127-42.

[In the following essay, Shannon examines Wilson's treatment of Christianity in his plays.]

The center of African American playwright August Wilson's growing theatrical universe is conspicuously occupied by African American men. They are the thinkers, the doers, the dreamers. Revolving around them in seemingly expendable supporting roles are wives, mistresses, sisters, children and other relatives. As characters such as Levee (Ma Rainey's Black Bottom), Troy Maxson (Fences), Herald Loomis (Joe Turner's Come and Gone), and Boy Willie (The Piano Lesson), impose their authority, they overshadow the concerns of others. Most noticeable in their blind quest for omnipotence and wealth is that they place no stock in Christian dogma, adapting instead a purely secular ideology. Consequently, what emerges from their abandonment of Christianity is a more convenient, self-serving religion—one totally unaligned with the cultural reservoir provided by what many African Americans have traditionally referred to as "good old-fashioned religion." While this good old-fashioned religion has, for centuries, provided inspiration, strength and moral principles for African Americans, Wilson's men affirm that it has not and will not suit their needs. Therefore, they demonstrate their disavowal by challenging and withdrawing from the religion of their ancestors.

August Wilson has apparently chosen to focus on the African American man's oppression in this country to symbolize the collective struggles of all African Americans. Since the early 1980s, Wilson has committed himself to writing ten plays chronicling the history of his people in each decade of their existence in the United States. Often depicted on the verge of an emotional breakdown, Levee, Herald Loomis, Troy Maxson, and Boy Willie dominate center stage and become Wilson's primary spokesmen. Although the African American woman appears in various supporting roles—devoted wife and mother, cranky blues singer, docile sex object, stubborn sister, etc.—the actions of the African American man clearly convey the themes of each of the four plays Wilson has completed toward his ten-play mission.

What is the place of Christianity in the lives of Wilson's African American men? What has caused them to abandon this previously vital ingredient in their culture? Despite Wilson's frequently quoted belief that "God does not hear the prayers of blacks," his probing treatment of each African American man's personal modification of Christianity begs a far less simplistic analysis. The African American man's shift from devout Christian reverence to outright blasphemy may be partially explained by examining one of many effects of continued racism in America—what Joseph Washington labels as "folk religion" in his study Black Religion. This religion of the folk, per se, was the African American's communal response to economic, social and racial oppression. Noting that their white oppressors often quoted the scriptures to them to justify so-called "ordained" subjugation, many African Americans rationalized that the Bible did not serve their interests. According to folk religion, ethics and morals were determined by adhering to group consensus and by adapting as righteous certain accepted practices within the African American community; the Bible was not the focal point of "folk religion."

From Reconstruction to the Civil Rights Movement, African Americans who were once Christians met discrimination and violence with a bitter mixture of Christian humility and human dignity. According to Washington, who disputes the existence of a so-called "Negro Church," the

common suffering of segregation and discrimination is the crucible out of which the folk religion was created in the past…. The folk religion is not an institutional one. It is a spirit which binds Negroes in a way they are not bound to other Americans because of their different histories. Here and there this folk religion may be identifiable with a given congregation, yet, wherever and whenever the suffering is acute, it transcends all religious and socio-economic barriers which separate Negroes from Negroes.

This communal spirit among mutually oppressed African Americans was a generic response to the too restrictive commandments of the Christian faith. Unfortunately, as is the case with Wilson's African American men, it is also a thin veil between agnosticism and outright atheism.

Among Christians the Old Testament's Book of Job remains one of the most typical lessons in "good" Christian behavior. However, few objective readers can deny that Job appears to be unfairly victimized by a God who tests his faithfulness by initiating one catastrophe after another—each one more crippling than the preceding one. It is not difficult, therefore, to see the parallels in the levels of misfortune between Wilson's characters and the long-suffering Job in this classic work of victimization. Yet Wilson's characters have lost the patience of Job. Worn thin by centuries of disappointments and delays, their patience has fermented into extreme cynicism and destructive behavior. Consequently, they act out those previously repressed desires to respond to their misfortunes, even though they cannot alter them.

Wilson's introduction to the "big-league" among the American theater circuit came with his much hailed production of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (1981). Set in 1927, the play depicts the vulnerable state of African American jazz musicians creating music in a decade when the majority of the country's African American population was pre-occupied with relocating to crowded urban areas during what is now known as the Great Migration. Unfortunately, this mass exodus of African Americans from southern farmland to city dwellings extended into the Depression Era. Not only did African Americans from the South buckle to the poverty and racism that awaited them in northern cities, but those who were already in the North also experienced increasing injustice. For example, while African American performers were often denied access to public facilities, their white fans were welcome in the Jim Crow-separated or exclusively white entertainment halls where blacks crooned, danced or played their jazz before them. Frequently, in the recording industry especially, opportunistic white promoters lined their pockets from ticket and album sales from the music of unsuspecting African American artists. This often proved to be a precarious business arrangement, for such artists had no protection against being surreptitiously discarded at the slightest signs of waning popularity or disfavor with the promoter.

Detained by a freak car accident, Ma Rainey comes late to a recording studio where she is scheduled to sing several of her popular works for an album. Already irritable because of her tardiness, Sturdyvant and Irvin, her white promoters, grumble as she continues to stall by demanding a Coca Cola, by complaining about the chilly studio and by insisting that her stuttering nephew Sylvester be allowed to announce her on the album before she sings.

While Ma Rainey tries the patience of her two promoters, her musicians waiting in the basement band room, all of whom are African American men, bicker and taunt each other in deceptively simple banter. Their conversations, which slip from the correct spelling of "music" to an existentialist discussion of African American history, gradually intensify and unexpectedly erupt in a fatal stabbing. The self-made philosopher Toledo inadvertently steps on the new Florsheim shoes of Levee, the trumpet player, and, apparently for that, he is murdered. Still sulking because of Sturdyvant's recent refusal to pay him fairly for songs which he had composed, the trumpet player turns an otherwise commonplace incident into a justification for homicide.

Contrary to its title, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is not really about Ma Rainey. Even though the play revolves around the life of the one-time blues legend Ma Rainey, Wilson includes her not as a leading lady but rather as a less conspicuous though uninhibited commentator on the callous, white-controlled music industry. Instead, it is the trumpeter, Levee, who ultimately conveys Wilson's more powerful message of the veritable "rape" of black blues performers whose talents were exploited by greedy white promoters.

The most latent and ultimately the most destructive form of victimization is exemplified by Levee, the band's ambitious trumpet player. Instead of directly confronting his nemesis, he transfers his aggression to a colleague. Apparently he has channeled his hostility inward for quite some time—so much so that at the moment of Toledo's death, Levee appears totally out of control. In him one may note shades of Richard Wright's Bigger Thomas or flashes of Amiri Baraka's cynical antiheroes Walker Vessels and Rochester. As the play strongly suggests, Levee kills another African American man in a bloody ritual that provides a temporary catharsis for his hatred of Sturdyvant. Under the guise of retaliation for a temporarily soiled pair of Florsheim shoes, Levee wields a blade into another African American man with a fury that seems to be a gross over-reaction to a misplaced foot.

Although Levee's action may seem impetuous, one may note in dialogue throughout the play reasons for his pre-existing cynicism. He brings with him to the recording session a history of victimization that spans his entire life. For example, as an eight-year-old, he watched his mother as she was raped by white men:

I didn't know what they were doing to her … but I figured whatever it was they may as well do it to me too. My daddy had a knife that he kept around there for hunting and working and whatnot. I knew where he kept it and I went and got it.

Levee is further victimized when his business arrangement with Sturdyvant does not proceed as he had hoped. After agreeing to promote lyrics composed by Levee, Sturdyvant squashes the trumpet player's ambitions to start a band of his own and play his own brand of jazz.

Yet Levee's cynicism is not restricted to the white man. Like other Wilson African American men, Levee has concluded that God is on the side of the white man. Reasoning as such, he simultaneously rails against the white man for a history of abuse and against his now alien God for allowing it to persist. For example, Levee is quick to question the whereabouts of the white man's God as he recalls when the black minister Reverend Gates missed his train to Atlanta one night and was surrounded by a group of jeering whites who stripped him of his cross and Bible and made him dance until they grew tired of watching him.

What I wants to know is … if he's a man of God, then where the hell was God when all of this was going on? Why wasn't God looking out for him? Why didn't God strike down them crackers with some of this lightning you talk about to me?

Further enraging fellow band members Cutter and Toledo with his vituperative blasphemy, Levee comes to the conclusion that August Wilson suggests in each of his four published chronicles of African American life in America:

… he a white man's God. That's why! God ain't never listened to no nigger's prayers. God take a nigger's prayers and throw them in the garbage. God don't pay niggers no mind. In fact … God hate niggers! Hate them with all the fury in his heart. Jesus don't love you, nigger!

Even after Cutler hurls Levee to the floor and bludgeons his face for this sacrilegious attack on his God, Levee presses his point further, but this time armed with a knife:

We gonna find out whose God He is!… Come on and save him [Cutler] like you did my mama!… I heard her when she called you! I heard her when she said, "Lord, have mercy! Jesus, help me!"

No longer convinced that the Christian God is an ally, Levee resorts to annihilating a member of his own race to appease his frustration. Implicit in this homicidal tendency is an enigmatic love-hate relationship with whites. Although Levee must know that it is the whites who pose the greatest obstacle to his career, he uses his African American colleagues as scapegoats in order to vent his frustrations. Consequently, he self-deludes himself into thinking that he is in the white man's favor while his colleagues appear naive. After failing to negotiate a more lucrative deal for his songs with Ma Rainey's capitalistic white business manager, Levee, like many once ambitious, creative young African Americans, becomes disillusioned, self-defeating, and ultimately violent.

The frequency with which Wilson emphasizes the bleak prospects of African American men who do not embrace Christianity suggests that little good comes to those who totally abandon their God, regardless of how they perceive Him. In the wake of his offensive anti-Christian rhetoric—"Jesus hate your black ass!" (Ma Rainey)—Levee seems destined to a dead-end career, and, as Toledo's murderer, he faces certain long-term incarceration. Yet Wilson also suggests the fatalistic outlook that those who do aspire to the Christian faith still encounter overwhelming odds and frequently utter failure or an abrupt death. Thus, the various misfortunes that plague the lives of Wilson's African American men (violent deaths, forced peonage and exile, family strife, or irreparably damaging business deals) are not necessarily divine punitive measures against them. They could simply be the dealings of fate.

Fences is even more indicative of the waning significance of Christianity in the lives of modern African American men. Set in the 1950s, the play is a domestic drama that examines the psychological battles of the secular "blues man" in a Christian oriented African American society. Although the overbearing but essentially frustrated African American garbage collector, Troy Maxson, still grapples with the effects of quitting school early to help his father at farming, of robbing and serving time for murder, and of being passed over in his bid for a baseball career, this cynical black man does not lay his burdens down at the church's altar. As is the case with each of Wilson's men, Christianity plays no role in Troy's search for comfort and direction.

Fences opens as two middle-aged African American men make their way home to celebrate another end of the work week. Troy, the more vocal one, comes in complaining of the blatant discrimination he faces on his job. He is upset that only white men drive the garbage trucks while the job of hoisting the huge trash-filled receptacles and emptying them into the compactors belongs to the African American workers. His frustration, which goes back as far as the 1920s Negro League, an unfulfilled career in major league baseball, and several years spent in jail for murder, affects his relationship with his wife Rose, his son Cory and his brain-damaged brother Gabriel.

Despite a seemingly loving and passionate relationship with his wife, an extra-marital affair with the "big-legged Florida gal" Alberta is Troy's only real joy. From this affair a daughter is born, yet Alberta dies in childbirth leaving Troy with no option but to ask his wife to become a surrogate mother to the child. He also succeeds in alienating his son by standing in the way to his playing professional football, preferring instead that Cory keep his job at the local A&P and get a good education.

Troy's often re-enacted fight against Death personified, which he describes in baseball terminology, finally becomes a reality. He dies one day while batting the rag ball he has tied to a tree in the yard. This final scene takes place at the dawn of the 1960s—a decade which will bring significant changes for African Americans. On the day of Troy's funeral, the Maxson family members tighten their bonds; Rose gently convinces their son Cory to tear down the emotional fences that have long separated him and Troy.

Troy finds his greatest solace in the blues, not Christianity. As a matter of fact, some of his most memorable lines in the play come at moments when he is most vulnerable to self pity: "Rose, I'm standing here with my daughter in my arms. She ain't but a wee bittie little old thing." The blues is more than a pastime for Wilson's characters. It is their universal means of communicating on the one hand and a means of healing emotional wounds on the other. Wilson recently explained this crucial cultural element:

The blues are important primarily because they contain the cultural response of blacks in America to the situation that they find themselves in. Contained in the blues is a philosophical system at work.

[Bill Moyers, A World of Ideas: Conversations with Thoughtful Men and Women about American Life Today and the Ideas Shaping Our Future, 1989.]

For Troy, this philosophical system apparently may not coexist with Christianity, which sanctions neither his marital infidelity nor the extortion of his brother's money.

Unlike Levee and Loomis, Troy does not openly blaspheme against God for his misfortunes, yet his obvious disregard for the saving grace of the church still reflects his less vocal form of atheism. While Christianity does not interest Troy, he adopts the game of baseball as a more relevant metaphor for his life. In addition to this sport, the play features several other substitutes for Troy's spiritual life, all of which prove futile in offering him any sort of lasting consolation.

For Troy, life is a baseball game riddled with fast balls, curve balls, sacrifice flies and sometimes strikeouts, yet too few homeruns. Although the conflict of the ball game lasts for only nine innings, Troy sees himself as being constantly at bat for much of his life. From keeping Death at bay to announcing a "full count" against his defiant son Cory, Troy adopts the language of the only game he knows. The various rules of the game become the basis for his own code of ethics—his Bible, his religion. Understandably, then, as a result of his allegiance to the laws governing a traditionally male-oriented sport stigmatized by raw competition and sauntering egos, Troy lacks candor in handling the more delicate relationships in his life. In one of the most intense moments of the play, Troy struggles to explain to his wife that he has not only been unfaithful to her but has also fathered a child outside of their marriage bed.

I fooled them, Rose. I bunted. When I found you and Cory and a halfway decent job … I was safe. Couldn't nothing touch me. I wasn't gonna strike out no more…. I stood on first base for eighteen years and I thought … well, goddamn it … go on for it!

Thus, baseball jargon and traditional ethics of the game substitute for what might have been a prayer to God to save his marriage. Troy completely alienates both his son and his wife by forcing upon them his very narrow view of life. Consequently, he cannot see past immediate self gratification. He cannot compromise, nor can he ask for forgiveness.

Yet another clue to understanding Troy's secular philosophy is his rather heroic perception of his own mortality. Clearly undaunted by ideas of the life hereafter, Troy grapples with death by placing it comfortably within the context of his convenient baseball metaphor. Death, as Troy boasts, is "a fastball on the outside corner." Seen this way, its hold becomes less ominous when the victim has a role in determining his own fate.

Not only does Troy challenge death's omnipotence by likening its drama to the conflict of baseball, but he also defuses it, first, by personifying it and, second, by engaging it in a wrestling match:

We wrestled for three days and three nights. I can't say where I found the strength from. Every time it seemed like he was gonna get the best of me, I'd reach way down deep inside myself and find the strength to do him one better.

In giving form to the Grim Reaper, Troy is able to further exert his machismo and remain precariously in control of his destiny. As Mei-Ling Ching asserts in "Wrestling Against History," [Theater, Vol. 19, 1988,] "Through his intentional mockery of death, [Troy] cleanses himself of his deepest fear and reaffirms his claim to life."

In addition to the stark contrast he provides to the rowdy, domineering Troy, his brother Gabriel is yet another manifestation of Troy's futile search to fill his spiritual void. After a World War II head injury leaves Gabriel virtually mentally retarded, he is convinced that he is, in fact, Archangel Gabriel, whose task is to open the Pearly Gates in Heaven and to chase away hell hounds. The conversations of this gentle man, therefore, are exclusively devoted to religious images associated with his imagined calling. When certain of Gabriel's irreversible condition, Troy claims the $3,000 compensation awarded him and uses it to purchase a home.

Although Gabriel Maxson bears the name given to him by his parents, Wilson, no doubt, invites parallels to the Archangel of the Old Testament (see St. Luke 1:11 and 1:26; Daniel 8:16 and 9:21). Appearing throughout as a spokesman for God, Archangel Gabriel enjoys a direct line of communication with Him. Thus, by examining the many opposite features of Troy's relationship with Gabriel, one may measure the extent to which he has fallen from grace. Clearly, Gabriel is Troy's alter ego. While Troy is brash and overbearing, Gabriel is gentle and docile. While Troy is consciously manipulative, Gabriel is dishearteningly naive. While Troy is completely alienated from any sense of Christian ethics, Gabriel is consumed by it (albeit as a result of a mental disorder) to the point of self-delusion.

Despite Gabriel's apparent mental retardation, one should not dismiss his significance to the play because of his distorted sense of reality. Despite being the object of patronizing tolerance, community harassment, and Troy's suspicious handling of his finances, Gabriel maintains a self-assuredness uncharacteristic of any of the supposedly sane individuals around him. Moreover, he proves to be the purest representation of those Christian virtues that Troy lacks. Not even the long suffering Rose or her justifiably defiant son Cory emphasize as much as Gabriel how utterly blurred Troy's morals have become.

Wilson does not give much insight into the fraternal relationship between Troy and Gabriel. During the few times when Troy does engage in conversation with him, he does so with obvious indifference:

GABRIEL: Troy … St. Peter got your name in the book. I seen it. It say … Troy Maxson. I say … I know him! He got the same name like what I got. That's my brother!

TROY: How many times you gonna tell me that, Gabe?

Troy's somewhat less than enthusiastic tolerance of Gabriel betrays a very strained fraternal relationship. Although the supposedly guilt-ridden man seems to display admirable compassion for Gabriel (especially while in the company of Rose or his older son Lyons), it is Cory who touches an exposed nerve by acknowledging his father's ulterior motives: "You took Uncle Gabe's money he got from the army to buy this house and then you put him out."

The most lasting effect of Troy's egocentric philosophy comes from his extramarital relationship with Alberta. Even after he admits to the affair and the illegitimate daughter it produces, he displays a persistent self-righteousness in acknowledging his actions. He is just as blatant about upholding his obligations to both the mother and child as he is about explaining to Rose why he cheated on her: "I can sit up in her house and laugh. Do you understand what I'm saying. I can laugh out loud … and it feels good. It reaches all the way down to the bottom of my shoes."

Alberta provides a respite for Troy away from his pressing responsibilities as a family man. With her he does not have to walk the marital tightrope, nor does he feel obliged to give her any more than himself. Obviously content to let Troy come and go as he pleases, Alberta is the antithesis of Rose, who wishes to fence him in. While Gabriel provides Troy with a financial base, Alberta offers him an unconditional physical and emotional relationship. Troy understandably thinks he does not need any divine inspiration when such human substitutes are available.

How, then, does Rose fit into Troy's self-serving scheme? Is she no more than an expendable commodity—a scapegoat for his insensitive antics? Outwardly, Troy is robust in professing his love for her around his friend Bono, yet he allows himself to be consumed by an extra-marital affair. Indeed, to the disinterested observer, Rose could be perceived as merely someone who cooks Troy's food, does his laundry, gives him sex and acts as mediator in the spats between him and his two sons. Although he boasts to his lifelong protegé Bono how much he loves Rose and insinuates a healthy sexual relationship with her, Troy apparently is not satisfied with just her. Consequently, Gabriel, Alberta and Rose appear to be private pawns in Troy's game of life. His relationships with each of them noticeably lack the degree of genuine compassion found in an otherwise morally conscious man. For the most part, Troy's self-conscious tirades, his apologies, his explanations, and his excuses seem to be more rhetorical exercises to bolster his own self-righteousness than attempts to communicate with those whom he loves.

Troy Maxson came to manhood in a poor urban industrialized environment where Christianity somehow did not seem to blend with what many struggling African Americans saw as necessary survival tactics. Although Troy openly laments the many bad decisions he has made in his life, he somehow remains unchanged, unconvinced that there is a better way. Clearly, Troy's opportunism is an extension of his personal code for survival and further indication of his anti-Christian sentiments. Like that of many African American men having to provide for themselves and their families in the Pittsburgh steel mill environment of the 1950s, Troy's religion is a practical religion with the haunting overtones of Social Darwinism—survival of the fittest and self-preservation. This secular perspective on life was the only means of sustaining their very crucial masculine egos in the face of dehumanizing poverty and failed careers. When African American men like Troy did fall into the pits of depression, they did not reach for the Bible. They created their own convenient laws of behavior.

In his play Joe Turner's Come and Gone, Wilson concentrates upon cultural fragmentation; that is, the emotional and physical effects associated with the displacement of newly Americanized African Americans following the Civil War. Herald Loomis, the "prodigal son" of Joe Turner's Come and Gone, is a native son of this unstable environment. Among Wilson's four disillusioned African American men, the restless vagrant Herald Loomis perhaps best epitomizes the devastating alienation that influenced all aspects of the African American man's existence in this country. While just beginning to become accustomed to the bittersweet freedom afforded by the Emancipation Proclamation, Loomis is again enslaved—this time by the legendary white Tennesseean, Joe Turner, who forces him to labor on his plantation for seven years. As Wilson explains in a 1984 interview [with Kim Powers, in Theater],

Joe Turner would press Blacks into peonage. He would send out decoys who would lure Blacks into crap games and then he would sweep down and grab them. He had a chain with forty links to it, and he would take Blacks off to his plantation and work them.

Once released, Loomis returns, disillusioned by the long separation from his wife and daughter.

But when Loomis seeks shelter at a boarding house, he learns that his wife Martha Pentecost has become saved and no longer wishes to be his wife. Left with the custody of his daughter Zonia, Loomis, like Troy, feels especially incomplete now that he is without his wife. Frustrated, disillusioned, heartbroken, Loomis slashes his chest in a ritualistic act of exorcism, declaring "I don't need nobody to bleed for me! I can bleed for myself." Loomis's final gesture is one of frustration rather than reverence. This obviously inverted religious gesture parodies the Judeo-Christian belief that Jesus Christ's crucifixion was the ultimate sacrifice. Although extreme in its example, the blood shed by Loomis undermines the crucifixion of Jesus as a broken agreement. Sensing abandonment and betrayal by his God, Loomis assumes responsibility for his own salvation in one quick stroke of his own knife. Thus, Loomis's self-sacrificing bloodletting offers an unmistakable commentary upon the African American man's frustrations with the inherent "lie" of traditional religion within the framework of this country's society.

