“Despite my interest in history, I have always been more concerned with culture, and while my plays have an overall historical feel, their settings are fictions, and they are peopled with invented characters whose personal histories fit within the historical context in which they live.”
I have tried to extract some measure of truth from their lives as they struggle to remain whole in the face of so many things that threaten to pull them asunder. I am not a historian. I happen to think that the context of my mother’s life her myths, her superstitions, her prayers, the contents of her pantry, the smell of her kitchen, the song that escaped from her sometimes parched lips, her thoughtful repose and pregnant laughter are all worthy of art.”—August Wilson, note to Seven Guitars (1995)
Quick: name two black playwrights.
One, I imagine, would be simple, especially so these days. Alas: August Wilson (1945-2005). He of the prodigious cycle of plays chronicling black folks’ path through the 20th century (and, sometimes, vice versa); he of the poetic monologues from dreamers seeking a change in luck and the luckless haunted by dreams; he of Pittsburgh’s Hill District (a friend of mine from Pittsburgh used to wonder who this person known as “the-legendary-August-Wilson” was).
But now, to name another black playwright? My guess is that, unless theater by black people is part of your professional, social, or recreational life, you can’t do it.
To some respect, that’s like asking your average couch potato to name two foreign film directors or two photographers. We live in a culture that promotes the bejeezus out of entertainment and all but ignores art, unless the artist has crossed over into pop culture recognition (like Andy Warhol, another Pittsburgher), or ascended to institutional status (asked to name a composer, many would go for Bach or Mozart, but how many would proffer Steve Reich or John Adams?). Indeed, most folks would be hard-pressed to name two playwrights of any ethnicity, especially if you eliminated Shakespeare, Ibsen, Checkov, and the rest of the Dead European Playwrights Society. So it should not be surprising that many people would be stumped to name a black playwright beyond Wilson.
I’m not counting the likes of Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones when he wrote Dutchman) and James Baldwin writers for whom the play was only one of their things (although if those were the only names someone could suggest even after some hard consideration, I’d let it slide). A Raisin in the Sun (1959) was a major moment in American theater (and black culture), but the name of the play is far better known to most folks than the name of its author, Lorraine Hansberry. Suzan-Lori Parks won a Pulitzer Prize for Top Dog/Underdog , but outside the world of theater, only Mos Def fans (he starred in the original production) might show Ms. Lori-Parks even a glimmer of recognition. George C. Wolfe (Spunk, The Colored Museum) is well known in New York City arts circles and that’s about it. ntozake shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf was groundbreaking and controversial in its late ‘70s heyday, but it’s now almost a period piece. Heck, I’ll wager that not until Diary of a Mad Black Woman hit movie screens this year did many diehard gospel theater fans know specifically of Tyler Perry, the man responsible for a lot of the genre’s biggest hits, and his plays draw much larger black audiences than any black playwright mentioned thus far, including Wilson.
Why does Wilson loom so large over the world of theater by and about black people even though there is a long and substantial legacy of work by the playwrights listed above and so many others? And why is that world all but invisible to the rest of America? Part of it has to do with the art-vs.-entertainment dichotomy I’ve discussed previously in this space (see “The High and Low of Black Literature”) Another factor involves the sad fact that few people of any demographic in this nation are regular theater-goers these days, for a litany of reasons including the high cost of tickets (fueling the perception that “theater is something only rich people do”), the sense that “if the actors don’t look like me, the story won’t be relevant to me,” and the constant availability of cheaper and more familiar forms of entertainment (a big enough problem years before entertainment went online).
But the biggest reason Wilson comes foremost to our mind is Wilson’s work itself. Through a perfect storm of talent, timing, and connections, his plays found their way to a larger audience than most without Wilson having to build a reputation production-by-production, review-by-review, over the course of years. His work arrived into the mainstream theater world precisely when that world was most receptive to the opportunity this playwright presented. His works’ simple structural conceit a cycle of ten plays, one for each decade of the 20th Century gave audiences something to hang a hat on, look forward to, and follow over time. Once in the door, Wilson’s poetry and characterizations mesmerized them.
