Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2156
Critics have hailed August Wilson as an important talent in the American theater since the mid- 1980s. He spent his childhood in poverty in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he lived with his parents and five siblings. Though he grew up in a poor family, Wilson felt that his parents withheld knowledge of even greater hardships they had endured. “My generation of blacks knew very little about the past of our parents,” he told the New York Times in 1984. “They shielded us from the indignities they suffered.” Wilson’s goal was to illuminate that shadowy past with plays that focus on black issues. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Fences, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, The Piano Lesson, Two Trains Running, and Seven Guitars are part of this ambitious project.
Wilson noted that his real education began when he was sixteen years old. Disgusted by the racist treatment he endured in the various schools he had attended until that time, he dropped out and began educating himself in the local library. Working at menial jobs, he also pursued a literary career and successfully submitted poems to black publications at the University of Pittsburgh. In 1968 he became active in the theater by founding—despite lacking prior experience—Black Horizons on the Hill, a theater company in Pittsburgh. Recalling his early theater involvement, Wilson described himself to the New York Times as “a cultural nationalist . . . trying to raise consciousness through theater.”
According to several observers, however, Wilson found his artistic voice—and began to appreciate the black voices of Pittsburgh—after he moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1978. In St. Paul Wilson wrote his first play, Jitney!, a realistic drama set in a Pittsburgh taxi station. Jitney!, noted for the fidelity with which it portrayed black urban speech and life, had a successful engagement at a small theater in Pittsburgh. Wilson followed Jitney! with another play, Fullerton Street, but this work failed to strengthen his reputation.
Wilson then resumed work on an earlier unfinished project, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a play about a black blues singer’s exploitation of her fellow musicians. This work, whose title role is named after an actual blues singer from the 1920s, is set in a recording studio in 1927. In the studio, temperamental Ma Rainey verbally abuses the other musicians and presents herself—without justification—as an important musical figure. But much of the play is also set in a rehearsal room, where Ma Rainey’s musicians discuss their abusive employer and the hardships of life in racist America.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom earned Wilson a trip to the O’Neill Theatre Center’s National Playwrights Conference. There Wilson’s play impressed director Lloyd Richards from the Yale Repertory Theatre. Richards worked with Wilson to refine the play, and when it was presented at Yale in 1984 it was hailed as the work of an important new playwright. Frank Rich, who reviewed the Yale production in the New York Times, acclaimed Wilson as “a major find for the American theater” and cited Wilson’s ability to write “with compassion, raucous humor and penetrating wisdom.”
Wilson enjoyed further success with Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom after the play came to Broadway later in 1984. Chicago Tribune contributor Richard Christiansen reviewed the Broadway production as “a work of intermittent but immense power” and commended the “striking beauty” of the play’s “literary and theatrical poetry.” Christiansen added that “Wilson’s power of language is sensational” and that Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was “the work of an impressive writer.” The London Times‘s Holly Hill agreed, calling Wilson “a promising new playwright” and hailing his work as “a remarkable first play.”
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