Herald Loomis's personal quest to find his wife, Martha Pentecost, becomes more than a desire to locate a lost mate. Indeed, his predicament strongly suggests allegorical parallels to the entire race of African Americans who have been separated from their past. Driven by an obsession to reconnect with his family, Loomis enlists the services of the self-proclaimed "People Finder," Rutherford Selig. In one of several highly emotional displays, the melancholy Loomis notes,

I just wanna see her face so I can get me a starting place in the world. The world got to start somewhere. That's what I been looking for. I been wandering a long time in somebody else's world. When I find my wife that be the making of my own.

Once re-united with the now "saved" Martha, Loomis resists her attempts to convert him, having lost all faith in her God.

In clinical psychologists' terms, Loomis's drastic behavior may be explained away as symptoms of a nervous breakdown. However, such a neat assessment ignores the play's larger message concerning the root causes of the African American man's rage against himself, other African Americans, and—as evidenced by the sustained pattern in Wilson's plays—against God and religion. Joseph T. Washington, author of an extensive re-examination of the role racial segregation has played in shifting theological significance in African Americans and whites alike, notes:

The ethical preoccupation in the religion of the Negro has been accepted by many as merely a one-sided emphasis; with the decrease of social problems and the increase in educated Negro leaders, it is assumed that the slightly askew religion of the Negro will be corrected. Rather than being diagnosed and treated as a symptom of a critical malignancy, the religious expressions of the Negro have been dismissed as understandable nervous disorders. (viii)

Quite noticeable in each of August Wilson's plays is the cynical regard for Christianity as a positive force in the lives of his African American men. In Loomis's case, a dollar bill given to a so-called "People Finder" substitutes for what might have been a fervent prayer for God's assistance. Moreover, displays of religious devotion are met with biting cynicism. For example, during a scene in which the doubting Loomis and the saved Martha finally confront each other, he reveals that Jesus Christ, to him, has become not more than a "Great big old white man":

Your Mr. Jesus Christ. Standing there with a whip in one hand and tote board in another, and them niggers swimming in a sea of cotton. And he counting. He tallying up the cotton.

Loomis's disgust for the Deity as well as religious rituals represents a complete reversal from his earlier pious life as a Deacon in the Abundant Life Church. Once concerned about saving the lost souls of gamblers, he now wants no part of "the white man's God." Consequently, this total abandonment of Christianity may be seen as the cause of his obsessive dependence upon a mortal (his wife Martha) for direction.

The harsh undertones implied by Loomis's blasphemy and bloodletting represent an extreme denunciation of Christian belief by an African American and an extreme act to compensate its loss. Herald Loomis is, no doubt, a tormented African American man, yet, instead of renewing his faith in God, he not only viciously blasphemes Him but also resorts to self-inflicted bloodletting as a measure of his disgust. Loomis's self-flagellation forces one to examine this man and others like him within the entire context of their sufferings—internal and external. They each stagger from the weight of antagonistic forces around them, which seem to favor their being nomads rather than the crucial cohesive element in their families. Indeed, the sardonic tone of Loomis's language as well as his willingness to draw his own blood reflect a kind of exasperation that is relatively new to African American theater.

Wilson's latest published play, The Piano Lesson, gives numerous lessons on the dreams of one African American man. As he does in two other plays featuring bitter confrontation within the black family (Joe Turner's Come and Gone and Fences), Wilson examines the divisive forces which the African American man has to expel in order to achieve the American Dream. This recent addition to Wilson's ten-play mission also prominently features an African American man having to devise and abide by his own code of ethics.

Central to The Piano Lesson's conflict, an old piano simultaneously functions as an emblem of both African folk tradition and American capitalism. The pictorial history carved into its surface by the great grandfather of the currently embattled siblings, Berneice and Boy Willie, appreciates both its monetary and sentimental values. Thus, it becomes just as endearing to Bemeice's memory of her family's past as it is valuable to her brother's future security.

Despite his sister's refusal to sell the family heirloom, Boy Willie maintains that he can reap more practical good from the otherwise useless object by investing his share of the sale in a small plot of land. With impeccable logic, he rationalizes against Berneice's less forcibly argued need to preserve the common link with their family's history. Like the obsessed Walter Lee of Lorraine Hansberry's Raisin in the Sun, who extorts a reward to which he has only partial birthright, Boy Willie wants to use the family heirloom to purchase a piece of the American Dream. Unfortunately, Boy Willie's sincerity distinguishes him only marginally from his character's antecedent—the hot-headed, impetuous Walter Lee—who risks and loses his family's cash reserve in his bid to purchase a liquor store.

In much the same way as Troy Maxson, Boy Willie challenges the family's unity as well as Christian ethics by his desire to advance his station in life. He does not buy into Berneice's more nostalgic regard for the musical instrument, nor is he moved by the Christian rhetoric of his aspiring brother-in-law and minister Avery. Boy Willie confronts Bemeice, her boyfriend Avery, as well as their indifferent Uncle Doaker Charles, with the single-minded intent of actualizing his ambition to own land. If this means forcibly removing the piano from his sister's home, sawing it in half, facing possible bodily harm or risking alienation from his family, Boy Willie is prepared to endure the consequences.

When romantic idealists (such as Berneice) unconditionally embrace their African heritage and Christians (such as the would-be minister Avery) advise humility, the African American man seems to have no better alternative than to formulate a separate consciousness. For Boy Willie, therefore, this resulting eclectic philosophy is necessarily part survivalist, part self-made moralist, and, most noticeably, part agnostic or atheist. Thus, what may seem like over-ambition to some could more aptly be described by others as heeding opportunity's one and only knock.

For Boy Willie, heeding opportunity involves neither naiveté nor passivity. He is fully aware of the moral and cultural forces that oppose his efforts and knows that his success depends upon his ability to exorcise each of them. To do this, he must transcend the heavy emotional bonds that consume his sister. Consequently, he replaces accepted rules of good Christian behavior with roughshod "street smarts." This having been done, the choice between revering symbols of African ancestry and converting them to functional use becomes less of an issue to him.

One such opposing force which Boy Willie must exorcise in order to accomplish his goal is the pesky ghost of the piano's former owner, Robert Sutter. Also apparently obsessed with retrieving the controversial piano, Sutter's ghost makes several appearances in Berneice's home. According to Doaker Charles, who relates the rather dubious legend of Sutter's ghost, the white man's spirit that haunts Berneice's home was once the grandson of their family's original slave master. As a result of a barter to acquire slaves from Sutter's grandfather, another white slave owner offered a piano as collateral. The result of this deal was the transferred ownership of Doaker's father and grandmother. Thus, the piano came to represent not only the memory of Doaker's immediate relatives but also the spirit of each extended family member from Africa to America.

Boy Willie sees the separation of the spiritual from the physical world as imperative to his mission and ultimately convinces Berneice of this. Frustrated with Avery's use of awkward religious incantations to exorcise the ghost, Boy Willie intercedes by simply sprinkling the air with water from a pan on the stove and shouting profanity: "All this old preaching stuff. Hell, just ask him to leave. (He grabs a pot of water off the stove and begins to fling it about the room.) Hey Sutter! Sutter! Get your ass out this house!" Once he succeeds in bringing Sutter's image into view, both he and his sister instinctively collaborate in two final symbolic rituals of liberation: Berneice plays the once shunned piano, and Boy Willie engages Sutter's ghost in "a life and death struggle fraught with perils and faultless terror."

This apparent reconciliation between agents of two distinct ideologies resounds with didactic importance. What Wilson suggests in the play's resolution is a call to fellow blacks to renounce ties with the spiritual world and to cultivate a healthier awareness of the more immediate, more tangible features of their lives. As exemplified in the stubborn spirit of Sutter's ghost which attaches itself to the piano, the African American man's African heritage is, by design, a mixture of nightmare and reverence. Only through sensible adaptations of the more pragmatic virtues of his past can he succeed. Although this preference for the here and now runs counter to Christian ideals of the life hereafter, the world in which Berneice and Boy Willie live demands a reassessment of tradition.

Berneice's boyfriend Avery could very well be considered as Boy Willie's alter ego. He becomes an important part of a dialectical lesson on the advantages and/or disadvantages of being a good Christian as well as a proud African American man. At odds are his more immediately successful survival tactics and the less measurable benefits of Christianity. Exhibiting paradoxically similar ideals, the con artist and the minister go about achieving their goals with equal persistence. While Boy Willie is set on selling the piano to purchase land, Avery is determined to borrow enough from the local white-owned bank to erect his own church. Their common desire to drum up capital to support investments prompts impressive emotional appeals: Both are masters of persuasive rhetoric—Avery, by quoting the scriptures and Boy Willie, by citing street logic.

Avery is a toned-down version of the frequently caricatured Baptist minister. Although not as extreme as similar examples in James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain or Amiri Baraka's The Baptism, he does exemplify familiar tendencies toward passivity. He prefers going through the frequent frustration and delay of proper channels to get what he wants rather than assuming a more direct, assertive approach. From finance to romance, each attempt to improve himself is met with lukewarm reception.

As seen through the eyes of the play's other African American men, Avery is a shyster. They refuse to believe that he was "called" to the ministry, choosing instead to believe that, like them, Avery has found a lucrative scheme to support himself. Boy Willie casually cajoles him at their initial encounter: "How you get to be a preacher, Avery? I might want to be a preacher one day. Have everybody call me Reverend Boy Willie."

With a foreboding resonance, each of Wilson's four published plays addresses the difficulties the African American man has had in accepting Christianity as a moral frame of reference. Levee, Herald Loomis, Troy Maxson and Boy Willie do not stop short of lambasting white society for their misfortunes. They blaspheme against Christianity with ease and run roughshod over any obstacle to their respective ambitions. But they are not above acknowledging themselves as villains. Having conceded this, they choose to pass over Christianity as practiced by fellow African Americans in favor of less restrictive adaptations of their own brand of survival. Consequently, the language and actions associated with their makeshift ideals reflect a new means of compensating for their previously unquestioned belief in God.

Quite unlike the sorely tried though patient Job of the Old Testament, Wilson's African American men have given up on their God. No longer content to "wait on the Lord," they make impetuous, often foolhardy decisions about their lives. They are no longer so easily appeased by spewing profanity and threats at white America or by finding solace in the word of God. Neither are they intimidated by the moral consequences of their infidelity. Where once the sanctity of Christianity may have been reinforced by a heavy hand like that extended by Hansberry's uncompromising Lena Younger: "In my mother's house there is still God" (Raisin, Act I.i), its ethics are being either challenged or totally ignored. Consigned to a life of subjugation, the African American men who dominate Wilson's plays discard Christianity in favor of more flexible, man-made commandments.

Further Reading

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Barnes, Clive. "'Trains' Doesn't Run." New York Post (14 April 1992): 138.

Mixed assessment of Two Trains Running.

Bergesen, Eric, and William W. Demastes. "The Limits of African-American Political Realism: Baraka's Dutchman and Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." In Realism and the American Dramatic Tradition, edited by William W. Demastes, pp. 218-34. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1996.

Contrasts Amiri Baraka's Dutchman and Wilson's Ma Rainey as examples of two divergent styles of approaching African-American subjects.

Birdwell, Christine. "Death as a Fastball on the Outside Corner: Fences' Troy Maxson and the American Dream." Aethlon VII (Fall 1990): 87-96.

Surveys Fences, illustrating Wilson's use of baseball as subject, symbol, and metaphor in the play.

Bissiri, Amadou. "Aspects of Africanness in August Wilson's Drama: Reading the Piano Lesson through Wole Soyinka's Drama." African American Review 30, No. 1 (Spring 1996): 99-113.

Examines The Piano Lesson in order to "trace aspects of Africanness" and to "probe the overall significance of Wilson's dramaturgic interest in Africanness."

Ching, Mei-Ling. "Wrestling Against History." Theater XIX, No. 3 (Summer/Fall 1988): 70-1.

Explores history and spiritual issues in Wilson's dramas.

Elam, Harry J. "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom: Singing Wilson's Blues." American Drama 5, No. 2 (Spring 1992): 76-99.

Illustrates the significance and role of blues music in Ma Rainey and in the interpretation of African-American history.

Grant, Nathan L. "Men, Women, and Culture: A Conversation with August Wilson." American Drama 5, No. 2 (Spring 1992): 100-22.

Interview in which Wilson discusses politics and culture and their effects upon his dramatic works.

Hornby, Richard. Review of Fences, by August Wilson. The Hudson Review XL, No. 3 (Autumn 1987): 470-72.

Laudatory assessment of Fences.

――――――. Review of Joe Turner's Come and Gone, by August Wilson. The Hudson Review, XLI, No. 3 (Autumn 1988): 518.

Offers high praise for Joe Turner's Come and Gone.

Shannon, Sandra G. "The Role of Memory in August Wilson's Four Hundred Year Autobiography." In Memory and Cultural Politics: New Approaches to American Ethnic Literatures, edited by Amritjit Singh, Joseph T. Skerrett, Jr., and Robert E. Hogan, pp. 175-93. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1996.

Delineates the function of memory in Wilson's dramas.

Smith, Philip E., II. "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom: Playing the Blues as Equipment for Living." In Within the Dramatic Spectrum, edited by Karelisa V. Hartigan, pp. 177-86. University Press of America, 1986.

Discusses the historical background of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and the major themes of the play.

Weales, Gerald. Review of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, by August Wilson. The Georgia Review XXXIX, No. 3 (Fall 1985): 622-23.

Mostly favorable review of Ma Rainey, with some reservations about some matters involving theme and plot.

――――――. Review of Joe Turner's Come and Gone, by August Wilson. The Georgia Review XLII, No. 3 (Fall 1988): 599-600.

Brief positive review of Joe Turner's Come and Gone.

Lisa Wilde (essay date Winter 1990)

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SOURCE: "Reclaiming the Past: Narrative and Memory in August Wilson's Two Trains Running," in Theater, Vol. 22, No. 1, Winter, 1990, pp. 73-4.

[In the following essay, Wilde studies how Wilson gives expression to the memories of African Americans in Two Trains Running.]

"All I do is try to live in the world but the world done gone crazy. I'm sorry I was ever born into it"—Sterling

May, 1969. The corner of Fullerton and Wylie Street in Pittsburgh. A small restaurant, long forgotten by the general crowds and now being readied for demolition. Outside, the world moved convulsively towards the future. But within the walls of the restaurant, the regulars spin webs of refuge: they spend hours philosophizing, telling stories, debating politics, competing to prove each other wrong. In their profuse yet precise recombinations of image and phrase, they rebuild the past.

In his newest play, Two Trains Running, August Wilson summons up the people and circumstances of this world from his own memory, reclaiming stories from the obscurity into which so much of the oral storytelling tradition has passed. The audience enters into the intimacy of the routine of these characters—stopping by for their morning coffee, checking on the numbers, commenting on the events on the street—just as Sterling Johnson, newly released from prison, breaks into the closed circle of the restaurant and provokes new performances of the stories and debates shared by Memphis and Holloway.

Both of these older men remain distrustful of the sound and fury surrounding the civil rights movement. Memphis, the restaurant's owner, recalls that he's seen movements and demonstrations over and over again that haven't led to reforms, haven't changed anything: "Soon as they finish with one rally they start planning for the next. They forget about what goes in between. You rally to spur you into action…. I want to see if it last three years." All these attempts by black men to gain justice and equality are almost predoomed to end in martyrdom. They are fighting both fate as determined by the white man and the uselessness of trying to play by rules not written for them. Their struggle goes back beyond this specific crisis and movement; it extends back through centuries of suffering which can only be expiated by reclaiming that past. Memphis has fled the destruction of his farm in Jackson, Mississippi to make a new life in Pittsburgh. The possibility of a new loss forces him to narrate and confront that original dispossession.

The insistent rhythm of time and mortality pulses through the play. The restaurant is across the street from Lutz's Meat Market and West's Funeral Home—the characters travel between these three primitive sites of slaughter, consumption and decay. People speculate about the last days of the world. The block the restaurant is on is scheduled to be levelled. West, the undertaker, goes about the ancient rituals of preparing the dead for the afterlife. He is a modern high priest officiating over the ceremonies of grief and valediction. Yet an impulse towards action emerges out of this desolation. Risa, Holloway, Sterling and Memphis try to find their own ways to envisage a future through consulting prophets and oracles, playing with chance. Wolf, the numbers runner, offers new lives and different endings for the price of a ticket.

Playing the numbers is a way to try to control fate and get enough money to get ahead. There is no logic to the world: getting ahead happens only through a lucky number or a sudden contract. Working, particularly working according to standards imposed by white America, yields up only a slight variant on slavery. The real battle is revealed to be one not of language or attitude but of economics. Wilson tells stories of people inadequately recompensed for the work they've done, legal clauses written so a property owner can be bought out for a fraction of the price he paid, even lottery winnings that are cut in half. The only way to recover what has been lost or stolen is by following the dominant culture's tactics: robbery, burning buildings for insurance, carrying guns to assert power. But these people are arrested and imprisoned for actions that in the marketplace would be considered shrewd business. Wilson's characters are not innocent: they have already tried to make their lives work as the world dictates and lost. Their need to reclaim what has been taken from them, either in actual or symbolic terms—Herald Loomis' lost wife in Joe Turner's Come and Gone, the piano bought with a father's blood in The Piano Lesson, Memphis' farm—becomes the truest form of revolution and affirmation.

In each of Wilson's plays, this liberating moment comes through communicating with the supernatural or occult mysteries. Troy Maxson in Fences wrestles with Death and ultimately loses; his brother Gabriel sends him off to the hereafter with a blast of sound and an outpouring of light. Joe Turner's Bynum helps Loomis discover his hidden song through a ritual purging. Boy Willie must wrestle with Sutler's ghost as his sister Berneice exorcises the suffering from the piano by touching it in The Piano Lesson. In Two Trains Running, travelers seeking answers are sent to the red door at 1839 Wylie Street to consult Aunt Ester, a three hundred and twenty-two year old prophetess. Like the Cumaean Sibyl or the Sphinx, she provides her pilgrims not with answers but with riddles and parables, divinations that they themselves must interpret. Specifically, she offers them the choice of remaining passive or moving towards their fate—if they are ready to walk through fire to reach it. She may extend healing but the comfort comes with a knife's edge. Her presence, reaching back to precolonial days, represents African American memory: the choice is to ignore it or to retrieve it. As Memphis says of his own travels, "I'm going back there one day…. They've got two trains running every day."

Both Wilson and Director Lloyd Richards have often spoken of how their collaborations on four previous plays have allowed them both to recover their own personal histories, to retell stories they heard in their childhood. August Wilson has written his plays so that each expresses some aspect of the African American experience in each decade of the twentieth century: Joe Turner's Come and Gone at the turn of the century; Ma Rainey's Black Bottom in the Jazz Age: The Piano Lesson during the Depression; Fullerton Street during World War II and Fences in the 1950s. These plays create their own context and history for Two Trains Running. The characters and events do not exist merely as distinct dramatic moments; they are woven into the fabric of remembrance August Wilson summons up in his chronicle of the African American experience. Memory has been given a voice.

Frank Rich (review date 14 April 1992)

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SOURCE: "August Wilson Reaches the '60s With Witnesses from a Distance." in The New York Times, April 14. 1992, pp. 139-40.

[In the following review, Rich offers a largely favorable assessment of Two Trains Running.]

In Two Trains Running, the latest chapter in his decade-by-decade chronicle of black American life in this century, August Wilson arrives at a destination that burns almost too brightly in memory to pass for history. Two Trains Running is Mr. Wilson's account of the 1960's, unfurling at that moment when racial conflict and the Vietnam War were bringing the nation to the brink of self-immolation.

Yet Mr. Wilson's play, which opened last night at the Walter Kerr Theater, never speaks of Watts or Vietnam or a march on Washington. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is mentioned only once. The garrulous characters, the regulars at a Pittsburgh ghetto lunch counter in 1969, are witnesses to history too removed from the front lines to harbor more than the faintest fantasies of justice. They invest their hopes in playing the numbers, not in distant leaders sowing lofty dreams of change.

So determined is Two Trains Running to avoid red-letter events and larger-than-life heroes that it is easily Mr. Wilson's most adventurous and honest attempt to reveal the intimate heart of history. In place of a protagonist that a Charles Dutton or James Earl Jones might play is a gallery of ordinary people buffeted by larger forces that they can join or gingerly battle but cannot begin to promote or control. While such 60's props as a gun and cans of gasoline do appear in Two Trains Running, the evening's most violent dramatic event causes no serious injury and takes place offstage. Even so, a larger, national tragedy is spreading underfoot.

As might be expected in a work that departs from every Wilson effort except Joe Turner's Come and Gone in its experimental will to demolish the manufactured confrontations of well-made drama, Two Trains Running is not without blind alleys. And it is compromised by a somewhat bombastic production, staged by the author's longtime collaborator Lloyd Richards, that sometimes takes off running in a different direction from the writing. But the play rides high on the flavorsome talk that is a Wilson staple. The glorious storytelling serves not merely as picturesque, sometimes touching and often funny theater but as a penetrating revelation of a world hidden from view to those outside it.

Much of the talk is prompted by two deaths that filter into Memphis Lee's restaurant, itself doomed to be demolished. The sole waitress, Risa (Cynthia Martells), grieves for Prophet Samuel, an evangelist whose attainments included a cache of jewelry, a white Cadillac, a harem and a huge flock that is viewing his open casket down the street. The one stranger to visit Memphis Lee's, a newly released convict named Sterling (Larry Fishburne), is latently preoccupied with the 1965 assassination of Malcolm X, not out of any deep ideological convictions but because a rally in the fallen radical's name at the local Savoy Ballroom gives him a pretext to ask Risa for a date.

Though the issue is never articulated, Mr. Wilson's characters are starting to compare the prophets who offer balms for their poverty and disenfranchisement, and no two representative prophets could be more different than Malcolm X and Samuel. But the play's real question may be, as one line poses it, "How we gonna feel good about ourselves?" The liveliest talkers in Two Trains Running are members of an older generation skeptical of all externally applied panaceas, secular and religious.

Memphis (Al White), who is negotiating a price for the city's demolition of his restaurant, is confident he can beat the white man at his own game as long as he knows the rules. To him, those who argue that "black is beautiful" sound like "they're trying to convince themselves." Holloway (Roscoe Lee Browne), a retired house painter turned cracker-barrel philosopher, is not only scathing about white men who exploit black labor but also about any effort by what he calls "niggers" to fight back. He sends anyone with a grievance to a mysterious, unseen prophet, the supposedly 322-year-old Aunt Ester, the neighborhood's subliminal repository of its buried African identity and a magical universe of faith and superstitions.

In some of the richest and most hilarious arias, the marvelously dyspeptic Mr. Browne encapsulates the whole economic history of the United States into an explosive formula and reminisces scathingly of a grandfather so enthralled by the plantation mentality he could not wait to die and pick heaven's cotton for a white God. Even nastier gallows humor is provided by West (Chuck Patterson), an undertaker whose practical view of death has made him perhaps the community's keenest social observer and certainly its wealthiest entrepreneur.

