An Eloquent Form of Social Protest and Public Education
August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play (his second) The Piano Lesson demonstrates that commercially successful theater can be an eloquent vehicle for social protest and public education. Wilson’s early involvement in the Black Power movement and in black community theater, and his ambitious plan to write a cycle of plays about African-American life in the twentieth century, are proof of his desire to ‘‘alter the relationship between blacks and society through the arts.’’ His representation of black suffering, coupled with his celebration of black resistance and endurance, offers his audience a new representation of African-American history.
In the late-1960s, artists involved in counterculture movements resurrected the theater as a forum for political protest and a vehicle for social change. Many artists saw community theater as a means to reach out to their community and educate and politicize them. Wilson participated in the Black Power movement in the early-1960s and, like many artists during this period, he saw writing as a means to bring about social change. In 1968 Wilson cofounded the Black Horizons Theater in his homesuburb of the Hill in Pittsburgh.
Wilson found community theater at Black Horizons and, later at the Science Museum of Minnesota, a challenging experience. Throughout the 1970s he directed and wrote short plays for both these organizations, in the process perfecting his craft. Wilson was not content to remain involved in community organizations, however. He wanted the professional advice and support of the National Playwrights Center, and, after they rejected his plays several times, he finally won them over. The Center accepted a draft of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a play that became Wilson’s first commercial hit. Wilson’s shift from community theater to the comparative profitability of Broadway was either hailed as progress for black audiences and artists or seen as him selling-out to white expectations and commercial incentives. But close examination of Wilson’s oeuvre reveals that he maintained his original ideal: to educate his audience and to contribute positively to the African-American identity.
Wilson’s aesthetics are founded on a belief in the African-ness of black Americans and upon an emphasis upon reclaiming black history. He stated in an interview conducted shortly after the completion of The Piano Lesson (reprinted in In Their Own Words: Contemporary American Playwrights) that he hopes a viewer will ‘‘walk away from my play, whether you’re black or white, with the idea that these [characters] are Africans, as opposed to black folks in America.’’ Such an aim is in keeping with the black nationalist movement, which emphasizes the African roots of African Americans and the importance of African culture in sustaining generations of slaves. Wilson’s inclusion of African cultural and religious practices in his plays—Gabriel’s ritual dance in Fences, Berniece’s appeal to her ancestors’ spirits in The Piano Lesson—is just one way in which he emphasizes the ethnic roots of African Americans and rewrites their history from a black perspective.
Emphasizing such an African perspective necessarily involves recovering and re-examining black history in America. But Wilson’s desire to reclaim African-American history is complicated by the fact that many African Americans were long denied the literacy and education enjoyed by most white Americans. Not only did this mean that early black writers such as the poet Phyllis Wheatley and the abolitionist Frederick Douglass struggled against great odds to write, it also meant that until recently African- American history was mainly located in oral forms, such as spirituals, jazz songs and the blues, trickster stories, visions, conversion experiences, and folk tales. Wilson’s decision to include some of these forms in his plays evidences his commitment to valuing the diverse sources of black history and his desire to celebrate...
(The entire section is 4,297 words.)