Critical Context (Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 418

August Wilson’s voice is one of the most exciting and inspiring in modern American theater. His plays have won numerous prizes and awards, including two Pulitzer Prizes, seven New York Drama Critics Circle Awards, and a Tony Award. What distinguishes Wilson from his contemporaries is his sensitivity, sharpened by his...

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August Wilson’s voice is one of the most exciting and inspiring in modern American theater. His plays have won numerous prizes and awards, including two Pulitzer Prizes, seven New York Drama Critics Circle Awards, and a Tony Award. What distinguishes Wilson from his contemporaries is his sensitivity, sharpened by his awareness of and determination to celebrate African American culture. He has a sharp ear for a language that is as colorful as the African American experience itself, and his sense of humor is compassionate, mesmerizing, and entertaining at the same time.

Wilson’s awareness of his social responsibility as an artist is reflected both in his efforts to historicize African American experience in the twentieth century and in his interest in using theater to record African American culture. Wilson once announced that he intended to write a play for every decade of the twentieth century, focusing each on a critical aspect of the black experience in the United States. Each of Wilson’s full-length plays is set in a different era.

Each of Wilson’s six long plays is also representative of the principal social concerns of its period. Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (pr. 1986, pb. 1988) concerns the impact of black migration from the southern agrarian way of life to the large industrial cities of the North in search of freedom, dignity, and economic opportunities in the first decade of the twentieth century. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (pr. 1984, pb. 1985) is about the aspirations of African American artists for control of their own destiny and autonomy during the 1920’s. The Piano Lesson, set in the 1930’s, concerns African Americans’ attempts to make peace with their past. Seven Guitars (pr. 1995, pb. 1996) is about black musicians finding success and then seeing their dreams dashed, thanks to poverty, violence, and social injustice during the 1940’s. Fences (pr., pb. 1985), set during the 1950’s, is about the black struggle to survive in a society whose prejudice had prevented talented African Americans from achieving their dreams. Two Trains Running (pr. 1990, pb. 1992) centers on the black political struggles and entrepreneurial adventures during the 1960’s.

Wilson’s theater also provides African Americans with opportunities to reorient themselves toward the restoration of their African self-consciousness. Wilson’s use of the African American vernacular tradition in his plays serves two purposes: It concretizes onstage the richness of black oral tradition, and it enables African American audiences to resituate themselves in history, to remind themselves of their current position in society, and to celebrate their cultural identity.

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