As conceived by Mr. Wilson, the monologues, musical in language and packed with thought and incident, are not digressions; they are the play's very fiber. Such plot as there is involves the fate of a symbolic mentally unbalanced man named Hambone (Sullivan Walker) who pointedly "ain't willing to accept whatever the white man throw at him" and the rising political consciousness and romantic ardor of Sterling, whose sincere efforts to cobble a post-penitentiary life and livelihood are constantly frustrated.

Along with the usual Wilson repetitions and the heavy metaphorical use of Hambone (who is a hammier version of the mentally disturbed Gabriel in Fences), the flaws of Two Trains Running include its inability to make more than a thematic conceit out of its lone woman, Risa, who enigmatically bears self-inflicted razor scars, and its failure to delve far below Sterling's surface, despite a searching performance by Mr. Fishburne. Mr. Wilson's reticence about his two youngest and most crucial characters turns up most glaringly in the pivotal but underwritten Act II scene that brings them together to the music of a previously dormant jukebox.

Mr. Fishburne, who greets each of Sterling's defeats with pride and heroic optimism, and Mr, Browne, an orator of Old Testament fire, are the jewels of the production. The rest of the cast is at most adequate, with Mr. White's ranting Memphis, whose longer soliloquies punctuate both acts, inflicting the greatest damage. The uneven casting is compounded by the harsh, bright lighting, the flatly realistic set and the slam-bang choreography of a text that needs to breathe rather than hyperventilate. Instead of looking like a production that has been polished during its long development process through the country's resident theaters, Two Trains Running sometimes seems the battered survivor of a conventionally grueling road tour.

The play fascinates anyway and makes its own chilling point. Just as this is the Wilson work in which the characters are the furthest removed from both Africa and the Old South (to which the untaken trains of the title lead), so it is also the Wilson play closest in time to our own. "You take something apart, you should know how to put it together," says Sterling early on, referring to a wristwatch he hesitates to dismantle. Rough in finish and unresolved at the final curtain, Two Trains Running captures a racially divided country as it came apart. That Mr. Wilson's history bleeds so seamlessly into the present is testimony to the fact that the bringing together of that America is a drama yet to unfold.

Mary L. Bogumil (essay date December 1994)

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SOURCE: "'Tomorrow Never Comes': Songs of Cultural Identity in August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone," in Theatre Journal, Vol. 46, No. 4, December, 1994, pp. 463-76.

[In the following essay, Bogumil explores Wilson's handling of his characters experiences with identity, culture, ethnicity, and displacement in Joe Turner's Come and Gone.]

The subject of displacement in all its psychological vicissitudes is dramatized in August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone, a play in which the African American residents of a boarding house in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania in 1911 attempt to rediscover, repossess, and redefine themselves historically and socially as free citizens. These children of newly freed slaves, like others who came before them, attempt to make a place for themselves in this polyethnic, and certainly hostile, environment.

In order to contrast and magnify the sense of displacement each of these characters of Southern origin experiences in the North, Wilson in his preface personifies many elements of the setting. For example, the fires of the steel mill rage, the barges trudge up the river, and the city of Pittsburgh flexes it muscles "with a combined sense of industry and progress." Simply put, the environment Wilson depicts is metaphorically combative.

Into this environment

[wander] [f]rom the deep and near South the sons and daughters of newly freed African slaves…. Isolated, cut off from memory, having forgotten the names of the gods and only guessing at their faces, they arrive dazed and stunned, their hearts kicking in their chest with a song worth singing. They arrive carrying Bibles and guitars, their pockets lined with dust and fresh hope, marked men and women seeking to scrape from the narrow, crooked cobbles and the fiery blasts of the coke furnace a way of bludgeoning and shaping the malleable parts of themselves into a new identity as free men of definite and sincere worth.

Foreigners in a strange land, they carry as part and parcel of their baggage a long line of separation and dispersement which informs their sensibilities.

Outsiders in a strange land, these characters attempt to "reconnect" and "reassemble" themselves as free citizens of "definite and sincere worth." Moreover, Wilson asserts that they want "to give clear and luminous meaning to the [their ethnocentric] song [a voice whether collective or individual] which is [comprised of] both a wail and a whelp of joy." But why is their song both a wail and a whelp of joy? In this essay, I shall explore this question, situating the experiences and traumas of several of Wilson's characters within a historical and cultural context that will explain each character's attempt to "reconnect" and "reassemble" (often out of conflicting or contradictory influences) his or her identity as an African American living in twentieth-century America.

As a result of the Reconstruction period in the South—and after the 1896 Supreme Court Decision Plessy vs. Ferguson, which declared the "separate but equal" doctrine—the Southern states vehemently began to impose segregation and to enforce Jim Crow laws by rewriting each state's constitution, legislating an exclusionist policy toward African Americans. By 1907 many African Americans had moved to Northern industrial cities to escape the impact of this constitutional discrimination and to find work other than that of itinerant sharecroppers and docile servants. With the massive migration came feelings of displacement for many of those who were former slaves and for the sons and daughters of those slaves. These feelings were symptomatic reactions to their new social climate. While the African Americans were now free men and women in the North, their freedom unfortunately often took the form of a self-imposed isolation, perhaps a vestige of their marginalization as a culture in the antebellum South. It is this sense of displacement, particularly but not exclusively of black males, which is dramatized in several ways in Wilson's play: in the "religiomagical" plantation dance, the juba; in what I will refer to as Zonia's song; in Wilson's inclusion of the blues song "Joe Turner's Come and Gone"; and especially in the central characters, Bynum Walker and Herald Loomis.

In his poem, "Afro-American Fragment," Langston Hughes describes the significance of an individual's "song" and, in turn, the African American's collective sense of displacement—a fragmented sense of self and of community within a culture:

      So Long,
      So far away,
      Is Africa.
      Not even the memories alive
      Save those that history books create,
      Save those that songs
      Beat back out of blood with words sad sung
      In strange un-Negro tongue—
      So long,
      So far away
      Is Africa.

      Subdued and time-lost are the drums—
      And yet, through some vast mist of race
      There comes this song
      I do not understand
      The song of atavistic land,
      Of bitter yearnings lost, without a place—
      So long,
      So far away
      Is Africa's
      Dark face.

This "song of [an] atavistic land" is captured in the "juba," a dance that routinely begins after Sunday suppers in Seth and Bertha Holly's boarding house. The boarders' participation in the dance evokes Herald Loomis's surrealistic vision of a people's barbarous captivity, displacement, and virtual destruction. The juba signifies the recurrence (in memories, in deeds, and in visions) of remote ancestral ties—a paternal, cultural legacy from the characters' African forefathers. Yet as scholarship on this subject indicates, the juba's origins and the interpretations surrounding the motivation for its practice are somewhat difficult to delineate. For example, [in "Africanisms and the Study of Folklore," Africanisms in American Culture, edited by Joseph E. Holloway, 1990] Beverly J. Johnson analyzes one possible origin of the dance:

One of the earliest records of the term juba dates back to American minstrelsy. Both Juba and Jube consistently appeared as names of enslaved Africans who were skilled musicians and dancers. The father of a celebrated black artist who was popular outside the minstrelsy circuit, Horace or Howard Weston, was named Jube.

Johnson elaborates upon the myriad etymological origins of the word "juba": juba or dituba in Bantu "means to pat, beat time, the sun, the hour"; linguistically the word comes from the African giouba, referring to a sacred polyrhythmic African step dance whose secular origins trace back to South Carolina and the West Indies, and juba was a word referring to both a mixture of leftovers consumed by the plantation slaves and a song they created to prepare them psychologically to eat what she terms "slop." Johnson also includes lines from the "Juba Song," which she attributes to Besse Jones, along with her own explication, which appears on the right:

     Juba up, Juba down,     That means everywhere, all around the
     Juba all around the town, whole country … everybody had
     Juba for ma, Juba for pa, juba. And they made a play out of it.
     Juba for your brother-in-law. So that's where this song came from;
                       they would get all this kind of thing
                       off their brains and minds.

If we take Jones's explication of juba as a purgative incantation and couple it with the following explication of the term in the Oxford English Dictionary, the cause of Herald Loomis's mental breakdown (or epiphany) and the juba's purgative effect upon him become clear. Like Johnson, the OED defines "juba," sometimes spelled "juber" or "jouba," as a species of dance that often included the reenactment of a mental breakdown. But unlike Johnson, the OED definition implies that the juba's origin was exclusively American despite its African ritual dance elements. More precisely, it was a dance performed by the antebellum plantation slaves in the deep South—a dance whose choreography consisted of the clapping of hands, the patting of knees and thighs, the striking of feet on the floor, and the singing of a refrain where the word "juba" was repeated, a refrain that acted as an incantation to the Holy Ghost or an invocation to manifest a transcendent being. Marshall and Jean Stearns state [in Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance, 1979] that this version of the juba is commonly called the "patting juba" and elaborate upon the choreographed movements of the dancers:

Parting Juba, which started as any kind clapping with any dance to encourage another dancer, became a special routine of clapping of the hands, knees, thighs and body in a rhythmic display. (In Africa, of course, this function would be performed by drums, but in the United States where drums had frequently been forbidden for the fear of slave revolts, the emergence of the patting seems to have been inevitable.)

The Stearns also note that the words and the steps were performed in a call-and-response fashion. Certainly, this mode of call-and-response communication was a major vehicle in sustaining a sense of community—not unlike the call-and-response spirituals that were sung by slaves on one plantation to communicate with those on another nearby plantation—in an environment where a sense of community was systematically undermined by the institution of slavery. In addition, it seems that the dance was invested with elements of the unreal and the grotesque. The Stearns trace "juba" to "mane," a loose thread-like beard which hangs at the end of husks of corn. No doubt, this interpretation of the word "juba" illustrates why the juba was performed by many of the slaves during corn harvesting time.

When we encounter the character of Herald Loomis, whose paroxysmal breakdown is prompted by his adverse reaction to the other characters' participation in the dance, we are initiated into a world where the natural and supernatural coexist and impinge upon one another. As Loomis says to Bynum Walker, "The ground's starting to shake. There's a great shaking. The world's busting half in two. The sky's splitting open. I got to stand up." The juba—as song, as dance, with all its competing cultural resonances—plays a significant role in Wilson's play. Specifically, in the final scene of act I, all the residents of the boarding house converse after Sunday dinner, except for Herald Loomis, who is not there. As they retire to the parlor, Seth and Jeremy want to juba, and the two wake Bynum Walker, who is half asleep, to join them in the dance. Instantly, the atmosphere is jubilant as the others join in. Then Loomis enters and cries out for them to stop. He blasphemes the Holy Ghost, the greatness of God's grandeur, and then unzips his pants. All are devastated as Loomis suddenly begins to speak in tongues and dance frenetically around the kitchen. Without a moment's hesitation, Walker runs after him, while Seth shouts out that Loomis is crazy, and Bertha tells her husband to be quiet. "Thrown back," or stunned by his vision. Loomis then tells of a horrific vision: bones walking upon the water; bones sinking into the depths of the water; and bones washing up upon the land, where they transform into flesh, black flesh. Walker attempts to crawl closer to Loomis, and Loomis, who is nearly out of breath, tries to stand, but cannot. Loomis knows that he must stand up to break the spell of his vision; he says that he must "get upon the road" like the others, but cannot, and collapses onto the floor.

We should pay close attention to August Wilson's stage directions in this scene, where he describes particularities of the juba, and compare it to Herald Loomis's disturbing reaction to all those involved in the dance:

The Juba is reminiscent of the Ring Shouts of the African slaves. It is a calf and response dance. BYNUM sits at the table and drums He calls the dance as others clap their hands, shuffle and stomp around the table. It should be as African as possible, with performers working themselves up unto a near frenzy. The words can be improvised, but should include some mention of the Holy Ghost. In the middle of the dance HERALD LOOMIS enters.

LOOMIS: (In a rage.) Stop it! Stop it! (They stop and look to him.) You all sitting up here singing about the Holy Ghost? You singing and singing. You think the Holy Ghost is coming? You sing for the Holy Ghost to come? What he gonna do, huh? He going come with tongues of fire to burn up your woolly heads? You gonna tie onto the Holy Ghost and get burned up? What you got then? Why God got to be so Big? Why he got to be bigger than me? How much big is there? How much big do you want? (LOOMIS starts to unzip his pants.)

Perhaps what disturbs Herald Loomis about the characters' participation in the dance is that sense of community, of solidarity, of an atavistic legacy of Africa, but sadly also of the bondage still in the consciousness of the post-Civil War generation—all of which are in sharp contrast to his desire for autonomy. Why do they laud it over him? Why do they wish to be reminded of their cultural past? Is the dance and all that it represents more important than an individual's efforts to become American?

Ronald Takaki writes that most blacks of the post-Civil War generation walked away from anything that recalled their servitude in the South, "the racial etiquette of deference and subordination." Takaki claims that many who traveled north were "restless, dissatisfied, unwilling to mask their true selves and accommodate to traditional roles." Is not the juba a connection to that unwanted past or tradition? In Herald Loomis's mind, to re-establish such a connection is unbearable and dangerous. Takaki says that compared to the "older class of colored labor," men who were "pretty well up in years" and who constituted a "first rate class of labor," the blacks of the "younger class" were "discontented and wanted to be roaming."

When Loomis tells Walker of his vision, he describes a wave that transforms the bones of their ancestors into flesh, then reiterates his desperate desire for individual autonomy: "They got flesh on them! Just like you and me!… They black. Just like you and me. Ain't no difference…. They ain't moved or nothing. They just laying there…. I'm going to stand up. I got to stand up. I can't lay here no more. All the breath coming into my body and I got to stand up." Listening to this apostasy, Walker recognizes that Loomis is a victim of Joe Turner. As he later tells him:

Now I can look at you, Mr. Loomis, and see you a man who done forgot his song. Forgot how to sing it. A fellow forget that and he forget who he is…. See, Mr. Loomis, when a man forgets his song he goes off in search of it … till he find out he's got it with him all the time. That's why I can tell you one of Joe Turner's niggers. 'Cause you forgot how to sing your song.

Walker sees that the traces of enslavement in Loomis's vision are a form of personal hegemony in which the song of the individual—that is, the individual's ties to the past as well as his or her place in the world—is negated; and this was the goal of Joe Turner:

What he wanted was your song. He wanted to have that song to be his. He thought by catching you he could learn that song. Every nigger he catch he's looking for the one he can learn that song from. Now he's got you bound up to where you can't sing your own song. Couldn't sing it them seven years 'cause you was afraid he would snatch it from under you. But you still got it. You just forgot how to sing it.

During this scene, the others present seem aware of their autonomy as individuals apart from their identity as a race; they can participate in this dance as a form of celebration, for they can acknowledge their songs (words and actions) as signatures of their autonomy as individuals and as members of a race. All of them can embrace this legacy of their culture both of Africa and America, but Herald Loomis cannot, due to his haunting Joe Turner nightmare of imprisonment.

Although the same atavistic "ghost" is within him, Loomis believes that his autonomy as an individual, as a man, is at best tenuous. In an interview, August Wilson explains the haunting presence of the white plantation owner from Tennessee and its effect upon the African American male: "Joe Turner would press Blacks into peonage. He would send out decoys who would lure Blacks into crap games and then he would sweep down and grab them. He had a chain with forty links to it, and he would take Blacks off to his plantation and work them."

According to William W. Cook, the direct result of the institution of slavery upon African Americans was a deprivation of the coadunate elements within their native African culture. Consequently, the practice of religions, languages, and customs became convergent and were expressed in art. Cook states [in "Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke: Traditions of Afro-American Satire," Journal of Ethnicity, Vol. 13, No., 1985] that the African descended from an "absorptive culture, meaning a culture in which certain divisions do not exist." He further elaborates that within an "absorptive culture" which implements the call-and-responsepattern, there is no line drawn between performer and audience as there is in western theatre; moreover, words and dance are of equal importance in dances like the juba, as are vocals and instrument in the blues. Thus, in the play when Herald Loomis attempts to stop the juba, he disrupts this call-and-response pattern, this cultural tradition—something which [Cook explains] is not tolerated in African societies: "African societies discourage face-to-face confrontations and pull in line those who were out of line. This vent of feelings obviates the possibility that private grievances will fester and become a community problem. The great and powerful are in a sense leveled with the weak."

Moreover, the juba, and African ritual dance in general, is "earth oriented," an expression of a kinship with the earth. This kinship is initially demonstrated in act 1 during the sacrificial ritual enacted by Bynum Walker near the Hollys's vegetable garden. In contrast, the choreographic movements of classical European dance reflect a pull away from the earth, according to Cook. Herald Loomis, a member of the post-Civil War generation, attempts to sever that native African connection to the earth and to break free from that past American connection to Joe Turner enslavement in order to become Americanized in post-Emancipation Proclamation America.

Surrounded by what he perceives as a conspiratorial group, Loomis even degrades his own ancestry with his vociferous attack against the religiomagical elements of his African American ethnicity, including physical and sexual stereotypes, to further his insult upon others present. And even though he and Bynum Walker have a verbal exchange, they are not exchanging "dozens"—a contest of call-and-response verbal combat highly regarded as a skill in African societies: Loomis's verbal attack is against his culture and results in his breakdown and collapse.

In Wilson's play, an acute displacement, which is actually the African American's disenfranchisement in white America, is reflected in each character's desire to participate in the synergistic dance called the juba—a dance of cultural mutability in America and of traditional immutability in their "atavistic land." That disenfranchisement is further illustrated in some of the key male characters' need to wander or to turn away from that which is familiar, thereby causing the Joe Turner "syndrome"—a cultural idiom that refers both to the convict-lease system, which was devised as a post-Reconstruction socioeconomic advantage for white southern landowners to further exploit black labor and to an individual's desire to wander away from a sense of community or home, itself a sociological vestige of the institution of slavery. The central characters are in search of their voice, a "song" which will enable them to articulate their individual and cultural identities, a song that, perhaps, will lead them down the "right road" and not down the behavioral road to aversion, a song that signifies these feelings of displacement, which are referred to as "Joe Turner."

Beyond its direct reference to peonage, "Joe Turner" is a blues song that alludes to the African American's sense of imprisonment in a white world. Bynum Walker sings it in the play:

     They tell me Joe Turner's come and gone
     Ohhh Lordy
     They tell me Joe Turner's come and gone
     Ohh Lordy
     Got my man and gone
     Come with forty links of chain
     Ohhh Lordy
     Come with forty links of chain
     Ohh Lordy
     Got my man and gone.

According to Leroi Jones [in Blues People: Negro Music in White America, 1963], the African American's place in post-slave society was nonexistent, because the only place or role that she or he knew—and that white America knew—was on the periphery, as a slave even in the new "separate but equal" America: "Blues did begin in slavery, and it is from that 'peculiar institution,' as it is known euphemistically, that the blues did find its particular form. And if slavery dictated certain aspects of blues form and content, so did the so-called Emancipation and its subsequent problems dictate the path blues would take." Essentially, the blues reflect that displacement and engender an African American vision or, as Jones claims, a legal subterfuge of his or her role as a disenfranchised American in this new, free America—the America in August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone—where antebellum sentiments have not been erased.

Houston Baker has explored the importance of the blues in the African American experience and has concluded [in Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory, 1984] that the blues are as difficult to define as the cultural experience of African Americans: "Afro-American blues constitute such a vibrant network. They are what Jacques Derrida might describe as the 'always already' of African American culture. They are the multiplex, enabling script in which Afro-American cultural discourse is inscribed." Thus, any attempt to separate the codes inscribed in the culture from the codes inscribed in the blues song is futile, for the song signifies the culture through referents, and the culture is inscribed in the song through referents: "The blues matrix is a 'cultural invention': a 'negative symbol' that generates (or obliges one to invent) its own referents." As Baker explains, if we look for a fixed coda—a coda that will be invested with a mutual, exclusive signifier—the text of song and culture will erupt semantically through the process of interpretation. This complex, intertextual, culturally inscribed discourse that informs the blues is apparent in Wilson's play. It is a cultural discourse that entails Christian elements alongside native African nature-religious elements, a discourse that entails a longing for family and a sense of belonging as well as the desire to wander, and a discourse that entails the opportunities and obligations of freedom in conjunction with the lingering traces of slavery.

Some in Wilson's cast of characters reflect these complexities as well as the issue of displacement and the difficulties arising from each character's attempt at acculturation. Even some of the characters' names exemplify their internal and external struggles. The Hollys's longtime boarder is Bynum Walker, a man who often speaks in parables and whose name epitomizes the wanderer, the Joe Turner type. Walker is a man in his early 60s who is described as a rootworker: a conjure man who is known as "the Binding Man." for he is the glue which sticks everyone together or, more precisely, those who wish to be bound. Bynum Walker is described as the voodoo, heebee jeebee, mumbo jumbo, root man and the conjure man who is looking for the shiny man. Walker, like his late father, has special powers. And like his father before him, a plantation shaman who was known as the "Healing Man," Walker, the boarding house's resident shaman, is known as the "Binding Man." In fact, Walker's purpose, his song, is inscribed in both his names: "Bynum," the one who binds people together so that they discover a sense of truth within themselves; "Walker," the one who wanders, a seeker.

Like characters in stories of Charles Chesnutt such as "The Goophered Grapevine" and "The Conjurer's Revenge," Bynum Walker embodies a strong sense of separateness between the world of the African American and that of the European American like Rutherford Selig. Selig, "the People Finder," is a descendant of those who captured, bound, and enslaved those who appear in Loomis's horrific vision. He is the European American trickster, an amicable con man who transports blacks for a fee and then charges other blacks to locate them. His father was a man who captured escaped slaves for money, his grandfather a man who captured and transported slaves aboard ship for money. And Bertha notes that Selig is actually no different from his ancestors:

You can call him a People Finder if you want to. I know Rutherford Selig carries people away too. He done carried a whole bunch of them away from here. Folks plan on leaving plan by Selig's timing. They wait till he get ready to go, then they hitch a ride on his wagon. Then he charge folks a dollar to tell them where he took them. Now, that's the truth of Rutherford Selig. This old People Finding business is for the birds. He ain't never found nobody he ain't took away.

Bynum Walker has binding skills of another kind. He is endowed with a powerful insight into the human condition, as demonstrated by his clairvoyant interpretation of Herald Loomis's vision—in which Loomis envisions bones with black flesh arising from the sea—indicates. And ultimately, Walker's skills will lead to the reunion of Herald Loomis, Zonia, and Martha Pentacost Loomis in the play's final scene.