Wilson enjoyed what every artist on the globe would love to have: a friend in a very high place. That friend was director Lloyd Richards, who shepherded early plays like Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom(1982) and Fences(1985) at the Yale Repertory Theater. That relationship provided something else that every artist would love to have: a high-visibility, influential launching pad.
The success of the plays at the Yale Rep, and on Broadway from there, gave Wilson and Richards the imprimatur needed to convince the growing network of nonprofit, serious-minded professional theaters to add them to their schedules. This network of approximately 260 theaters across the country was at its strongest in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, before culture-war politics and budget cuts started whacking at their knees. They were committed to producing not only the classics of American theater, but new voices as well; many important playwrights, including the likes of Christopher Durang and Marcia Norman, emerged during these years.
Wilson was a godsend to these theaters because his plays gave them a way to address one of their most vexing problems. Their seasons and their audiences were virtually lily-white. Even during the good times, they could see the financial erosion coming with the graying of their core subscribers and the burgeoning entertainment options. The theaters knew they had to develop new revenue streams, which ultimately meant expanding their base, but that was no simple proposition. On the one hand, there was no way non-whites were ever going to turn out for their standard lineups of white playwrights and performers en masse, and the theaters knew that. But on the other hand, there was no way these theaters were ever going to book a slaphappy song-and-dance package fresh off the chitlin’ circuit, or an angry America-is-the-devil diatribe, or anything else that might make friendly overtures to an audience of color but would scare their older, moneyed patrons.
Enter Ma Rainey, with its historical distance (sometimes, it’s easier to look at things that happened in the past than at similar things happening now), its mix of humor and pathos, and its rich, original characters. The traditional theater audiences were met squarely within their comfort zones (at least by the play’s format), and black folk who had been staying away in droves finally had a reason to come. Encouraged and emboldened, theaters began booking productions by other black playwrights, even if no more than the one-black-play-a-season, usually-during-Black-History-Month de facto quota I’ve noted before. (See “10 Good Reasons to Celebrate Black History Month”) Still, of all the black playwrights produced at mainstream theaters in the 23 years since Ma Rainey,only Wilson achieved name recognition beyond the stage (a couple of Pulitzer Prizes don’t hurt, either).
Within the overall sphere of black pop culture, Wilson’s achievement is especially remarkable. Long before Halle Berry and Denzel Washington became first-name-basis movie stars, long before hip-hop took over the imaginations of suburban kids, Wilson was appealing to black and white audiences in his field at the same time. He didn’t have to prove his worth on the black side first. He took full advantage of an opportunity to speak on the most viable platform available to him, he established himself as an important figure, and he built an ageless body of work for people to study and enjoy well into the future. He is the only veritable franchise non-musical theater has produced since Neil Simon, and if they keep trying to make Broadway hits out of rock’s back catalog and old TV shows, he may be the last.
Wilson’s final plays in the cycle have yet to trickle down all the way to Middle America. King Hedley II and Gem of the Ocean are both less than five years old, and the concluding piece, Radio Golf, just premiered this summer. Some of the plays are clearly more powerful than others, some of the monologues in the later work border on speechifying (although it can be said that speechifying is what a lot of people do in real life, and Wilson was a champion of how everyday people lived their lives), but it’s awfully hard to have the same groundbreaking impact over the course of 10 distinct works of art, even if they’re thematically connected.
We really won’t be able to evaluate the cycle piece-by-piece, or as a whole, until some troupe, theater, or institution produces each of the plays in chronological order, in some form of extended repertory. That would be an awesome undertaking, possibly a budget buster, but one might think there’d be grantmakers and deep-pocketed supporters willing to help underwrite such a noble venture. Goodness knows that if I had the bucks, I’d be down in a heartbeat.
Finally, alas, August Wilson now takes his place in the pantheon of black arts and letters for the dignity he gave the blues singers, mill workers, rooming house owners, ex-cons, neighborhood eccentrics, and 300-year-old matriarchs among us. But he also belongs to our nation’s artistic heritage. His plays aren’t strictly lessons in history (a little cursory knowledge of the times in question deepens understanding and appreciation of the plots and predicaments, though), but rather they are tributes to the will of human beings to not be defined by that history, to come out on the other side of history if not triumphant, then at least proud and unbowed for having put up the fight.
Quick: name two American playwrights.