Walker also performs conjurations or "goophers" in his rituals with the blood of pigeons and with curative concoctions—like the one he gives to the heartbroken Mattie Campbell—to enable himself and others to overcome the sociological and psychological difficulties in an arbitrary white world. For example, Bertha Holly, a churchgoer who nevertheless expresses a faith in folk beliefs, respects Walker for his shamanistic or spiritual powers. She is not perturbed by Walker's mumbo jumbo. More than tolerating him, she defends Walker against Seth's mockery in the opening scene: "You don't say nothing when he bless the house…. Seth, leave that man alone." Bertha's response to Walker exemplifies this separation between the African American and the European American even further in that she can incorporate elements of both Christian (European) and African religions. Even though she practices the Christian religion, she nonetheless sprinkles the boarding house with salt and lines pennies across the threshold to ward off evil spirits.

Throughout the play, Bynum Walker is always looking for the shiny man, a modernday shaman, and to assist him in this quest he has requested the services of Rutherford Selig. On the road one day, Walker met the shiny man, who seemed hungry and lost, but the shiny man had a "voice" in his head that told him where to go. And that man said that he would reveal to Walker the "Secret of Life."

Walker recalls his mystical journey on the road with this man, who, Walker says, initially paused at the bend and then told Walker to rub his hands together. When Walker did so, his hands began to secrete blood, which he was told to rub all over his body in order to "clean" himself. Herald Loomis performs a similar act at the end of the play when he slashes his chest and rubs the blood on his face. At this moment, Loomis is freed from his ties to Joe Turner, and, in contrast to his inability to stand after his vision in act 1, is able to stand on his own. Wilson reveals the importance of Loomis's epiphany in the stage directions:

Having found his song, the song of self-sufficiency, fully resurrected, cleansed and given breath, free from any encumbrance other than the workings of his own heart and the bonds of the flesh, having accepted the responsibility for his own presence in the world, he is free to soar above the environs that weighed and pushed his spirit into terrifying contractions.

Herald Loomis then becomes the shiny man whom Bynum Walker has been searching for for so long, "shining like new money!"

In his earlier encounter with the shiny man, Walker noticed that he and the shiny man seemed to be transported to somewhere else, a place where everything was magnified in size and where his fellow traveler suddenly had a brightness coming out of him. At that moment, the light the shiny man emitted was so bright that it almost blinded Walker. Then, suddenly, the shiny man vanished—just as Herald Loomis does at the end of the play.

Shortly thereafter, Bynum's father appeared: his stature was normal, but his mouth was enormous and his hands as big as hams. He beckoned Walker to draw near and told him he grieved that his son was in a world where he carried other people's songs around, not having a song of his own. Then, magically, he "carried" Walker to the ocean, where he showed him how to find his song, a song whose luminous meaning would be powerful, a "binding song" (just as the juba evoked a vision that carried Herald Loomis to the ocean and revealed his ancestral ties to slavery). Walker asks his father about the shiny man's purpose and whereabouts; his father's response simply is to herald the shiny man as "One Who Goes Before and Shows the Way." Before he directs Walker back to the road, the father tells Walker that if he ever encounters a shiny man again, he will know that his song has served its purpose and he can die a happy man, for he would be a man who has left his mark on life not just one of those marked men.

The word "mark" is significant, for the motif of "mark" in various contexts is explored throughout the play: "marked men and women"; "mark out"; "mark on life"; "mark down life"; "Joe Turner done marked me"; "got a mark on me"; "marked man"; "you mark what I'm saying"; and "made them marks." Essentially, this word and its meanings refer to the struggle of African Americans with the status quo, the struggle of those "marked," who, like Cain, are banished from the chosen people.

There must, of course, be an antagonist in the play, but this antagonist just may be, ironically, also the protagonist—an ex-convict appropriately named Herald Loomis. He will become the Herald, the shiny man, the one who knows all that came before, as the ghost of Walker's father foretold. It appears, though, that Herald Loomis possesses a "looming quality" and is perceived by all others—with the exception of Zonia, his daughter, and Bynum Walker, his fellow boarder—to be someone who is threatening, as a menace. Even his attire, a long dark wool coat and hat, is ominous. When any character sees Loomis's face, Loomis is always described as wild eyed and mean looking. However, most of the characters, even Reuben Scott (Mercer), know that Loomis is distraught because he cannot find his wife, Martha "Pentecost" Loomis, who has been gone nearly ten years.

Loomis's vision of the world and of himself is at odds with reality. At times, he claims that he is a deacon of a church, and at times he claims he previously had worked on a farm. Whether he is a deacon or a farm laborer, or both, as he claims—or a gambler or a murderer, as others speculate; whether the farm was a prison farm and he a leased convict or a family farm he maintained with his wife Martha—these aspects of Loomis's narrative are left somewhat suspect in Wilson's play. Undoubtedly, they must remain suspect so that Wilson can accentuate Loomis's internal struggle over his identity, as the character's dream or nightmare demonstrates. It seems that Loomis is an unwilling, self-imposed Joe Turner, despite the fact that he cannot understand the significance of his vision until Walker interprets it. In many ways, Herald Loomis as the shiny man, whom Bynum Walker has sent Selig to locate, is the blind prophet who sees more than he knows, as Bynum Walker eventually will discover.

Despite the fact that "August Wilson has apparently chosen to focus on the African American man's oppression in this country to symbolize the collective struggles of all African American males," as Sandra G. Shannon asserts [in "The Good Christian's Come and Gone: The Shifting Role of Christianity in August Wilson Plays," MELUS, Fall, 1989–1990], some of Wilson's female characters become a means of their salvation, their sense of identity. Bynum Walker explains the significance of a woman to Jeremy:

When you grab hold to a woman, you got something there. You got a whole world there. You got a way of life kicking up under your hand. That woman can take and make you feel like something. I ain't just talking about in the way of jumping off into bed together and rolling around with each other. Anybody can do that. When your [sic] hold to that woman and look at the whole thing and see what you got … why, she can take and make something out of you.

One of the most significant female characters in Wilson's play in Zonia Loomis. As voiced by a child on the verge of adolescence, her unique rendition of the blues is encoded with or "constitute[s]" what Baker calls "the amalgam" of purposes of the blues. Her songs represent the "always becoming, shaping, transforming, displacing the peculiar experience of Africans in the New World." Zonia represents a mark of intersection. She acts as Loomis's guide in his interaction with other characters; and, in turn, she serves them as a guide into her father's enigmatic character. The following is the song that Zonia sings:

      I went downtown
      To get my grip
      I came back home
      Just a pullin' the skiff

      I went upstairs
      To make my bed
      I made a mistake
      And bumped my head
      Just a pullin' the skiff

      I went downstairs
      To milk the cow
      I made a mistake
      And I milked the sow
      Just a pullin' the skiff

      Tomorrow, Tomorrow
      Tomorrow never comes
      The marrow the marrow
      The marrow in the bone.

This song describes Loomis's departure from his life with his wife Martha, from his labor on Henry Thompson's farm, and from reality into a phantasmagoric self-imposed exile. This exile led Loomis inevitably to his incessant atavistic visions—such as the one in the parlor during the juba—of the African American's horrific journey to America and the African-American's experience in America, which is reflected in the line "the marrow and the bone." It is not until Loomis can confront his own demons that his non-temporal state of limbo, or "tomorrow never comes" attitude, can change.

The lines to this song are also emblematic of Zonia's relationship with her father, for she must accompany him on his travels in search of Martha. Zonia wants to remain Loomis's little girl forever. Despite the fact that she is growing up, Zonia attempts to remain small and slight, "a spider," even at age eleven. Zonia realizes that one day they will find Martha and that she will have to stay with her mother forever. Her interaction with the little boy who lives near the boarding house only exemplifies her dream that things remain the same, that "tomorrow never comes." Zonia's song, then, is about her life.

Zonia's playmate is Reuben Scott (Mercer) who lives with his grandfather next door to the boarding house and who clings to the past as well. Reuben and Zonia are kindred spirits. Zonia is deeply fond of her father, and never wants to leave his side, wants to stay his little girl forever. Reuben refuses to relinquish his relationship with his dead friend by keeping up the pigeon coop as a sort of a shrine or memento mori. Both children try to hold on to the past—Zonia through her behavior, Reuben through the pigeon coop. The spell is broken when Reuben has a vision of this past: Miss Mabel, Seth Holly's mother who has long since died, tells Reuben to set the pigeons free. When Reuben tells Zonia about the vision, and that he heard that she and her father will be leaving soon, their sense of the world about them changes. A sense of the present and the future dispels the childrens' sense of the past. Amidst their childlike reverie, Reuben subverts the past by flirting with Zonia and by proposing marriage to her—thus signifying a shift in the level of their games and simultaneously a shift in their behavioral codes from childhood to adolescence to adulthood.

While Zonia dreads and longs to put off that day when she will have to start her life anew, Mattie Campbell sees such new beginnings as a recurring and inescapable aspect of life, as she tells Herald Loomis: "I ain't never found no place for me to fit. Seem like all I do is start over. It ain't nothing to find no starting place in the world. You just start from where you find yourself." Mattie Campbell is one female character who represents a composite portrait of the dissolution of a myth—the socially inscribed, traditional roles to which all African American women had unwillingly acquiesced. Mattie met Jack Carper, a Joe Turner, in Texas while picking peaches with her mother, who dies before Mattie moves in Carper. Carper left because he considered Mattie to be a cursed woman, a post-lapsarian Eve. Consequently, Mattie moves north and into the Hollys's boarding house, where she eventually moves in with Jeremy Furlow, another Joe Turner, whose brief encounters with those whom he meets—whether at work on the road crew, at the local bar, or at the boarding house render his last name a pun. Of course, Furlow will leave Mattie too, and she will linger on in the hope that someday Carper will return—until Bynum Walker tells her otherwise. What is interesting about Mattie's character is that she rushes out the door after Herald Loomis at the end of the play because both characters at that moment come to the realization that tomorrow does come and that people do (or can) change.

Three of the female characters—Zonia, Mattie, and even Martha—represent the dissolution of a myth: the simplified, traditional, dichotomous portrait of women as merely doting mothers or conniving Mata Haris. Simply stated, each woman is more psychologically complex than the creatures who dwell within such a mythic construct. Each woman's interaction with the Joe Turners, those who also are disenfranchised African Americans in this play, elicits a change to some extent within each one of them, resulting in a song of self that each woman must discover for herself.

Thus, August Wilson clearly addresses the issue of uprooted African Americans, for they as a culture have been "enslaved" both physically and psychologically. The need to dispel or shake off an identity as a non-man (or non-person) is an important theme in this play. The play has been described as a panoramic and insightful view of Black America and as a spiritual allegory. Its author, who grew up in a poor family, describes his view of the African American experience in this way: "My generation of blacks knew very little about the past of our parents … They shielded us from the indignities that they suffered" [Black Writers, Gale, 1989, p. 605]. Although he was shielded from them while growing up, the indignities Wilson mentions are nonetheless a part of the African American's experience, as Ishmael Reed explains [in "Is Ethnicity Obsolete?," The Invention of Ethnicity, edited by Werner Sollors, 1989]:

As long as such public attitudes about "Black America" are maintained, ethnicity will never become obsolete. By blaming all its problems on blacks, the political and cultural leadership are able to present the United States as a veritable Utopia for those who aren't afraid of "hard work." A place where any goal is possible, for the "strong hearted" and "the brave," and other cheerleading myths. And, so, instead of being condemned as a "problem," the traditional view of the "black presence," the presence of "blacks" should be viewed as blessing. Without blacks taking the brunt of the system's failures, where would our great republic be?

When asked to define his role in the theatre, Wilson defined himself [in Black Writers] as a "cultural nationalist [a playwright who is] trying to raise consciousness through theater." Wilson's play must and does contain complex themes and complex characters. To a varying extent, the characters of Bynum Walker, Herald Loomis, Mattie Campbell, and Zonia Loomis each experience his or her own private purgation, a sense of displacement or disenfranchisement, which each character expresses through song. Whether this song is the juba, a blues song like "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," or a voice to express his or her troubles, each character's song enables him or her to find strength, to begin life anew, and, for August Wilson, to leave the "mark" of African American culture on the American stage.

James Robert Saunders (essay date December 1995)

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SOURCE: "Essential Ambiguities in the Plays of August Wilson," in The Hollins Critic, Vol. XXXII, No. 5, December, 1995, pp. 1-12.

[In the following essay, Saunders overviews Wilson's life and career in order to illuminate the playwright's use of ambiguȯus and often paradoxical characters, details, and themes in his works.]

In a 1984 interview, August Wilson intimated that the "importance of history … is simply to find out who you are and where you've been," a task made all the more difficult for African Americans because of our history of enslavement and subsequent years of slow economic advancement. Even as we struggle to find our place in the mainstream culture, we carry the added burden of color. For Wilson, that burden was further exacerbated because as was the case with James Weldon Johnson's troubled protagonist in The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man (1912), Wilson himself was the offspring of an interracial relationship. As had been the case with Johnson's narrator, Wilson suffered the consequences of having a white father who reneged on his parental responsibility. The future playwright grew up in a two-room apartment at the back of a grocery store without the benefit of a telephone, hot water, or even respect enough from teachers to keep him from being expelled when he turned in a superb essay that they thought he had plagiarized.

After a barrage of distressing events, Ex-Coloured Man's nameless narrator finally decided to "pass," desert the black race, and live out his life as a white man. Wilson, on the other hand, immersed himself in African American culture with the aim of reconciling himself with both a turbulent history and the contemporary racial situation. Though he seems to have burst suddenly on the scene with his award-winning play, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (1985), it is useful to trace a fuller development of those years that led up to his fame. From the mid-1970s to the early 1980s, he was busily honing his playwrighting skills, producing, among other things, scripts such as The Homecoming (1976)—about blues singer Blind Lemon Jefferson who died of exposure in Chicago, and Fullerton Street (1980)—about a group of African Americans struggling against the odds in the urban North. Prior to that phase of his literary endeavors, several of his poems appeared in periodicals such as Negro Digest, Black World, and Black Lines. He experimented with literary forms and pursued what he, in the 1984 interview, referred to as the "need" for African Americans to "re-examine their time spent here to see the choices that were made as a people."

In her biography, Mother of the Blues: A Study of Ma Rainey (1981), Sandra R. Lieb says:

Ma Rainey's life symbolizes the confrontation between the black rural South and the changes wrought by industrialization, urban migration, and the development of modern mass communications. She represents a collision between the unchanging aphorisms of folk poetry and the nervous rhythms of modern life.

Bom in 1886, in Columbus, Georgia, Rainey was privy to the work songs, field hollers, and ballads out of which the classic blues tradition grew. By 1900, she had begun her stage career with the Bunch of Blackberries Revue, and for the next two decades she would perform with many black minstrel troupes, including the Florida Cotton Blossoms, Shufflin' Sam from Alabam', and her most famous of these shows, the Rabbit Foot Minstrels. In those early days, her repertoire included songs such as "I Ain't Got Nobody" and "See, See Rider." the latter a song she would become the first singer ever to record.

Though she was not the first blues singer to make a recording, she was part of the "race" record phenomenon of the 1920s that saw blues singers rise to a level of popularity that had heretofore never been achieved. Columbia, Victor, and Paramount were but a few of the companies that rushed to record the great blues singers, oftentimes drawing them up out of the South to record in the Northern studios. One such studio comprises the 1927 Chicago setting for Wilson's play. Rainey arrives late for the recording session only to discover that one of her band members, Levee, has substituted his own more sophisticated version of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" for the version she knows to be closer to its black folk roots. Prior to Rainey's arrival, Levee had persuaded the other band members and the two white promoters to accept his rendition. When Rainey arrives and hears the band practicing Levee's version, she berates them: "What you all say don't count with me. You understand? Ma listens to her heart. Ma listens to the voice inside her. That's what counts with Ma."

Lieb, in comparing Rainey to other blues artists, describes how she "performed in a rougher, more down-home style." The poet Sterling Brown once said, "She would moan, and the audience would moan with her…. Ma really knew these people; she was a person of the folk; she was very simple and direct." It is significant that Paramount was the only company for which Rainey recorded. That company's acoustic methods were crude even by the standards of that time, which explains the difference in quality of product between Rainey's recordings and those of her contemporary, Bessie Smith, whose recordings have a clearer, more pungent sound. One is reminded of the point in Wilson's play where Rainey tells the two promoters that "Levee ain't messing up my song with none of his music shit. Now, if that don't set right with you and Sturdyvant … then I can carry my black bottom on back down South to my tour, 'cause I don't like it up here no ways."

Lieb further observes that the song "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" has a dual meaning: it refers both to a black person's backside and to the quintessential all-black section of a small Southern town. However, Sandra Shannon, in her essay "The Long Wait: August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" (1991), gives a different, albeit intriguing interpretation. By that critic's account, Rainey is telling all those who would exploit her, or distort her music forms, that they can "kiss her ass." She sought out no better sound studio for her recordings because she recognized that the music industry was exploitative. "They don't care nothing about me," she tells Cutler, another member of her band. "As soon as they get my voice down on them recording machines, then it's just like if I'd be some whore and they roll over and put their pants on. Ain't got no use for me then." In essence, Rainey never accepted the recorded music form as a legitimate means of conveying Southern country blues. For her, the process of recording was as much a struggle against cooptation as it was an act of submitting to a necessary communications medium.

And this is the paradox we are left with by the end of the play. However much we are inclined to admire Rainey in her attempt to contend with the rapidly developing music industry, we know that her efforts will fail. By 1929, her recording career was over, supplanted by new musical trends, particularly "swing." Big bands became the craze. And blues singers who survived were able to do so by means of accomplishing the very thing that Rainey had rejected in Levee. Singers and musicians such as Ethel Waters and Louis Armstrong prospered only in proportion to the degree that they were willing to commercialize their art. Perhaps Levee's haunting words ring truer than the music that Rainey was so inclined to protect. "You got to move on down the road from where you sitting," Levee tells Cutler, "and all the time you got to keep an eye out for that devil who's looking to buy up souls. And hope you get lucky and find him!"

In Fences (1987), Troy Maxson claims to have encountered the devil who assumed the guise of an ordinary man offering credit for a furniture purchase. "Now you tell me," Maxson jabs at his audience, "who else that could have been but the devil?" Of course we know that it was no devilish fiend who extended the offer of credit, but a mere mortal doing his earthly job. Rose characterizes her husband's tale-telling habits as she issues the simple retort, "Troy lying." Maxson and his friend, Jim Bono, derive great pleasure from the act of sitting around telling each other tales. In fact, the very first dialogue of the play consists of Bono's exclamation, "Troy, you ought to stop that lying!" In that instance, Maxson had just finished telling the story of a black man who hid a watermelon under his coat because he was too ashamed to let a white man know that he liked eating watermelon. The protagonist in Maxson's story felt bound to deny what he perceived as a negative stereotype.

In telling the tale and criticizing the protagonist's feelings of embarrassment, Maxson shows himself to be someone who has already learned what it took Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (Invisible Man, 1952) twenty years to discover—that within the deep recesses of certain stereotypes lie valuable truths about African American culture. We will recall the exhilaration that Ellison's narrator felt upon acknowledging that chitterlings and hog maws were nothing to be ashamed of so much as they were foods he should embrace on the road to self-knowledge.

As it turns out, the black man in Maxson's watermelon story is a version of a worker at the sanitation department where Maxson himself is employed. Historian Lawrence Levine, in Black Culture and Black Consciousness (1977), writes that during slavery "it did not take much for … common events to become embroidered into more elaborate and fanciful tales." Now a century or more later, Maxson is still employing that slavery-time technique of revealing certain truths through a "fanciful" style. The meekness of the black man in the watermelon story is the reticence of Maxson's black coworker, who is troubled that Maxson would complain about no blacks being allowed to drive the garbage trucks. "Embroidered" though he may be, the watermelon man is, in an important sense, actually real. Similarly, it is not so very difficult to comprehend how the imaginary devil of Maxson's furniture story is indeed a "devil" in the lives of poor blacks who are enslaved to financial indebtedness. Though Maxson is frequently called a liar, we must consider what his tales reveal about African American life.

The most problematic of Maxson's stories is the one concerning his prowess as a baseball player. He is 53 years old as the play opens, set in 1957. 10 years earlier, Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier and begun playing in the modern major leagues. It is ironic that at the point of Robinson's groundbreaking accomplishment, Maxson was too old to partake of the glory in terms of playing in the majors himself. As players followed Robinson's suit, crossing from the Negro Leagues over into the majors, Maxson could only watch those others taking advantage of the opportunity he never had. "Times have changed, Troy," says Bono, appreciative about the historic turn of events. "You just come along too early." Maxson rails back at him, "There ought not never have been no time called too early!" As proud as Bono is of Robinson's accomplishment, therein also lies a tragedy.

The year before Robinson broke into the majors, an extraordinarily gifted baseball player, James "Cool Papa" Bell, was playing out his final year of top Negro League competition. He was 41 years old and still one of the fastest players in the game. But at the point of baseball integration he, like Maxson, was too old to benefit personally. Satchel Paige once said of Bell that in his prime he "was so fast that he could turn off a light switch and jump into bed before the room got dark." That sounds like a Maxson-type exaggeration. Nevertheless it is an appropriate testament to the skills of a baseball phenomenon. In his book Only the Ball Was White (1970), a comprehensive study of the Negro Leagues, Robert Peterson acknowledges that "Bell was probably the fastest runner who ever played baseball." Bell himself claimed to have stolen 175 bases in 1933, which presumably would have made him not only better than Ty Cobb but also better than more modern-day base stealing champions including Lou Brock and Ricky Henderson. But since Bell was not allowed to play in the majors, we will never know how good he was.

What are the psychological effects of such an injustice? At one point, Maxson's son, Cory, informs him that Hank Aaron has hit his 43rd home run. Maxson responds bitterly, "Hank Aaron ain't nobody…. Hell, I can hit forty-three home runs right now!" Keep in mind that Maxson is 53 years old, "over the hill" by baseball standards. It is highly unlikely that he at this age can keep pace with the man who eventually will break Babe Ruth's home run record. But how about Maxson in his prime? Could he have been as good as Hank Aaron if only he had not "come along too early?"

And Maxson holds special venom for Jackie Robinson:

I done seen a hundred niggers play baseball better than Jackie Robinson. Hell, I know some teams Jackie Robinson couldn't even make! What you talking about Jackie Robinson. Jackie Robinson wasn't nobody.

Notwithstanding Maxson's proclivity for storytelling, we are made to consider the possibility that there were 100 Negro League players who were better than Robinson. Negro League rosters that Robinson could not have made? It sounds inconceivable. Yet Peterson cites several players who indeed were not impressed with Robinson's skills. Walter (Buck) Leonard, known during the 1930s and 1940s as the black Lou Gehrig, expressed surprise at the Robinson selection and explained, "We thought we had other ballplayers who were better players than he." The first black man in the modern major leagues had to be a certain type of person. In addition to being athletically gifted, he had to be willing to withstand the inevitable barrage of racial epithets. Representatives from the majors had been searching for decades for just the right man. How many were overlooked in the process? Maxson was perhaps one.

In a 1987 Hudson Review article, theater critic Richard Hornby praised James Earl Jones's Broadway performance:

He still has the physical strength and agility he had twenty years ago in The Great White Hope, and although, like the character he played in Fences, he shows his age, he also convinced you of his underlying athletic ability, which is so important to the role. When Troy insisted that he "can hit forty-three home runs right now!" Jones made you believe it.

As improbable as it might sound that Maxson could hit 43 home runs at the age of 53, it was important for Jones to convince us that Maxson could possibly have done it. Buck Leonard played professionally until he was 48 years old. Baseball historians argue over whether or not Satchel Paige was actually 48 years old when he broke into the majors one year after Robinson. Whatever his age, he was still able to amass a pitching record of 28 victories and 31 defeats. He had been cagey about his age in order to increase his baseball longevity, anticipating that his talents would linger long enough for him to get a shot at playing in the majors.

Such was not to be the case for the man many refer to as the best ever (black or white) to play the game of baseball. Josh Gibson was said to have hit 89 home runs in one season and 75 in another. Babe Ruth's record was 60. However, some of the teams Gibson played against were only semiprofessional. And how does one compare two players who did not even play against the same competition? As was the case with "Cool Papa" Bell, Gibson was also closing out his career the year before Robinson broke the color barrier. Another player who "come along too early," Gibson is said to have died of a broken heart the year after Robinson got the opportunity to do what players like Gibson had been denied their entire athletic careers.

In some ways, Maxson epitomizes Gibson's tragic plight. Both men were powerful hitters, deprived of occupational opportunity. Consequently, Maxson now can only think of life in baseball terms, saying at one point, "You born with two strikes on you before you come to the plate." He equates his own extramarital affair with trying to "steal second." Even death, as far as he is concerned, "ain't nothing but a fastball on the outside comer." By comparison, baseball was so substantially a part of Gibson's life that once his playing days were over, he quite likely lay down and died. Just as we cannot know how good Maxson was in his prime, we will never know how good Josh Gibson was, or hundreds of others who were barred from the majors in the pre-Jackie Robinson era.

Cory of course belongs to a different sports era. Gifted at football, it is at the point where he is being recruited by a North Carolina college that his father demands he quit the football team because "the white man ain't gonna let you get nowhere with that football noway." Maxson is so trapped in the tragedy of his own athletic experience that he cannot believe things will be any different for his son. One is tempted to conclude immediately that Maxson is doing Cory a disservice, depriving him of not only an athletic but also an educational opportunity. Or is he sparing Cory a heartache that is reminiscent of what past black athletes had to endure? In his essay entitled "The Black Athlete on the College Campus" (1969), Harry Edwards characterized the process of college recruiting as the "modern-day equivalent of the slave trade." Specifying low graduation rates and social alienation, Edwards renders a portrait of college athletics that is as fraught with tragedy as Maxson's own pre-integration athletic experience. How can we say the father does not have his son's best interests at heart as he forbids any further participation?

Not altogether different from her husband. Rose wants a fence built to keep out all would-be intruders. This goal, however, is as much destined to failure in Fences as it is in Wilson's next play, Joe Turner's Come and Gone (1988). Wilson elucidates in a 1984 interview:

Joe Turner was a real person. He was the brother of Pete Turner who was the Governor of Tennessee. Joe Turner would press Blacks into peonage. He would send out decoys who would lure Blacks into crap games and then he would swoop down and grab them. He had a chain with forty links to it, and he would take Blacks off to his plantation and work them.

Actually, Tennessee is not the only state where this sort of atrocity occurred. In Toledo, Ohio, during the 1980s, I met a woman from Mississippi who recounted the tale of how her son was kidnapped and made to pick cotton for a period of several years before he was finally released. She, in fact, had come to Toledo to escape the bad memories. Wilson's play is set in 1911. The woman I met insisted that such things were going on well into the 1950s.

In Wilson's play, Herald Loomis is the victim who has been wrested from his family and made to work on Joe Turner's plantation for seven years. When he is finally freed, he discovers that his world has been, as Wilson says in his interview, "torn asunder and his life is turned upside down." He no longer knows where his wife and daughter are, and thus begins the search. Wilson actually uses the seven-year imprisonment period as a metaphor for the long centuries during which legal slavery existed. The process whereby slaves were transported from Africa resulted in extreme alienation. As the conjure man Bynum (binder) tells Loomis, "You forgot how to sing your song." The song that Loomis has forgotten how to sing is indicative of how he is no longer connected with his wife. The song that African Americans in general have forgotten is a consequence of forced separation from their African roots.

In this play is a rather intriguing character, Rutherford Selig, who is a peddler of pots and pans. Also known as the People Finder, he, by virtue of his occupation, knows how to find everybody. For a fee, he will even find Loomis's wife. He succeeds in this, but the reunion between husband and wife is ambiguous. "Now that I see your face," Loomis says to his long lost wife, "I can say my goodbye and make my own world." Wilson seems to be telling us that 400 years of separation from Africa is too long to hope now for any ultimate reconnection. After seven years, Loomis cannot put the pieces back together to make his life what it once was. Similarly, African Americans will have to reconcile themselves to the task of creating a culture that may or may not resemble what exists on the African continent.

Selig finds people. As he tells Loomis, "We been finders in my family for a long time. Bringers and finders." In using the term "bringers," the peddler alludes to the fact that his great-grandfather "used to bring Nigras across the ocean on ships." Selig's father hunted runaway slaves. And now that slavery is over, Selig himself finds black people who were separated from their relatives during the "peculiar institution." From our perspective, Selig's work is much more palatable than the jobs held by his great-grandfather and father. Yet the youngest Selig is inextricably linked to the family tradition. His skills are grounded in the duties that his ancestors undertook. The fact that he, of all people, is the one who finds Loomis's wife poses a major dilemma, for we are left to wonder if blacks will ever evolve from the shadow of slavery. And if we do, will we ever be able to overcome the influence of whites who have profited from the centuries-long period of black subjugation?

Human bondage continues as an issue in Wilson's next play, The Piano Lesson (1990). Though the setting is 1930s Pittsburgh, the play concerns a piano that, generations earlier, had been the "currency" used to purchase two slaves. The slaves that had been sold were the father and grandmother of the elderly Doaker Charles who now lives with his niece (Berneice) who adamantly refuses to play the piano but just as adamantly refuses to let her brother, Boy Willie, sell it. Boy Willie wants to sell it for money towards the purchase of the same tract of land upon which their ancestors were slaves.

When his wife and child were sold. Doaker's grandfather was ordered to carve their pictures into the newly acquired piano. Doaker explains. "Miss Ophelia got to missing my grandmother … the way she would cook and clean the house and talk to her and what not. And she missed having my daddy around the house to fetch things for her." After the grandfather had finished the carvings. Miss Ophelia "had her piano and her niggers too." But the grandfather did more than just carve the two images that had been required of him. He carved his family's whole history—birthdates, marriages, deaths, the sales of individual family members. This in part is why Berniece cannot bring herself to sell the piano. And the no longer plays it because, as she declares, "I don't want to wake them spirits."

We sympathize with Berniece's position. The piano is an heirloom rife with meaning. Yet Boy Willie is determined to sell it. Michael Morales, in his essay "Ghosts on the Piano" (1994), characterizes Boy Willie as "the consummate materialist." That brother seems not to comprehend the piano's spiritual significance. Berniece accuses him of selling his soul, whereupon the brother retorts, "I ain't talking about selling my soul. I'm talking about trading that piece of wood for some land…. You can always get you another piano." Those do indeed sound like the words of a person who cares only about the "bottom line."

Still, it is important to consider what Richard Hornby had to say in yet another Hudson Review article (1990). There, he addressed the issue of how relatives can respond to crucial phenomena in different, yet equally vital ways. Said Hornby:

The controversy over selling the piano is not just a simple conflict between sentimentality and practicality. The piano is a symbol for Berniece…. On the other hand, for Boy Willie, selling the piano is not just a means of getting some cash. Buying a hundred acres of the old plantation is a way of getting control over the family's terrible past. The land for him functions as the carvings on the piano did for his great-grandfather. Taking something that belonged to the master and making it into his own is a means to power, a way to go on record and be somebody.

In the final analysis, the piano is not sold. But Hornby's comparison of Boy Willie with his great-grandfather still merits some evaluation. What would that great-grandfather have wanted? He might very well have thrilled at the prospect that one of his offspring could own the very land upon which he was a slave. Nevertheless, the great-grandfather did go to great lengths, carving his family's history into the wooden structure. The dilemma is a difficult one, made no less problematic by the passage of time since that original unspeakable deal.

Wilson's latest play, Two Trains Running (1993), also takes place in Pittsburgh, and while this time the year is 1969, the issue remains one of how blacks should best proceed in their struggle for basic human dignity. Memphis is the owner of an inner city restaurant scheduled to be razed as part of an urban renewal plan. He and several others are engaged in conversation about various subjects of concern to the African American community.

When Sterling, just released from prison, announces that there is going to a rally to celebrate Malcolm X's birthday, Memphis declares. "Malcolm X is dead…. Dead men don't have birthdays…. I ain't going to no party for no dead man." It is not that Memphis cannot comprehend the validity of celebrating the birthday of a deceased great man. It is just that he does not feel Malcolm X is deserving of such respect. "That's what half the problem is," Memphis insists, "these black power niggers. They got people confused."

It is Memphis who first invokes the name "Martin." "They killed Martin," he says. "If they did that to him you can imagine what they do to me or you. If they kill the sheep you know what they do to the wolf." This equating of Martin Luther King with "sheep" must be juxtaposed with the long held view of Malcolm X as a person who was determined to achieve a certain victory, even if violence was the necessary means.

Contrast in perspectives becomes further evident as another customer, Holloway, tells his version of what happened to Hambone. The former tells how nine and a half years earlier, the owner of Lutz's Meat Market promised Hambone a ham for painting his fence. Once the fence was painted, however, Lutz was only willing to give Hambone a chicken.

Immediately, Memphis objects:

That ain't how it went. Lutz told him if he painted his fence he'd give him a chicken. Told him if he do a good job he'd give him a ham. He think he did a good job and Lutz didn't. That's where he went wrong—Letting Lutz decide what to pay him for his work: If you leave it like that, quite naturally he gonna say it ain't worth the higher price.

Memphis's explanation is an attempt to ameliorate the injustice. He advances the most brutal techniques of the marketplace as a legitimate basis for one-on-one human interaction. What Memphis has temporarily forgotten is that almost four decades earlier, he was in a situation similar to what Hambone had suffered one decade ago. In 1931, that entrepreneur was summarily chased off his farm in Jackson, Mississippi, because such acts were facilitated by a racist climate. He, like Hambone, knows what it means to be socioeconomically violated. A question, however, concerns who between the two of them has the appropriate response.

In a 1992 interview, Wilson stated rather bluntly, "Hambone shows us that a new black man was created in the 1960's who would not accept a chicken." And indeed for nine and half years, Hambone has stood outside Lutz's market demanding his ham, rejecting Lutz's insistence that he just take a chicken. Ironically, Memphis has the potential to be just as demanding. "One of these days," he says, "I'm going back and get my land." He still has the deed, but will he be moved to action?

Memphis may not know how to get back to Jackson. Yet, he maintains. "I ain't even got to know the way." What he does know is that at the depot, "They got two trains running every day." Lisa Wilde, in her essay "Reclaiming the Past: Narrative and Memory in August Wilson's Two Trains Running" (1990), interprets the phrase "two trains" to be symbolic of a choice incumbent upon blacks to either bypass or retrieve the essential elements of their history. Wilson for his part has chosen retrieval, and in creating these plays, he has left us to ponder the question: Now where do we go from here?

Yvonne Shafer (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: "Breaking Barriers: August Wilson," in Staging Difference: Cultural Pluralism in American Theatre and Drama, edited by Marc Maufort, Peter Lang, 1995, pp. 267-85.

[In the following essay, Shafer analyzes Wilson's life and his techniques as a playwright, and chronicles the stage productions of his plays.]

August Wilson is one of only seven American playwrights to win two Pulitzer Prizes, and one of only three black playwrights to receive the prize. Unlike many black playwrights he has written plays which appeal to both black and white audiences. When Ma Rainey's Black Bottom opened in 1984, Wilson was completely unknown in the theatre. In the following ten years he achieved such success that, as critic Paul Taylor has noted, "Wilson is the only contemporary dramatist, apart from Neil Simon, who is assured a Broadway production and his have been the pioneer black works at many regional theatres" ["Emptying the Contents of His Bag," Independent (London), October 21, 1993]. He has won Bush, McKnight, Rockefeller, and Guggenheim Foundation fellowships in playwriting, and Tony awards and Drama Critics Circle Awards. In 1988 he achieved the distinction of having two plays running on Broadway, Fences and Joe Turner's Come and Gone. His plays have been described as "powerful," "thrilling," and "explosive." Critic Richard Christiansen noted the unusual quality of Wilson's work which has contributed to his popularity, saying, "Wilson's genius for translating common language into poetry through rhythm, repetition and telling imagery reveals a world of myth, religion, and folk spirit" ["'Two Trains' Has Ticket to Amazing Trip," Chicago Tribune, January 26, 1993]. Remarkably, Wilson has been able to explore and communicate the black experience in America in a way which seems particular to blacks and also achieves a universality which has drawn the white audiences needed for a commercial success in the American theatre. He explores small lives in very particular places, but as Taylor commented, "They're small people in a small space but in Two Trains Running they summon up a universe." An analysis of Wilson's background, his approach to playwriting, and the stage history of his plays reveals a unique experience in the American theatre.

Wilson was born Freddy August Kittel in 1945 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His mother's maiden name was Wilson. His background seems an unlikely one to produce either a poet or a playwright who has achieved "widespread acclaim as the most invigorating new voice in our theatre" [Sid Smith, "Playwright: Blacks Should Look Back, Go South," Chicago Tribune, February 23, 1993]. His white father was a German baker named August who "was at best an infrequent and sporadic presence in the household" [Samuel G. Freedman "A Voice from the Streets," New York Times Magazine, March 15, 1987]. Young August's mother (who supported the children by a janitorial job and money from welfare), however, was determined that her children would have a chance to compete in society. As Wilson says, "My mother taught me how to read. She had six kids and taught us all how to read. I learned how to read when I was four. She kept books around the house; it was very important. We had a time that we would all sit down and she would read a few pages and then she would let us go out and play" [quoted in Yvonne Shafer's "An Interview with August Wilson," Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, Fall, 1989].

As a child Wilson suffered the effects of racism in America: when his family tried to move into a mostly white neighborhood, bricks were thrown through the windows and when he went to a largely white high school, white students left ugly, racist notes on his desk. He left one school, tried another, and at the age of fifteen dropped out of school. However, his education did not end: he spent part of his days in the library reading—especially books in the section marked "Negro." He recalls, "Those books were a comfort, Just the idea black people would write books. I wanted my book up there, too. I used to dream about being part of the Harlem Renaissance" (Freedman).

When he wasn't in the library, Wilson was hanging around bars and pool halls—his was the archetypal black American experience. From the streets he learned a rich, vibrant argot which he has transmuted into powerful, striking language in his poems and plays. He began his career by writing poetry for more than twenty years. His poems appear in numerous journals and anthologies including The Poetry of Black America. Unlike many black playwrights, his own experience and his knowledge of the history of blacks in America has not resulted in bitter, vituperative dramas. Particularly in the sixties, some black playwrights were so militant against white culture that they literally drove white audiences out of the theatre. Claude Purdy (director-in-residence at the Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul, Minnesota) knew Wilson in Pittsburgh, and encouraged his playwriting. He has commented, "August came out of the '60s with a responsible attitude, eager to explore his community's culture and do something for his people" [Hilary De Vries, "A Song in Search of Itself," American Theatre, January, 1987]. Wilson's plays both inform audiences about the cruelties of the past and indicate the possibilities in the future for blacks in America. He is keenly committed to the idea of demonstrating to white audiences the reality of African culture.

Wilson turned to playwriting during the black power movement in the United States. He began writing one-act plays to raise the consciousness of his community. He was cofounder of the Black Horizons Theater Company in Pittsburgh. In 1978 he was invited by Claude Purdy to join him in the Penumbra Theatre. In this period Wilson produced some plays at Penumbra and became a member of the Playwrights Center of Minneapolis. He began to receive grants which enabled him to focus entirely on writing plays. Although he has been closely related to the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center's National Playwrights Conference in recent years, at first he had little success there. He submitted five plays which were all rejected. However, he persevered and in 1982 his play Ma Rainey's Black Bottom was accepted. He traveled to Connecticut from his home in St. Paul and his work with director Lloyd Richards began.

Wilson is writing a play for each of the decades of this century depicting the black experience throughout the years. So far he has written five plays which are a representation and summation of a particular decade. When asked if he would start over, once he had finished, he responded, "Then I'll start over, sure. There's more than one story to tell" [quoted in Shafer interview]. In fact, Wilson takes umbrage at the suggestion that he could use up his material:

An interviewer once asked me if having written these plays, I hadn't exhausted the black experience. I said, "Wait a minute. You've got 40,000 movies and plays about the white experience and we don't ask you if you've exhausted your experience." I'll never run out of material. I'll just start over again. You can write forever about the clash between the urban North and the rural South, what happened when blacks came to the cities, how their lives changed and how it affected generations to come, [quoted in DeVries]

Part of the recent controversy which revolves around Wilson's work is the charge by Robert Brustein, artistic head of the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that Wilson is limiting his development by writing about the black experience. He further stated that he had been fatigued by "Wilson's essays on racism" ["The Lesson of 'The Piano Lesson'." New Republic, May 21, 1990]. Asked to expand his remarks for The New York Times, Brustein wrote, "I feel he's explored that [the black experience] in four plays. I want to see another theme. And therefore something like that can become self-limiting" (quoted in Mervyn Rothstein, "Passionate Beliefs Renew Theater Fight over Art and Profit," New York Times, May 15, 1990]. Wilson responded to Brustein's remarks by indicating once again his amazement that someone could feel the black experience was exhausted after a few plays, and concluded, "Has anyone ever told a white playwright to write about blacks? There's no idea that cannot be contained in black life. It's full and it's flourishing. How can that be limiting? Was it limiting to Chekhov to write about his people?" [quoted in Rothstein]

The plays Wilson has written about his people include Joe Turner's Come and Gone, set in 1911, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, set in 1927, The Piano Lesson, set in 1936, Fences, set in 1957, and Two Trains Running set in 1969. As he has said, "I've got a very large story—the four hundred year biography of the black experience in America" [quoted in Janice Arkatov, "August Wilson: His Way," Los Angeles Times, June 7, 1987].

Wilson's plays were first performed in staged readings at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center's National Playwrights Conference. Wilson worked closely with Lloyd Richards, then Dean of the Yale School of Drama and Artistic Director of the Playwrights Conference. (Richards came to prominence as director of the first Pulitzer Prize winning play by a black playwright, A Raisin in the Sun.) Wilson's fruitful relationship with Richards has continued to the present. Wilson says that they have developed a way of working together which calls for very little dialogue because Richards has an intuitive understanding of the overall arc of his work and what he is trying to accomplish.

Wilson slowly moved from his work as a poet to the profession of playwriting. Although he had read many plays, the did not see a professional play until he was thirty-one. Being a poet is still important in his writing. He has commented on this aspect of his work, saying in one interview, "I think the idea of metaphor comes into the plays because I'm a poet. Writing a poem you have a very small space to work in, you compress a lot of ideas in a small space, and it is the process of thinking that allows you to do that…. Now the play is a big space, but you still think the same way" [quoted in Shafer].

Turning from Wilson's background and his approach to playwriting to an analysis of his plays, one is struck by the themes and archetypal elements which have made them engrossing both to blacks and whites in the audience. The question of self-identity seems to be the major force in his plays. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom centers on black musicians who are exploited by white managers and record producers. Cutler and Sturdyvant represent white society, responsible in the blacks' view for their unhappy lives, yet the final arbiters of their actions. In a dispute over the arrangement of the music the blacks cease to argue only when the white man says what he wants. The piano player, Toledo, chides the others, saying, "As long as the colored man looks to white folks to put the crown on what he says … as long as he looks to white folks for approval … then he ain't never gonna find who he is and what he's about."

The title of the play is a type of pun: the Black Bottom was a dance popularized by Ma Rainey's song, but, of course. Ma Rainey also has a black bottom and she and the other blacks are at the bottom of society because of their color. The play explores their position through a simple story line: the black musicians and the white managers are waiting for the famous singer, Ma Rainey. When she finally arrives she initially refuses to make the records, then finally agrees. She makes it clear throughout the play that she feels used by the white men who run the business. Saying that they care nothing about her, she concludes, "As soon as they get my voice down on them recording machines, then it's just like if I'd be some whore and they roll over and put their pants on."

A young black trumpeter, Levee, is attracted to Ma Rainey's sexy young gal, but is warned by the other musicians to keep away from her or Ma Rainey will be jealous. Throughout the play tensions are high because of the frustration the black performers feel: their aspirations are meaningless given the impotence inherent in their positions. At the end of the play, as Ma leaves with her gal after firing Levee, the frustrations turns to rage—the senseless rage of black against black. Toledo accidentally steps on Levee's new shoe and this minor act sets off an explosion of emotion in Levee:

(All the weight in the world suddenly falls on Levee and he runs at Toledo with his knife in his hand.)

LEVEE: Nigger, you stepped on my shoe!

(He plunges the knife into Toledo's back up to the hilt. Toledo lets out a sound of surprise and agony. Cutler and Slow Drag freeze.)

He … stepped on my shoe. He did. Honest Mr. Cutler, he stepped on my shoe. What he do that for? Toledo, what you do that for? Cutler, help me.

He stepped on my shoe, Cutler.

In the published play the white man is taking charge and from the blacks the only sound is heard from Levee's trumpet: "a muted trumpet struggling for the highest of possibilities and blowing pain and warning." However, in the excellent 1994 production at the Denver Center Theatre Company only the blacks were onstage. This undercuts the point of the white men controlling the lives of the blacks, but the ending was still dramatically effective. At the end of the play, the largely white audience rose to its feet and shouted approval.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom reflects Wilson's belief in the value of the blues to American blacks and the inability of whites to comprehend either the blues or black people. (Wilson has pointed out the irony that on most recordings the notes about the music are written by white men.) The blues become a metaphor for the differences between the two races. For Wilson music, the blues in particular, are a part of the black legacy and an important element of life. He frequently states that the blues are an integral part of black people's lives, so in all of his plays he uses music both for theatrical effect and as a true element of African-American culture. Critics often note, too, the "jazz rhythms" in Wilson dialogue.

The critics greeted Ma Rainey's Black Bottom with outstanding notices. Jack Kroll spoke of the "rich and resonant work," in "this extraordinary Broadway debut by a new playwright, August Wilson" ["So Black and Blue," Newsweek, October 22, 1984]. Frank Rich wrote in The New York Times, "Mr. Wilson articulates a legacy of unspeakable agony and rage in a spellbinding voice…. He makes [the characters'] suffering into art that forces us to understand and won't allow us to forget" ["Wilson's 'Ma Rainey's Opens," October 12, 1984]. Critics praised the direction by Lloyd Richards and the ensemble acting in general. For actor Charles S. Dutton, a recent graduate from the Yale School of Drama, critics used the terms "red hot," "magnificent," and "astonishing." All aspects of the production received praise from the critics. The Downbeat critic summed things up by saying,

Simply put, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom works. The language is rich, the emotions ring true and the direction by Lloyd Richards is right on target. Black playwright August Wilson is being hailed by critics everywhere as a major new voice in the theatre. It is rare that a black drama makes it to Broadway. One only hopes that Ma Rainey's Black Bottom stays around for a long time to come. ["'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' Is a Winner on Broadway," March, 1985]

In contrast to many works by black playwrights which could not draw enough whites into the theatre to sustain a long run on Broadway, Wilson's play "stayed around" for a run of ten months and won the New York Drama Critics Circle Prize.

In his next play, Fences, Wilson is dealing with the polarities of loving and dying. In Beyond the Pleasure Principal Freud noted Eros and the death wish as the elementary powers whose counterpoint governs all the puzzles of life. Wilson establishes these two forces as governing factors in the life of the protagonist. Fences deals with the failed dreams of Troy Maxon, a black ball player who played in the minority black leagues, but was barred from the major (all white) leagues because of his race. Set in the 1950s, Fences presents conflicts familiar to blacks in the audience—indeed, one critic wrote that he was moved to tears because he seemed to see his own life on stage [Brent Staples, "'Fences': No Barrier to Emotion," New York Times, April 5, 1987].

The central metaphor in the play is that of fences: fences between the races, fences to keep people out, fences to keep people in, futile attempts at fencing in life. Troy Maxon was fenced in when he was in prison. He is literally building a fence around his house to please his wife, Rose, although he sees no use for it. Unable to fence in Troy's love, Rose is crushed when he informs her that he has another woman who is expecting a child. When the woman dies in childbirth, Troy challenges Mr. Death, and says he will fence in the yard so he can't sneak up on him again. In the following scene he enters the yard carrying the child which he asks Rose to take care of. She agrees, but tells him that he is now "womanless."

Juxtaposed with the threat of death is the attempt to find life and some meaning in life through sex. Troy's life has been blighted, and in a speech he describes an existence familiar to both blacks and whites:

I come in here every Friday. I carry a sack of potatoes and a bucket of lard. You all line up at the door with your hands out. I give you the lint from my pockets. I give you my sweat and my blood. I ain't got no tears. I done spent them. We go upstairs to that room at night and I fall down on you and try to blast a hole into forever. I get up Monday morning … find my lunch on the table. I go out. Make my way. Find my strength to carry me through to the next Friday. That's all I got to give. I can't give nothing else.

Another major motif which is familiar to blacks and whites is the difficult relationship between fathers and sons. Although Troy criticizes his own father, he gives him credit for raising him and feeding him. When Troy criticizes his grown son by a previous marriage, the son responds, "If you wanted to change me, you should have been there when I was growing up." With Cory, his son by Rose, Troy is hard and demanding, and in a strong scene between the two, grills him about his housing, his food, and his clothing, concluding, "I done give you everything I had to give you, I gave you your life…. And liking your black ass wasn't part of the bargain." Early in the play he tells Cory that he is in the batter's box and has one strike. Finally, Troy says Cory has struck out, and following an intense confrontation Troy ejects his son from his home.

In the final scene of the play Cory returns for Troy's funeral. The play ends with a climactic event as Troy's deranged brother Gabriel initially fails in his attempt to blow his horn so Troy can get into heaven, then does a "slow, strange dance, eerie and life-giving. A dance of atavistic signature and ritual." As he finishes his dance the stage is diffused with light as "the gates of heaven stand open as wide as God's closet." Gabriel has succeeded in playing Troy into heaven and states with satisfaction, "That's the way that go!"

Fences has been Wilson's most successful play to date. It broke the record for non-musical plays by grossing $11 million during the first year in New York. First presented at the Yale Repertory Theater (a pattern for Wilson's first five plays), the play subsequently moved to Broadway in 1987 where it was hailed by the critics as an outstanding play. Howard Kissel wrote, "Wilson is one of the few American playwrights you can call a poet. His characters are simple but deeply felt, and his language ennobles their troubling live" ["One Man's Failure Is Another Man's Smash," Daily-News (New York), March 27, 1987]. William A Henry III said, "Wilson's greatest gift is his ability to make sense of anger: he writes naturalistic scenes of genial humor turning into an explosive violence that flows from his characters and from the warping effect racism has had upon them" ["Righteous in His Own Backyard," Time, April 6, 1987]. In his review entitled "Fiery Fences," Clive Barnes stated, "It is the strongest, most passionate American dramatic writing since Tennessee Williams" [New York Post, March 27, 1987]. Several critics commented on Wilson's ability to depict the black American experience but extend the field of interest beyond that specific area. Edwin Wilson remarked, "Another impressive quality of Mr. Wilson's play is that it is not a polemical piece. Because the play is set in the late '50s, just before the civil-rights movement exploded, racial discrimination is very much a part of the fabric of the play, affecting the situation of every character. As important as it is, however, that is not the main focus. Rather it is the universal quality of the people ["Theater: Wilson's 'Fences' on Broadway," Wall Street Journal, March 31, 1987].

Fences won both the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. It also won four Tony awards including best play, best direction of a play (Lloyd Richards), best performance by an actor in a play (James Earl Jones), and best performance by a featured actress in a play (Mary Alice). The play has enjoyed enormous success in regional theatres as well.

Following Fences came Joe Turner's Come and Gone in which the question of identity is central. Into a boarding house in Pittsburgh comes a strange lost man with a child seeking his wife. Almost everyone in the play is seeking someone, and they appeal for assistance to two wondrously mythic types—similar in many ways to the Rat Wife in Ibsen's Little Eyolf—the People Finder and the Binder of What Clings. The white man, Selig, is in a line of People Finders, but in contrast to his father who found runaway slaves for the plantation bosses, he is a beneficent figure who finds black people separated after the end of slavery and reunites families. Bynum is in a line of African conjure men and works spells. He, however, is in search of his own song; in a vision his father revealed to him that if he could find a "shiny man"—a man who is One Who Goes Before and Shows the Way—"I would know that my song had been accepted and worked its full power in the world and I could lay down and die a happy man." In the course of the play it is revealed that the stranger, Loomis, was entrapped into seven years of indentured servitude by the notorious Joe Turner (an actual historical figure) and thereby lost not only his wife, but his whole sense of the world and his place in it.

In an electrifying climax to the first act Loomis speaks like a crazy man of a vision of bones which rose out of water and walked on top of it, speaks in tongues, dances, and ultimately collapses, unable to stand up, skittering wildly across the floor. The play as a whole concludes with a number of people finding themselves or being found. The People Finder returns with Loomis' missing wife and Loomis turns their daughter over to her. Still lost, Loomis laments the past and the attempts people have made to bind him, "Well, Joe Turner's come and gone and Herald Loomis ain't for no binding. I ain't gonna let nobody bind me up!" The play rises to a climax as his wife prays and tells him he must be washed with the blood of Jesus, "You got to be something, Herald. You can't just be alive. Life don't mean nothing unless it got a meaning." But Loomis suddenly finds himself and responds, "I don't need nobody to bleed for me! I can bleed for myself…. You want blood? Blood make you clean? You clean with blood? (Loomis slashes himself across his chest.) I'm standing! I'm standing. My legs stood up! I'm standing now!" Having found his song, the song of self-sufficiency, and accepting the responsibility for his own presence in the world, Loomis is free. And Bynum, the Binder, has found his song because he has found his shiny man. He cries, "Herald Loomis, you shining! You shining like new money!"

The critics received the play enthusiastically. Noting that Wilson had two plays running on Broadway, "an unprecedented feat for a black playwright," Jack Kroll stated, "'Joe Turner' is Wilson's best play to date and a profoundly American one. Like all of his plays it resonates far beyond its explicit details" ["August Wilson's Come to Stay," Newsweek, April 11, 1988]. This was noted by several other critics including David Patrick Stearns who wrote, "There are flashes of profundity—Loomis is universal enough that he could be a Vietnam vet or anyone else who has suffered dehumanization. Indeed, the rooming house is in many ways a metaphor for the splintering of modern society. Characters reel about like pinballs, bouncing off their own self-perpetuating neuroses" ["'Turner' Comes to a Near Halt," USA Today, March 29, 1988]. Ron Cohen praised the play saying, "Playwright August Wilson is at the crest of his power in Joe Turner's Come and Gone at the Ethel Barrymore Theater…. The interaction of his people builds to a stunning climax that resonates with the power to overcome. Joe Turner is as evocative as Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning Fences and more original in scope."

The power of the climax was noted by a number of other critics including Douglas Watt who praised the play and the performance: "The cast of 11 is exceptionally directed by Lloyd Richards right up to the orgiastic climax, as striking a moment of theater as our stage has to offer" ["Second Thoughts on First Nights," Daily News (New York), April 8, 1988]. Describing the impact of the climax, Jack Kroll offers insight into Wilson's process of playwriting:

When he was writing the climactic scene in Joe Turner, in which Loomis slashes himself across the chest [Wilson says], "I had no idea where it was going. When Loomis cut himself it was a surprise to me. I looked down at the page and said, "Where did that come from?" I was drained. I was limp. But I felt good. I knew I had something." ["August Wilson's Come to Stay"]

Wilson's next play, The Piano Lesson, was first performed at Yale and then in a number of other regional theatres before opening on Broadway in April 1990. The setting is again a boarding house in Pittsburgh. A group of blacks who live there are displaced from their roots and their acquaintances in Mississippi. Doaker and his niece Berniece are surprised by the unexpected arrival of Berniece's brother, the high-spirited Boy Willie, and his friend Lymon who have driven from Mississippi with a load of watermelons. Boy Willie hopes to make a large amount of money from selling the watermelons so he will have part of the money he needs to buy a farm. He also hopes to persuade his sister Berniece to sell the family piano so that he can get the rest of the money he needs. The play becomes a struggle over the family inheritance, an elaborately decorated piano with pictures of family members carved on the legs. As critic Michael Billington noted in his review of the London production, "a bitter family dispute becomes a powerful social metaphor … in a play about the need to acknowledge the past without being in thrall to it" ["Family Discord," Guardian (London), October 9, 1993].

A history of tragedy is connected with the piano and each of the characters relates to it in a different way. The great-grandfather of Berniece and Boy Willie carved the piano for a white man. Later he was murdered and burned in a railroad car on the Yellow Dog Line by several white men. Each of these men has subsequently died mysteriously. Berniece claims that she has seen the latest, Sutter, standing upstairs in a blue suit. Boy Willie is alarmed, but claims she has made the story up as a means of getting him out of the house.

The play examines both the significance of death and the struggle in which blacks from Mississippi attempt to acclimatize themselves in the North. There is a powerful mood of the past which keeps a hold on the characters, and the voices of the dead are likened to the wind. It is not clear if the playwright intends the audience to accept the actuality of a struggle with a ghost or whether the implication is that the struggle is against the past history of the blacks in America. The present generation cannot disassociate itself from the past struggle against "the man." Even in Pittsburgh, the "ghost" of "the man" pursues Boy Willie. But in the final moments he and Berniece achieve a closeness which seemed impossible early in the play and the mystical ending gives the audience a sense of elevation and hope.

Several critics noted the increased ambiguity and complexity of this play by Wilson. Mimi Kramer noted,

The central object in this play—the piano, a beautifully carved upright, decorated with faces and scenes—means something different to everyone. To Boy Willie, who wants to use money from the sale of the piano to buy the land his family worked as slaves and sharecroppers, the piano means the future and his spiritual emancipation. To his widowed sister Berniece whose father died stealing it from the man who owned it, the piano means a heritage of grief and bitterness and women without men. ["The Theatre," New Yorker, April 30, 1990]

Some American critics and several British critics objected to the supernatural element in the play and to its length. However, Michael Billington commented that because of the inherent vital theatricality, "I can easily forgive Wilson's wordiness and the play's final descent into the supernatural in which the ghost of the slave-owning Sutter is noisily exorcised." Critics in general noted the preeminent position Wilson had reached with this play. The critic for Time Magazine wrote, "In just over five years, since his first professionally produced play. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, reached Broadway, Wilson has established himself as the richest theatrical voice to emerge in the U.S. since the post-World War II flowering of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. Just as significant, he has transcended the categorization of 'black' playwright to demonstrate that his stories, although consistently about black families and communities, speak to the entire U.S. culture" ["Two-Timer," April 23, 1990].

Critics also noted the powerful use of music throughout the play. Frank Rich concluded his rave review by saying, "That haunting music belongs to the people who have lived it, and it has once again found miraculous voice in a play that August Wilson has given to the American stage" ["A Family's Past in Wilson's 'Piano Lesson,'" New York Times, April 17, 1990].

It was no surprise that Wilson's The Piano Lesson garnered the major prizes for the year. First, the Pulitzer Prize, then the Drama Critics Circle Award. At this stage in his career critics began to ask, "How long can he keep it up?" Wilson responded with a new play which opened in New Haven while The Piano Lesson was running. Concluding his praise for The Piano Lesson, Time Magazine critic commented on the newest play by Wilson, "The episodic structure and co-medic tone differ radically from The Piano Lesson and Fences. The main thing the newest play has in common with them is that it, too, is terrific" ("Two-Timer").

With his play Two Trains Running, Wilson explored the decade of the '60s. The play opened at Yale, then toured for two years to regional theatres, then in April 1992, opened on Broadway. Although some critics felt the critical political and social events of the period were too removed from the play, in fact, they are constantly in the air and from the underpinning of a period of great change, some of it good, some of it bad for the blacks. The play is set in Memphis' small diner in a section of Pittsburgh which has disintegrated and is scheduled for demolition. The decay of the inner cities is reflected in the conversation about the black businesses which have closed and the absence of opportunity for the blacks. Another change is in the world view of blacks. Holloway the 65 year-old neighborhood philosopher says he has lasted this long because he stayed out of other people's business. His allegiance is to Aunt Ester, a seer who claims to be 322 years old. The waitress Risa believed in the Prophet Samuel who is lying in state in West's funeral parlor across the street. In contrast, Sterling, the wild young man just out of the penitentiary and looking for some chance in life, hands out posters about a rally in memory of Malcom X. Risa will have no part of it because there might be a riot. In the event, she is wooed by Sterling and does go to the rally. The characters discuss it the next day and bring out the daily events of the '60s:

Wolf: I saw you all down at the rally last night. Wasn't that something? Everybody was down there Even the niggers that swear up and down on two sacks of Bibles that they ain't black … they was down there. Ain't but five hundred chairs and three thousand people. Wasn't no fight or nothing. It was real nice.

Sterling: The police was down there taking people's pictures.

Wolf: I seen that. Wasn't that something? They don't go out there where the white folks at and take their pictures…. It's hard to live in America.

Wolf is content to run the numbers which he feels is a legitimate operation offering the blacks hope. But Memphis has been run off his farm in the South by a white man named Stovall and is determined to take pragmatic action to better his life. He hires a white lawyer who knows the white man's rules, and demands a fair price from the city before they tear down his building. He refuses to display a poster for the rally, saying:

I don't want this up in my place. I ain't putting no sanction on nothing like that. That's what the problem is now. All them niggers wanna do is have a rally. Soon as they finish with one rally they start planning for the next. They forget about what goes in between. You rally to spur you into action. When it comes time for action these niggers sit down and scratch their heads. They had that boy Begaboo. The police walked up and shot him in the head and them same niggers went down there to see the mayor. Raised all kind of hell. Trying to get the cop charged with murder. They raised hell for three weeks. After that it was business as usual. That's the Sterling boy bringing that stuff in here. Something wrong with that boy. That boy ain't right. (To Risa:) If I was you I'd stay away from him. He ain't gonna do nothing but end up right back down there in the penitentiary.

In fact, Risa intends to stay away from Sterling and from all men. Through her character, Wilson subtly introduces another element of change in the '60s, the attitude of black women about themselves. Risa, a beautiful woman, has deliberately scarred her legs so that men will not consider her as a sex object, but will look deeper into her character.

Although several critics felt the social matter of the period was too much in the background, Frank Rich said the play "makes its own chilling point" and quoted Sterling's line relating to the pointless destruction in cities like Detroit and Watts, "You take something apart, you should know how to put it back together" ["August Wilson Reaches the '60s," New York Times, April 14, 1992]. Some critics commented that there was no central struggle in the diffuse, three-hour-long play which, as Edwin Wilson wrote could "give the play focus and move the plot forward" ["Two Trains Running," Wail Street Journal, April 20, 1992]. These critics were correct insofar as the structure involves the interweaving of all the characters, each of whom relates to the past and present in different ways, and each of whom tells a story. For example, Hambone is a man cheated out of a ham nine years earlier and whose mental state has deteriorated so much that he can only say, "He gonna give me my ham. I want my ham." Sterling tries to help him by teaching him to say "Black is beautiful" and "Malcolm lives." As Davin Ansen summed up the play,

As thematically rich as it is dramatically discursive, Two [Trains] Running isn't organized around any single dramatic event. It unfolds as a succession of street-wise arias, and the monologues, in Lloyd Richards's impressively acted production, often rise to musical eloquence. Wilson leaves it to the audience to pull together his interlocking themes of economics, self-esteem and spirituality. What we witness is not a play about the '60s, but a form of oral history, in which we're invited to eavesdrop on the timeless continuum of the African-American experience. These are the stories behind the political slogans, Wilson implies: listen and learn. ["Of Prophets and Profits," Newsweek, April 27, 1992]

Ultimately, Wilson ties up all the stories. Sterling has finally lured Risa out of her nun-like existence and they have what seems to be a meaningful relationship. Memphis enters in the last moments, drunk and hilarious, having got $35,000 from the city. On Aunt Ester's advice, he plans to settle his feelings about the past by going back to see about his farm: "I'm going back to Jackson and see Stovall. If he ain't there, then I'm gonna see his son. He enjoying his daddy's benefits he got to carry his daddy's weight. I'm going on back up to Jackson and pick up the ball." Finally, Hambone gets his ham. Although he has died and the white grocer Lutz refused to the end to give it to him. Sterling breaks into the store, takes a ham and the play ends as follows: "(Sterling enters, carrying a large ham. He is bleeding from his face and his hands. He grins and lays the ham on the counter.) Say, Mr. West … that's for Hambone's casket."

Many critics noted that the play ended happily and that there was a great deal of comedy throughout. (The comedy is present in all of Wilson's plays, but critics have not given it much attention.) David Patrick Steams observed, "this is Wilson's most moving play in years. While his writing can often be diffuse, Trains is well-focused and intermingles extremes of comedy and tragedy with breathtaking elegance" ["Wilson's 'Trains' On Track," USA Today, April 14, 1992]. Much of the comedy is just tossed off in causal conversations. Talking about bad luck reminds Holloway, "A man was driving a truck … hauling a whole truck full of mirrors … lost the brakes and ran into a telephone pole. He wasn't hurt or nothing. He looked back there and saw all them mirrors broke … he was staring at two hundred years of bad luck. They had to carry him away in a straitjacket." As John Beaufort noted, "Two Trains Running seems the most comic of the Wilson cycle thus far. Wilson doesn't write jokes. But he finds constant humor in the speech patterns and verbal idiosyncracies of his characters" ["Wilson's 'Two Trains Running' Scores," Christian Science Monitor, April 28, 1992]. Critics of the regional theatre performances of the play, too, noted the comedy and its obvious appeal for audiences. In Chicago, Julian Frazin wrote:

Once again under the sensitive direction of Lloyd Richards, Trains is a tale built upon almost 350 years of disappointment and shattered dreams; yet little of the bitterness emerges in this story of joy, laughter and the continual hope for change…. Unlike many of the recent films of Spike Lee and others depicting rage and violence in the African-American neighborhoods, Wilson's play is one of little heroes who survive and prevail in spite of life's calamities. ["'Two Trains' Runs Faster than An Alleycat," Chicago Lawyer, March, 1993]

While not all the critics in New York or throughout the country were satisfied with this play, a number felt it was his best to date. In it he explores the interaction of life and death, his title indicating the literal two trains which run down to Jackson every day, and, as Wilson wrote in a program note, 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" [quoted in Linda Winer, "Grappling with Their Stations in Life," New York Newsday, April 14, 1992]. Writing in Time, William A. Henry III called the play "Wilson's most delicate and mature work" ["Luncheonette Tone Poem," April 27, 1992]. The critic John Simon, notoriously difficult to please, wrote a long thoughtful review in New York in which he said,

What I find a step forward here in Wilson's stagecraft is the ability not to rely on such obvious dramatics as onstage violence, supernatural phenomena, vicious heavies, mysterious strangers, ponderous symbols, and the rest. Indeed, the play's eponymous symbol, the place to and from which only two trains are running, is mentioned but once, and left open to several interpretations—my own being that you can live your life blindly forward, or go back into the past and try to mend the old mistakes. ["Two Trains Running," April 27, 1992]

During the pre-Broadway tour the play Wilson was awarded the American Theatre Critics Association 1990–91 New Play Award. The play itself did not receive any major awards after the New York opening, but Larry Fishburne won a Tony Award for his dynamic portrayal of Sterling.

In the 1994–95 season, Wilson's first play after a break of several years will be presented at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, directed by Lloyd Richards. Seven Guitars, Wilson says, is about a jazz musician whose death is explored in a series of flashbacks. "The point is not who killed him but the content of his life. Barton was in and out of jail and a vagrant in some ways. But one of the issues I find fascinating is the separate relationships between these '40s musicians and the black and white communities" [quoted in Smith].

August Wilson is only 48 and as a playwright he is still developing and perfecting his art. Compared to someone like Eugene O'Neill his body of work is small. Yet, he is already one of the most honored playwrights in America. It is inevitable that his work will be compared to that of Eugene O'Neill as there are many similarities. In fact, Clive Barnes called his review of Joe Turner's Come and Gone "O'Neill in Blackface," writing, "Wilson starts his play with the leisureliness of a Eugene O'Neill slowly pinpointing this family—a boarding house in industrial America, filled with transients…. The mood, however, is funny, odd, eccentric … very cozy, very O'Neill himself in blackface" [New York Post, March 28, 1988]. Reviewing The Piano Lesson in London, Michael Billington wrote "As in Ibsen or O'Neill, the past constantly informs the present." Wilson is associated with O'Neill in critics' minds in part because his first opportunities occurred at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center. Just as O'Neill provided great roles for black actors including Charles Gilpin and Paul Robeson, so Wilson has provided great roles for black actors including James Earl Jones, Yaphet Kotto, Charles S. Dutton, Mary Alice, and Larry Fishburne. Both playwrights have won the Pulitzer Prize more than once. Like O'Neill, Wilson envisions a cycle of plays about the history of America. But more important than these similarities are their shared viewpoints about the seriousness of writing. Like O'Neill, Wilson writes about serious subjects but mixes comedy and tragedy. As O'Neill wrote about matters which disturbed him emotionally, Wilson says he is writing plays "about the stuff that beats in my head" [quoted in Arkatov]. Critics rarely commented on the comedy in such plays as O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh in which, as in Wilson's plays, each of the characters has stories to tell, and many of them are very funny. Although critics occasionally comment on the comic element in Wilson's plays, not enough attention is given to his ability to create strong, memorable comic characters and speeches. A final similarity with O'Neill is that both playwrights are motivated by the urge to create works of art, rather than by financial gain. Wilson said once, "All I ever needed was a few dollars for cigarettes and beer" quoted in William A. Henry III, "Exorcising the Demons of Memory," Time, April 11, 1988]. Although he quit his four-pack-a-day habit, he has changed little else. In 1993 he told a critic that he prefers smaller cities to New York's glamour, doesn't drive, and prefers a simple life, "Give me my books and records and I'm happy" [quoted in Misha Berson, "The Story Weaver," Seattle Times, April 11, 1993]. He presently lives in Seattle and has continued his connection with O'Neill Center working with a young playwright as Lloyd Richards worked with him.

At a time when many American playwrights write about transitory problems Wilson seeks the great themes. When asked about his opinion about the state of playwriting in America, he responded that he thinks the present generation of American playwrights has been spoiled by a childhood spent with television rather than literature. Of those he has met, "There were not very many who knew authors and writers, who had read novels: they were actually in a very small world. They talked about TV and movies." He says that most of the playwrights he knows have little to say and nothing beating in their hearts that drives them. Making a distinction between the artist and the craftsman, he cast his lot with the former, saying, "I think that plays should be considered a part of literature…. I aspire to the highest art" [quoted in Shafer]. However, he regards his own work with modesty, and commented amusingly about his slow process of work on his latest play. It took him a long time to complete the play which was initially called Moon Going Down and was set in a turpentine camp down South: "The more I got into it, the more I realized I didn't know much about turpentine camps" [quoted in Peter Vaughan, "After Three Year Break from Writing," Star Tribune (Minneapolis), April 30, 1993]. His modesty is also expressed in his reaction to theatre critics' comments about his work: "I read all my reviews, of course I do. I think writers who say they don't aren't being entirely honest. And I learn something from every review" [quoted in Berson].

August Wilson occupies an unusual position in American theatre. Although he feels very passionate about the historical treatment of blacks in American society, his characters break through the barriers of race and speak to both whites and blacks because they relate to archetypal themes and questions: What is true freedom? What is it to be a man or woman? How does a family relate? What is the nature of responsibility? What, ultimately, is the purpose of life and how does one "find one's own song?" How does one become (or find) a "shiny man"? In plays filled with poetic images, Wilson explores these questions. So far his record is amazing: in the terminology of baseball which occurs in Fences, Wilson has never struck out, he is batting a thousand, and there is nobody else in his league. One critic wrote, "He is the playwright that in forty years we will still be hearing about" [De Vries]. He has a long career ahead and looks forward to it with zest. He has recently agreed to write a play to premiere at the Alliance Theatre Company in Atlanta during the Olympic Arts Festival in 1996. He looks forward with pleasure to completing his cycle of plays: "I think I'll do the 80s and 90s first and then go back to the first decade. It would really be something to have all ten finished" [quoted in Vaughan]. Wilson's fans and many of the critics share that feeling. Writing in 1993, Misha Berson summed up Wilson's achievements so far:

Wilson will leave behind his own record. At age 47, the largely self-educated author has racked up a rare achievement: five plays successfully produced on Broadway and nationwide, two Pulitzer Prizes, and the forging of a distinctive voice, a sensibility, a style not to be mistaken for that of any other taleteller.

Regina Taylor (essay date April 1996)

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SOURCE: "That's Why They Call It the Blues," American Theatre, Vol. 13, No. 4, April, 1996, pp. 18-23.

[In the following essay, Taylor illustrates how Wilson uses blues music and blues artists to enhance his depictions of the African American experience in his works.]

Seven Guitars begins with a blues refrain: "Does anybody here want to try my cabbage …?" The lyrics could have dropped out of the insinuating mouth of Bessie Smith herself. "All the attitudes of my characters come straight out of the blues," says August Wilson, without equivocation. "'The blues' is the bedrock."

It was when Wilson was 20 years old and living in a boarding house in Pittsburgh, across the street from a second-hand store where he could buy 78-RPM records for a nickel apiece, that he came across a bootleg copy of "Bessie Smith: Empress of the Blues."

"Nobody in town can bake a sweet jelly roll like mine …"

He had more than 2,000 records up in his room and could sing the lyrics of Walter Huston and Patti Page by heart, but "I had never heard a sound like that," Wilson remembers. After listening to Bessie, he began to view those around him differently. "Somehow there was something about them that came through in Bessie that I had never known." Of Bessie's music, Wilson thought: "This is mine." Unknowingly, he had found his voice as a writer.

Wilson's speaking voice is a soft lilting hum combined with a rapid-fire delivery, a mixture, perhaps, of inflections from his North Carolina-born mother and his own Pittsburgh Hill District upbringing. His speech becomes more staccato and explosive as a tidewater of images and ideas flood through him.

"The blues," he intones, "is simplicity and profundity at the same time. It's a cultural response to the world that contains our world view and our ideas of life. If we disappeared and someone found these recordings, they could tell about our pain, our pleasure, our God, our devil."

Wilson begins to sing/speak—"'If the train don't hurry / There'll be some walking done'"—then cuts off the tune to say, "People think it's just a song. It sounds funny." Just as abruptly, he continues with—"'I'm leaving in the morning walkin' / Take a chance that I may ride.'" From Wilson's perspective, you can cast an "anthropological eye" on the blues and piece together a time and a place. You can mend fractured histories, heal the souls and psyches of characters who must embrace their past to be made whole.

Born from the "field hollers" and "sorrow songs" that got black people through slavery, the blues slapped disappointment off the face of freedom. It dared fate to mete out yet another blow. The early blues singers were anonymous wanderers carrying their songs from town to town, mixing despair with humor—an American invention in (literal) blackface. Their stories and indomitable spirits passed from mouth to mouth, and have been reclaimed for another era in Wilson's music-infused theatre works.

The title character of Wilson's first Broadway drama, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, is one of the earliest professional blues singers; the white man pays her to "trap her voice in a box." In Fences, the spirit of Troy Maxson survives in the passing of his song to his children. Joe Loomis of Joe Turner's Come and Gone is a man "who done lost his song" during his illegal slavery in a chain gang. The object of conflict in The Piano Lesson is an actual relic of slavery—Boy Willie and Berniece's inherited piano, evoking painful memories but also offering possible barter for a piece of land. In Two Trains Running, set in 1969, the tide of the Civil Rights Movement (swelling during Fences) is at a standstill: the restaurant's jukebox has fallen silent.

In Seven Guitars, which began previews last month on Broadway, the blues are a source of power and transcendence. This new play (which debuted in early 1995 at Chicago's Goodman Theatre under Walter Dallas's direction, then moved on to Boston's Huntington Theatre Company, San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater and Los Angeles's Ahmanson Theatre under the reins of Wilson's longtime collaborator, director Lloyd Richards) is set in post-World War II Pittsburgh, where a group of friends have gathered after burying Floyd "Schoolboy" Barton. Floyd's life was cut short just as he was on the verge of "making it" in the cutthroat world of the urban music industry, and his friends talk about the black-hatted angels who appeared at the gravesite and carried Floyd away. To the sounds of his first hit recording. "That's Alright," the play jumps back in time to piece together the final days of Floyd's life.

While coming home from his mother's funeral, Floyd is stopped with empty pockets by the police and arrested for vagrancy. ("Men are arrested for vagrancy, for worthless-ness," says Wilson. "Worthlessness is a crime in America.") In the workhouse, Floyd discovers that he has a hit record … but no hit record money. Upon release he gets a letter from his white producers inviting him back to Chicago to cut yet another record. Floyd sees the summons as a promise that he will become a star—all he has to do is find a way to get enough money together for his band to return to Chicago.

In what may be Wilson's most masculine play, the men of Floyd's band strut around the backyard in their Pittsburgh neighborhood like roosters scratching for territory. They crow in unison, each with his own unique voice. They riff off each other. The solos fly.

Hedley, dying of tuberculosis, dreams that the legendary New Orleans trumpeter Buddy Bolden will come down and give him money for a plantation; Red would happily return to Chicago (if Floyd could only get his drums out of hock); Canewell, a harmonica player who's tired of the road, still hungers for fame but would like to put down roots. The women of the play, a bit worn around the edges, sing of love gone wrong. Vera, Floyd's girlfriend, takes him back after he left her for another woman; Louise, the landlady, claims she doesn't want anyone knocking on her door anymore; Ruby, Louise's fast niece, has just fled Alabama where one man killed another over her. "All the characters," Wilson points out, "are living the blues."

In Seven Guitars, history is viewed with blacks as the spiritual center: a whole world is encompassed in the characters' backyard. Wilson describes that yard as an arena, a killing field, a cemetery and "a garden where something is growing—it's new life." It is the pulse-point of black culture in 1948: "The situation of blacks was hopeful after the war. We thought, 'When we fight and die for our country, we will no longer be second-class citizens.' But we quickly found that we remained stigmatized by color and culture."

Wilson emphasizes that it is not as much skin color but "what you do" that sets African Americans apart. "The fact is, we act differently, we think differently, we face the world differently—and it is our difference that makes us unique. We must embrace our culture or we will lose ourselves and disappear."

Wilson says that while the exploitation of early blues musicians was a central subject of Ma Rainey, here exploitation is a given: "Seven Guitars is about people battling society and themselves for self-worth." The black characters' new urban challenge is symbolized by Miss Tillery's rooster—her neighbors loudly complain that the Alabama rooster's crowing at odd times has no usefulness in Pittsburgh. "This the city. Roosters belong in the country. Miss Tillery needs to get rid of that thing," complains Floyd. Later, Hedley justifies killing the rooster by explaining that it was too good to live among those who do not appreciate its song.

Through Floyd, Wilson comments on the discrepancy between black lives and the American Dream: "Now here's what I don't understand. If I go out there and punch a white man in the mouth, they give me five years even if there ain't no witnesses. Joe Louis beat up a white man in front of a hundred thousand people and they give him a million dollars. Now you explain that to me." Tired of being on the bottom, Floyd declares, "All I want is you to get out my way. I got somewhere to go. See, everybody can't say that … They don't wanna go nowhere. Time done got short and it getting shorter everyday. The only thing I want you to do is get out my way."

Wilson's characters are trying to change their situations—to make luck happen. To even the odds, they arm themselves—Floyd carries a .38, Red a .32 and Canewell a pocketknife. Wilson sees their stance as political and revolutionary. "They are about black power, self-determination. 'Black power'—the combination of the words feels right. People refer to the Civil Rights Movement, but Black Power means we can alter relationships to society to gain power. We can alter how we see ourselves."

In Seven Guitars, both Hedley and Floyd understand the potential of their music as a means to gain power. While Hedley anticipates Buddy Bolden's descent, Floyd is unwilling to wait for divine intervention, and he ends up, as Wilson puts it, "standing there in the yard, in this time in history, with blood on his hands."

Wilson is redefining, reaffirming and reclaiming the moral personality of black Americans. He does not place the blame on society's racism and claim that African Americans are victims—he states the facts and lets the indictments fall where they may. Without pulling his punches, Wilson shows black life in all its richness and fullness, its wit and rage. His plays are peopled with those who are constantly reassembling and reinventing themselves, "to give clear and luminous meaning to the song which is a wail and a whelp of joy."

Ralph Ellison discovered the materialization of poetry in the blues, and Wilson himself becomes visible as an Ellisonian figure. His words—thick with the poetry, rhythm and mother-wit of the blues—give shadow, substance and heartbeat (as well as time, place and voice) to an invisible people. His six plays to date, each set in a different decade, turn on thousands of lightbulbs, illuminating the presence of African Americans through the 20th century. It is an American history turned on its ear, seen through the eyes of a black man.

Douglas Anderson (essay date June 1997)

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SOURCE: "Saying Goodbye to the Past: Self-Empowerment and History in Joe Turner's Come and Gone," in CLA Journal, Vol. XL, No. 4, June, 1997, pp. 432-57.

[In (he following essay, Anderson explores how Joe Turner's Come and Gone is a play which illustrates that "in reclaiming the self by recovering the past, the individual becomes capable of constructing a future."]

A character in August Wilson's play Joe Turner's Come and Gone tells a story about how he was "cure[d]" of playing in guitar contests. Called out to play his guitar for an unspecified prize offered by a white man, Wilson's character does his best to demonstrate his skill against his two black opponents until he realizes that the white man is tone deaf and cannot distinguish the quality of each man's music. All three players finally substitute volume for skill, and the white judge, unable to declare a winner, pronounces "all three … the best guitar player" and divides a paltry prize of twenty-five cents between the contestants with a "penny on the side."

The anecdote related by Wilson's character serves as a reminder that white efforts to understand the products of black cultures can be attended by arrogance and insensitivity, a tendency to hear one essentialized black voice speaking of a single black experience. White readers of Wilson's play should want to avoid both the arrogance of the tone-deaf white man who assumes that economic and social privilege qualify him to judge a black culture, and his insensitivity to the different voices within that culture. This insensitivity, as the anecdote makes clear, always renders the same leveling judgment, a judgment of unimportance or non-worth.

The anecdote and Wilson's play as a whole, however, are not primarily about an insensitive, indifferent or hostile white society but about the process of recovering and recreating black voices after the white judge has turned individual music into noise. The premise of the play, and the focus of my argument about the play, is that this recovery and re-creation can only occur with the recognition that Joe Turner, the personification of white oppression of African Americans, has "come and gone." Joe Turner is part of a past that, acknowledged and appropriated for the self, loses its power to determine the future. Consigning Joe Turner to the past does not mean naively believing that white oppression is at an end. Wilson's play depicts ongoing efforts by white society to deflect and misdirect black progress toward community and individual identity. But if white oppression extends into the present, its power to diminish or impugn the self is denied when the history of that oppression is confronted and countered with the collective and personal memory that grounds identity. In reclaiming the self by recovering the past, the individual becomes capable of constructing a future.

A play about recovering the past and leaving it behind, Joe Turner's Come and Gone appropriately treats a transitional phase in African-American history: the Great Migration. Over a period of twenty years, from 1910 to 1930, some one and a half million African Americans, a sixth of the nation's black population, left rural and urban areas of the South for industrial cities of the North—New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, and, the city that is the setting for August Wilson's play, Pittsburgh. What the migrants left behind, what they hoped to find and what kind of life greeted them in the North are questions of fact that historians of this period generally agree on. The migrants left racial violence, segregation, and disfranchisements in the South. They also left a Southern economy hurt by a boll weevil invasion that reduced cotton yields, low cotton prices, and a pattern of Northern investment that turned the South into a dependent colony with a shrinking labor market. They were drawn to the North by the promise of higher wages and, after 1916, by the employment possibilities created when World War I stopped the flow of European immigrant labor. In leaving for the industrialized cities of the North, the migrants hoped to find not only higher wages but also economic and political equality, educational opportunities, and social justice. What the migrants found in the North was something less: voting rights that did not translate into political power, discriminatory hiring and promotion practices that kept them at the bottom of the employment ladder, segregated and substandard housing and education. Some gains were made in economic well-being, political rights, and opportunities in education. But, as James Grossman suggests in Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration, "the dreams embodied in the Great Migration eventually collapsed under the weight of continued racial oppression and the failure of industrial capitalism to distribute its prosperity as broadly as the migrants expected." In Carole Marks's succinct summary in Farewell—We're Good and Gone, reality never matched the dream of the Great Migration."

Though Grossman and Marks agree about many of the facts surrounding the Great Migration and though both find that the migration achieved little in the way of concrete economic, social and political gains, they do not agree about the meaning of this mass movement of people, particularly its meaning for those who made the journey. For Marks, the Great Migration was a drama in which the migrants themselves were "minor actors." The real stars of this drama were economic forces: the declining Southern economy, the need of Northern industrialists for cheap and expendable labor after World War I ended European immigration and, at the most abstract level, an economic order in which developed, capital-rich cores draw natural resources and cheap labor from undeveloped peripheries (Marks). Though the migrants created many of their own lines of communication and institutional supports for the move, labor agents were pivotal in inducing them to leave, and "much of the mobilization of the migration was orchestrated in the board rooms of Northern industrial enterprises" (Marks).

In a review essay of Marks's and Grossman's books ["The Beginnings of a Renaissance: Black Migration, the Industrial Order, and the Search for Power," Journal of Urban History, May, 1991], Earl Lewis observes that Marks's claim for the primacy of economic forces will be disconcerting to "social historians who have dared to understand how African Americans empowered themselves during the industrial age. As one of these social historians, James Grossman rejects historical accounts that portray migrants as objects of economic and social forces and suggests that we can better understand the Great Migration by viewing it "as a conscious and meaningful act rather than as a historical imperative." This act, Grossman suggests, grew out of migrants' consciousness of their identity as black Americans and their willingness to adapt and recreate that identity in a new urban, industrial context. The same pride in racial heritage and identity that Marcus Garvey drew on in the twenties, he suggests, was central to the "ideology of the Great Migration." By migrating to industrialized cities of the North, black Southerners affirmed their power to make themselves, just as they had proved their freedom through spatial mobility of a more limited kind following emancipation (Grossman).

As a "second emancipation," the Great Migration represented a break with the past but also its preservation and adaptation (Grossman). Though migration entailed the abandonment of a long-standing ideal of land ownership as the route to independence and the ability to recast the self as industrial worker and city dweller, "the migrants," as Grossman puts it, "did not leave their cultural baggage at the train station." This cultural heritage informed the decision to migrate and the migrants' response to the institutions and social forms that they found in the North, at the same time that it changed that environment and was changed by it, a mutual reshaping evident, Grossman suggests, in "the aromas of southern cooking …; the sounds of New Orleans jazz and Mississippi blues; styles of worship; patterns of speech …."

However, not all differences of cultural heritage or of interest were reconciled in quite so harmonious a way, and in focusing on the Great Migration as a historical process in which African Americans asserted a common heritage and identity, Grossman does not assume a monolithic African-American culture. As Lewis points out in his review of Land of Hope, Grossman recognizes the intra-ethnic conflicts that frequently marked relations between the "Old Settlers" and the new arrivals, conflicts generated by differences of class as well as region and that were often manifested as the fear that the newcomer's rural lack of sophistication in dress, manner, or religious expression would injure community image. In spite of these differences, however, migrants and the established black community shared a sense of ethnic identity which synthesized much of the experience of both groups and redefined African-American cultural identity both North and South. It is as a process of cultural self-creation that Grossman sees the Great Migration's chief significance and promise. Viewed from the perspective of subjects recreating themselves, from "forward" rather than "backward," the Great Migration, he suggests, was not a failure, for in this singular reversal of the historian's perspective, we see the migrants not as the objects of historical forces and the histories written about them but as agents in their own history (Grossman).

Grossman's analysis of the Great Migration as a process in which African Americans drew on the past to remake themselves is close to August Wilson's dramatic interpretation of the migration in Joe Turner's Come and Gone. Like Grossman, Wilson see[s] the Great Migration not merely as a demographic or geographical shift but a historical transition to a new identity, and in his play the image of movement, of traveling the roads, serves as an apt metaphor for the search for self. Joe Turner's Come and Gone represents this search as both personal and collective. Though Wilson's characters seek an individual "song" that will guide them along the road into the future, they are enabled to recover this song only through recovery of a collective as well as a personal past. Recovery of one's song, however, is not easy, and, as Jeremy's anecdote of the guitar contest suggests, that song is in continual danger from the effects of white racism.

Before I go to look more closely at what the search for self or "song" entails, I think it is important to understand something of the conditions and the world in which Wilson portrays that search. The world depicted in Wilson's drama consists of material and spiritual parts or aspects which must be brought into meaningful synthesis, a synthesis in which each is informed by or exists through the other. The search for self or "song" can be viewed as a personal version of this broader task of creating a world in which the spiritual and the material infuse one another. Or, again, since Wilson suggests the individuals, couples and communities can be worlds of their own, the two tasks are substantially the same task. Recovering the unique self of one's song is also the creation of a world in which the material and spiritual are in harmony.

Both interdependence of the material and the spiritual and the need to bring them into fuller relation are suggested in the opening scene of Joe Turner's Come and Gone. The setting for this scene and for the rest of the play is a Pittsburgh boardinghouse in 1911. When the play opens, the owner of this boardinghouse, Seth Holly, is watching one of his tenants, a "rootworker" or shaman named Bynum, perform a religious ritual or rite. Seth reports the progress of this ritual to his wife, Bertha, while she cooks breakfast and they exchange comments about Seth's work in a Pittsburgh steel mill and his efforts to get a loan to finance a small shop for the manufacture of pots and pans.

The staging of this scene, dialogue, and characterization suggests that the material and spiritual aspects of the world are in intimate contact but somehow not fully integrated. On the one hand, the staging dramatizes separation. The material world of everyday concerns, of seeking business loans and baking biscuits, is located inside the boardinghouse, where it can be directly witnessed by the audience. The spiritual realm is outside and offstage, accessible to the audience only through Seth's description of it. This description, moreover, is made by a man who is somewhat scornful of what he witnesses. A skilled craftsman and a property owner, a practical man accustomed to dealing in the materials of his craft and the economic realities of running a boarding house and resisting exploitation in his work life, Seth is prone to see the ritual performed by Bynum as "mumbo jumbo nonsense," as something not quite civilized. Watching a ritual in which Bynum kills a pigeon and pours some of its blood into a cup, Seth speculates: "I believe he drink that blood."

Bertha's immediate reproach to her husband for this fantasy suggests that Bynum is not so far outside social norms as Seth likes to believe:

"Seth Holly, what is wrong with you this morning?… You know Bynum don't be drinking no pigeon blood."

"I don't know what he do."

"Well, watch him, then. He's gonna dig a little hole and bury that pigeon. Then he's gonna pray over that blood … pour it on top … mark out his circle and come on into the house."

Yet Bynum does function as a foil for Seth. Described in the play's notes as a man "lost in a world of his own making and [able] to swallow any adversity or interferences with his grand design," Bynum represents a spiritual world that is antagonistic to the material and practical one, but different from and somewhat indifferent to it. This indifference and the potential for tension between Bynum's spirituality and Seth's materialism are humorously represented in Bynum's apparent unconcern for the vegetable garden in which he conducts his ritual, unconcern that leads Seth to yell, "Hey Bynum … Watch where you stepping!" from his station by the window.

While characterization and staging tend to present the material and the spiritual as separate realities, they do not present this separation as absolute or even as clearly marked. Though the vegetable garden provides bodily sustenance and ostensibly belongs to Seth, it is also the site of Bynum's ritual and the place where Bynum grows plants for use in magical preparations. The division of "Seth's" garden, moreover, reflects a similar division (or amalgamation) in Seth's character, for though he calls Bynum's rituals "mumbo jumbo," he has the conjure man bless his house. Likewise, though Bynum represents the claims and needs of the spirit, he is no enemy of the material world or of pragmatic, commercial realities that Seth deals in. He both relishes Bertha's biscuits and accepts payment for spiritual services. In a similar way, the staging suggests the intimate connection as well as separation of the material and spiritual. Though the spiritual world is off stage, it is connected to the material, the practical and the everyday by a window, and Seth's report on that world while Bertha bakes biscuits suggests that these two realities exist in close relation. Indeed, Bertha's matter-of-fact response to Seth's sacrilegious speculation about how Bynum will use the pigeon's blood suggests that, in some fundamental way, the spiritual or extramundane is part of everyday, pragmatic reality. Bertha knows the course of Bynum's ritual without looking because she has seen it many times, because it is a regular part of everyday existence.

The first scene's dialogue continues a pattern of showing the material and spiritual to be separated and interrelated, but it also shows how their integration can be subverted. Seth's commentary on Bynum's off-stage ritual is interspersed with discussion of more material, pragmatic concerns—his unsatisfying work on the night shift at a mill and his desire to start his own business with the financial help of white businessmen. Despite the practicality of Seth's plan, however, the white men he approaches refuse to lend him the money he needs unless he signs his house over to them. It is here that we begin to see why Seth's house needs to be blessed and in what way the spiritual and material may become not integrated and complementary but opposed realities. At least part of the material, pragmatic, and everyday world inhabited by Wilson's characters, that part dominated by whites, opposes their spiritual being because it is organized to oppress them.

Much of the oppression experienced by Wilson's characters might be described as material or economic. Thus, Seth's guitar-playing tenant. Jeremy, is jailed without cause and fined two dollars and later fired from his job on a road crew when he refuses to pay a white coworker fifty cents in protection money. Steady work and home ownership give Seth a certain financial security, yet he too is vulnerable to a white society bent on extracting what it can from him and limiting his opportunities for economic advancement. Commenting on the hopes of black migrants for prosperity in Pittsburgh, Seth notes that though he has lived in Pittsburgh all his life, white European immigrants have "come over and in six months got more than what I got."

Though the oppression encountered by Wilson's characters may seem to be solely economic or material, that oppression is spiritual as well in its capacity to deprive the individual of a sense of himself or of his unique "song." Since the play presents the material and the spiritual as interwoven or integrated, material oppression necessarily has an effect on the individual spirit, denying it value and even existence. The individual spirit or song, in Wilson's play, can only exist as a manifestation in the world, as an act or expression of self that "marks" or makes the world. This expression, in a sense, uses the self up to create the world, translates the spirit into material form. Bynum's song, for example, consists in the act of binding people together, but this use of his song "cost[s] me a piece of myself every time I do it." The use of self to create the world does not really entail the sacrifice or loss of self, however, but leads rather to that self's realization. As Bynum puts it at one point, "[I] got so I used all of myself up in the making of that song. Then I was the song in search of itself." Because the world created through the individual's song is a place in which the self is reflected, a place in which the individual is able to see and know how to identify himself, to use the self in the expression of one's song is also to create and affirm that self.

Material oppression as it is depicted in Wilson's play denies this essential bond with the world of one's creation and, consequently, the being of the subject who creates the world. To be defrauded of the products of one's labor, or to see that creation diminished (as that of Jeremy and the other musicians is in the guitar contest), is to be denied a reflection of individual worth and identity in the world. It is to be exiled from self and world together. This alienation and displacement of the individual, moreover, is accompanied by the severing of relationships and the fragmentation of community. "People cling to each other out of the truth they find themselves," Bynum says at one point. Hence, if they have been separated from this truth through the operation of oppression, their capacity to bond with one another, to form friendships, couples, families, or a people, is undermined. The social effects of the alienation felt by Wilson's characters are expressed in their stories of broken relationships and in the uncertainty or suspicion that they feel toward one another. As Seth puts it, "Anybody liable to be anything as far as I'm concerned."

The connection between oppression, alienation from self and inability to form bonds with others is clearest in the character of Herold Loomis, the hero of Wilson's play. Accompanied by his young daughter, Loomis arrives at Seth's boarding house while searching for his wife, Martha. Loomis became separated from his wife ten years earlier when he was imprisoned and forced to work on a chain gang for seven years by a white man named Joe Turner. When Loomis was finally released, he returned to the farm where he had been a sharecropper to find that little remained of his former life. Though he found his daughter in the home of his wife's mother, his wife had gone to the North with the church. Taking his daughter with him, Loomis went in search of his wife, but he also sought himself and the ability to connect with others. Joe Turner had separated Loomis not only from his family and the life in which he knew himself but, in a more fundamental way, from his sense of self-worth and identity. Turner's ability to oppress Loomis carried a judgment of non-worth which a guard made explicit: "He told me I was worthless." This judgment of worthlessness, which Loomis was forced to accept by the reality of the white man's power, has "marked" Loomis as "one of Joe Turner's niggers" at the same time that it has caused him to forget "how he's supposed to mark down life." It has, in other words, transformed Loomis from a subject into an object, a condition in which he remains bound to Joe Turner even after he has been released.

Marked by Joe Turner as a worthless object without agency or power, Loomis is not only alienated from himself but displaced from his relation to the world, for the world is home only to selves able to create it in their own image. He is unable to establish bonds with people around him ("I done forgot how to touch," he tells Mattie Campbell), and he wanders without a clear sense of either his origin or destination. Asked where he is from, Loomis replies: "Come from all over. Whicheverway the road take us that's the way we go." Deprived of a place in the world through oppression, Loomis is "bound up to the road." By finding the wife he has lost, Loomis hopes to reconnect with the past life which had grounded his identity and, in this way, to find a "starting place" for remaking the self in the future. As Loomis tells Martha when he finally sees her, "now that I see your face I can say my goodbye and make my own world."

In his search for the past and himself, Loomis enlists the services of a white traveling salesman or trader named Selig, who, besides selling pots and pans he purchases from Seth, hires himself as a "people finder" to blacks looking for lost loved ones. For a dollar fee, Selig writes down the name and description of the missing person and watches for that person as he travels around the country selling his wares. If one of the purchasers of his goods happens to be on Selig's list of missing persons, then that person has been "found" and can be reunited with Selig's client. By performing this service for African Americans in search of one another, Selig follows a calling he has inherited from his father and grandfather. As he tells Loomis,

[W]e been finders in my family for a long time. Bringers and finders. My great-grandaddy used to bring Nigras across the ocean on ships…. My daddy, rest his soul, used to find runaway slaves for the plantation bosses…. After Abraham Lincoln give you all Nigras your freedom papers and with you all looking all over for each other … we started finding Nigras for Nigras.

In a recent interview in which he was asked if Selig is an evil figure, Wilson replied, "[H]e's not evil at all. In fact, he's performing a very valuable service for the community." Given the continuity between Selig's "finding" and that performed by his father and grandfather, Wilson's defense of his character and his commercial sideline seems disingenuous. And the play presents Selig's people finding in quite another light.

In order to be "found" by Selig, a black man or woman must first buy something from him, must, that is, enter the market economy as customer. While this leveling of identity within economic relations does not reproduce quite the radical denial of intrinsic human worth entailed in the professions of Selig's ancestors, the parallel nevertheless seems clear. The economic system represented by Selig, a system which exploits and excludes blacks, is one that they can be "found" in only as "Nigras." And to be found in this way is to experience the same alienation from self and community that created the need for Selig's services in the first place. As Bertha Holly informs Loomis after he has hired Selig to find his wife,

You can call him a People Finder if you want to. I know Rutherford Selig carries people away too…. Folks plan on leaving plan by Selig's timing. They wait till he get ready to go, then they hitch a ride on his wagon. Then he charge folks a dollar to tell them where he took them. Now, that's the truth of Rutherford Selig. He ain't never found nobody he ain't took away.

Selig represents economic forces which not only exploit African Americans but deny their intrinsic worth as persons, in the terms of the dichotomy discussed above, as spirit. Though these forces may not be self-consciously "evil," the injury they inflict through indifferent exploitation resembles that inflicted by Joe Turner's more direct oppression.

If the search for the past and self through the economic system represented by Selig seems to be doomed to failure, a second possibility for self-recovery is presented through Bynum's account of how he learned "the Secret of Life" and discovered his essential self or "song." Bynum's experience of revelation and self-recovery is described in terms of a spiritual journey. While walking along a road, Bynum met a man who, saying he has not eaten for three days, asked him for food and for information about the road Bynum had come by. The stranger then offered to show Bynum "the Secret of Life" and led him back the way he, Bynum, had come. The stranger was able to serve as guide on this unfamiliar road because he had "a voice inside him telling him which way to go." After cleansing Bynum's hands with blood, the stranger led him to a place where "everything was bigger than life" and there left him, disappearing in a light streaming from his body so that Bynum "had to cover up my eyes to keep from being blinded." After the "shiny man" left, the spirit of Bynum's father appeared and took over his instruction, taking him to an ocean where he witnessed "something I ain't got words to tell" and teaching him how to find his song. Bynum chose "the Binding Song," he tells Selig, "because that's what I seen most when I was traveling … people walking away and leaving one another." Possession of this song conferred on Bynum both a new identity and a unique task in the world: "Been binding people ever since. That's why they call me Bynum."

Bynum's narrative of revelation and self-recovery resembles Afro-Baptist conversion narratives. In these narratives, according to Michael Sobel [in Trabelin' On: The Slave Journey to an Afro-Baptist Faith], a "seeker" makes a journey that leads him not only to rebirth in Christ but to recovery of his essential self, "the 'little me' in the 'big me.'" Though unique, this self is also a manifestation of a collective spirit that, Sobel suggests, "the Black had brought … with him from Africa, not as a deity but in his own inner self.'" By recovering the 'little me,' the convert is both reborn in Christ and "brought … back to his African heritage." As in Afro-Baptist conversion, the self recovered by Bynum was both unique (his personal "song") and already there and waiting for him as part of his African heritage, a self related to an ancestral or ethnic past. Thus, the place where Bynum was taught "the Secret of Life" and learned how to find his song was one that lay on a road Bynum had already traveled, and he received instruction from an ancestor, the spirit of his father. As "the One Who Goes Before and Shows the Way," the shiny man was potentially both spiritual guide and spiritual ancestor.

Elements of Bynum's narrative of revelation and self-recovery evoke the Biblical story of Saul's transformative encounter with a risen Christ on the road to Damascus. Reading Bynum's story through the Biblical one suggests that the shiny man who guided Bynum toward his song and then disappeared in blinding light was a Christ figure from whom Bynum received a new identity, just as Saul, the persecutor of Christians, was transformed into Paul, the great preacher of the gospel. Bynum himself, according to this paradigm, would be a reborn Paul and his "binding song" the task of uniting African Americans in anticipation of a returning savior or messiah. Bynum does, in fact, hope to see the shiny man again, but the person and the advent he waits for do not have quite the meaning that they have in the Biblical paradigm. If the shiny man is a messiah figure, he is not an otherworldly or even exceptional individual. As Bynum tells Selig, "I ain't even so sure he's one special fellow. That shine could pass on to anybody. He could be anybody shining." The shiny man is an ordinary man who, possessing his song as "a voice inside him telling him which way to go," is able to guide others toward repossession of their songs, toward becoming shiny men in their own right. And since "that shine could pass on to anybody," the shiny man is also the individual who has not yet found his song, one who searches for himself. That search takes place in the world, and for Bynum to see the shiny man "again" means assisting that search by acting as the shiny-man guide to another. Seeing the shiny man again does not entail Bynum's deliverance from the world but confirmation of his contribution to it. As Bynum's father told him, "There was lots of shiny men and if I ever saw one again before I died then I would know that my song had been accepted and worked its full power in the world…."

The shiny man is an ordinary individual who seeks himself or is sought by others in the world, so it is not entirely strange that Bynum engages Selig's help in this search, paying him a dollar to find that shiny man for him. Given that this search is for an individual's self, song or soul, however, Bynum's use of Selig's services is highly ironic, and his greetings to the "People Finder" carry more than a hint of sarcasm:

Bynum: If it ain't the People Finder himself.

Selig: Bynum, before you start … I ain't seen no shiny man now.

Bynum: Who said anything about that? I ain't said nothing about that. I just called you a first-class People Finder.

Selig cannot find the shiny man because neither he nor the economic system he represents is able to recognize African Americans as persons or individuals. Bynum's description of the shiny man as "anybody shining" is an affirmation of the intrinsic value of each individual. The shiny man could be anybody because each individual possesses the potential for self-realization which the shiny man represents. Selig's observation that "there's lots of shiny Nigras," by contrast, implies that African Americans are indistinguishable from one another, that they are, in fact, not individual subjects but bodies that are ultimately the same body: "The only shiny man I saw was the Nigras working on the road gang with the sweat glistening on them" (emphasis added).

Though the economic system which Selig represents cannot see black persons, the shiny man cannot be found wholly outside that system since persons realize themselves in a world of concrete material relations. Bynum acknowledges the material basis of the search for self in his employment of Selig and in his description of the shiny man as one who "shine like new money." The shiny man's spiritual or inner shine cannot be divorced from the material or economic world, but it also transforms it, makes it serve the expression of soul, self, or song. Bynum uses Selig, then, but he does not rely on him, and the real "People Finder," as Bynum hints at one point, is Bynum himself: "I binds them [people] together. Sometimes I help them find each other."

Bynum can act as "People Finder," however, only to people who carry within themselves a sense of their own humanity. He can act as a spiritual guide only to the "anybody" who already searches for himself. As a man cut off from self and community, seeking himself through the recovery of the past, Herold Loomis is that anybody, as Seth unconsciously reveals when he voices suspicions about Loomis's identity: "Anybody can tell anybody anything about what their name is. That's what you call him … Herald Loomis. His name liable to be anything." Though Seth's distrust expresses the fragmentation of community that accompanies the self-alienation of its members, a community of anybodies is also one that might cohere as its members find their own identities through a past that is collective. Since Loomis is the anybody who could be the shiny man, his search and Bynum's are the same. Loomis is searching for himself through recovery of the past, and Bynum is searching for the man whom he can guide to himself and whose self-recovery will validate the efficacy of Bynum's own song, its "power in the world." The search for the shiny man is a collaborative and, indeed, a collective project, for the self that is its object can be found only in a past that is held in common with others.

Searching for the self in the past presupposes that the past is one which can ground a self, that it was made by other selves whose agency can function as the precedent for and promise of one's own. Initially, Loomis is unable to see the collective African-American past in this way, as can be observed in a powerful scene that begins when the lodgers of Seth's boarding house perform a variant of the "ring shout," an Afro-Christian ritual in which frenzied dance and ecstatic shouts mediated an experience of possession or inspiration by the Holy Ghost (Sobel). When Loomis walks in on this dance, he is angrily contemptuous of the boarders' evocation of a past which he clearly considers to have been marked by passive suffering and useless piety: "You singing for the Holy Ghost tocome? What he gonna do huh? He gonna come with the tongues of fire to burn up your wooly heads?" Loomis, however, is fundamentally connected to the past and people he scorns, and his own challenge, giving way to dance, glossolalia and a visionary trance, merges with and continues the act of the collective memory which he has interrupted. The lodgers' ecstatic ritual, in fact, produces precisely the state of trance and vision which it was originally intended to, and the vision which Loomis witnesses is given expression in a collective act, a call-and-response exchange between Loomis and Bynum:

Bynum: What you done seen, Herald Loomis?

Loomis: I done seen bones rise up out of the water. Ride up and walk across the water. Bones walking on top of the water.

Bynum: Tell me about them bones, Herald Loomis. Tell me what you seen

Asking questions, prompting, repeating images and phrases, interpreting earlier lines, Bynum is essential to the realization of Loomis's vision as more than a private experience.

The past evoked in Loomis's vision is one which affirms the possibility of agency Loomis has defined. Briefly, Loomis's vision records two journeys. The first is a journey of bones traveling across a body of water, a journey symbolizing the trans-Atlantic voyage in which Africans, enslaved and taken from their homes, both died by the thousands and were treated as mere bodies without identity of human worth: "Wasn't nothing but bones and they walking on top of the water." The enslaved Africans of Loomis's vision do not remain insentient bones however. The bones sink into the ocean from which they are then resurrected as bodies with flesh and restored to life by a wind that fills them with breath or spirit. Resurrected, the Africans then begin a second journey which requires individual agency and decision. Standing up from the shore of the New World where a wave has thrown them, the Africans bid each other goodbye and leave the place to pursue their different paths: "They shaking hands and saying goodbye to each other and walking every whichaway down the road."

Loomis's vision is one which affirms the presence of agency in the African-American past, suggesting that it is not one of victimization alone, but of agency and self-empowerment. The vision suggests, moreover, that even the history of victimization can be and has been redeemed. The people of Loomis's vision exercise agency not only in the present following their resurrection, but in relation to the past that brought them to the New World. By beginning a second journey which parallels or repeats the first but adds the new dimension of choice and self-determination, the people of the vision change the meaning of the past, remake it retrospectively. This re-creation of the past might be called an act of transformative repetition such as is embodied in the call-and-response form itself. Moving from statement to repetitionand restatement, the call-and-response exchange shared by Loomis and Bynum continually remakes itself as it develops, symbolically remaking the events which are its theme.

This history of self-empowerment is Loomis's by right of inheritance, for the people of his vision are his people: "They black. Just like you and me. Ain't no difference." But the connection that justifies the claim of copossession of historical agency seems to go beyond inheritance and precedent, as Loomis becomes not simply like his ancestors but one of them:

Loomis: They ain't moved or nothing. They just laying there.

Bynum: You just laying there. What you waiting on, Herald Loomis?

Loomis: I'm laying there … waiting.

Bynum: What you waiting on, Herald Loomis?

Loomis: I'm waiting on the breath to get into my body.

Here the collapse of differences of time and identity would seem to open the possibility of re-entering and enacting the past in order to fully claim its legacy of self-empowerment. Loomis, however, is not yet able to claim this legacy by standing up with the people of his vision. The part of the vision in which the Africans stand up, say goodbye to one another, and depart on their different journeys is recounted by Bynum alone, suggesting that this part of history does not yet exist for Loomis and cannot exist until he realizes it through an act of his own.

Before Loomis can claim the legacy of empowerment left him by his ancestors, he must confront and understand his own experience of oppression: seven years of false imprisonment and forced labor on the chain gang of Joe Turner, brother to the governor of Tennessee. Though this experience is part of Loomis's personal past, it is not one that he has suffered alone, but with the men imprisoned with him, those who lived in fear of imprisonment and the families deprived of their men. Loomis's experience, then, is once again part of a collective past, a past preserved for collective memory in a song. The refrain of this song is, "They tell me Joe Turner's come and Gone." As sung by "the women … down around Memphis" who "made up that song," the song is a testimony of loss. If "Joe Turner's come and gone," then husbands, sons, fathers and brothers have been taken away from their families. By singing this song, Bynum uses collective memory to confront Loomis with his personal loss and with the way this loss still affects him:

Now, I can look at you, Mr. Loomis, and see you a man who done forgot his song. Forgot how to sing it. A fellow forget that and he forget who he is. Forget how he's supposed to mark down life…. See, Mr. Loomis, when a man forgets his song he goes off in search of it … till he find out he's got it with him all the time. That's why I can tell you one of Joe Turner's niggers. 'Causeyou forgot how to sing your song.

Bynum's suggestion that a song of loss and victimization has displaced Loomis's own song and that Loomis is still in bondage to Turner, still "one of Joe Turner's niggers," provokes first violent denial, then implicit acknowledgement as Loomis recounts the story of his imprisonment, his release to find nothing left of his former life and his efforts to see his wife once more so that he can begin again: "I just wanna see her face so I can get me a starting place in the world." By acknowledging the past, Loomis is enabled to confront the judgment of worthlessness which keeps him bound to Joe Turner and counter it with his own truth. Joe Turner did not catch and keep him for seven years because he was "worthless": "Worthless is something you throw away…. I ain't seen him throw me away." Rather, it was envy of Loomis's song that led Joe Turner to imprison him. As Bynum puts it, "What he [Joe Turner] wanted was your song. He wanted that song to be his…. But you still got it. You just forgot how to sing it."

Once Loomis has understood the past in which he was victimized and has rejected the judgment of worthlessness which oppression forced upon him, it remains for him to say "goodbye" to what he has lost and reclaim the self that Joe Turner has not been able to take away. What Loomis has lost is the life he had with his wife, Martha, before Joe Turner entered it. He cannot reclaim that life except as a past he confirms by seeing Martha again: "I just wanted to see your face to know that the world was still there. Make sure everything still in its place so I could reconnect myself together." Loomis must "say goodbye" to Martha and the world they made, but this goodbye is everything. By relinquishing the past, Loomis also reclaims it as his own, in a sense, nullifying Joe Turner's expropriation. Loomis's declaration, "Well, Joe Turner's come and gone and Herald Loomis ain't for no binding," transforms the meaning of the words sung by women whose men had been taken away. The words no longer communicate present loss but consign Joe Turner to a history of which Loomis is the subject. Repossessed of the past, Loomis is no longer its victim but the measure of its meaning, free to judge it and reject what seems false, including the Christian faith that Martha tries to lead him back to:

Great big old white man … your Mr. Jesus Christ. Standing there with a whip in one hand and a tote board in another, and them niggers swimming in a sea of cotton. And he counting. He tallying up the cotton. "Well, Jeremiah … what's the matter, you ain't picked but two hundred pounds of cotton today? Got to put you on half rations." And Jeremiah go back and lay up there on his half rations and talk about what a nice man Mr. Jesus Christ is 'cause he give him salvation after he die. Something wrong here. Something don't fit right!

Loomis rejects Christian promises of salvation as complicit with African Americans' historical oppression and, declaring that "I don't need nobody to bleed for me!" slashes himself across the chest. This declaration of self-sufficiency and of break with thepieties of the past is also one in which Loomis reconnects with a collective identity and a heritage of self-empowerment: he finds that "I'm standing now" just as the ancestors in his vision had stood up. Reclaiming himself and translating a collective past to the present, Loomis becomes indeed the shiny man who knows his own song and, "shining like new money," shows the way (94).


August Wilson Drama Analysis