Arts - Winter 2006

The One Who Went Before

Remembering the playwright August Wilson, 1945-2005

By Elizabeth Alexander | December 1, 2005


Something was happening in New Haven, Connecticut, in the halcyon spring of 1984. Creative black people seemed to be everywhere, in earnest conversation over endless cups of coffee, talking big and doing big, believing in culture and its power and possibility. The Afro-American Cultural Center at Yale—then and now known affectionately as the House—opened its doors to this burgeoning creativity. As a college senior at the time, I was editing a magazine based at the House called Ritual and Dissent, and today I am amazed when I look in its pages: original interviews, conducted that year in New Haven, with Wole Soyinka, Audre Lorde, and Melvin Dixon as well as stories and poems and reviews by writers and scholars who went on to great acclaim, all of us products of that remarkable time and place.

That spring came a play by a new playwright named August Wilson. We’d see him around New Haven, wearing some variety of old-school hat, drinking coffee, and writing in notebooks, or sitting quietly in the back of rehearsals, many of which were held right at the House. Angela Bassett and Charles “Roc” Dutton had performed scenes from Shakespeare at the House; its imposing, Gothic “enormous room” was beautifully suited to theater. Now in that same space, as well as at the University School of Drama, with those same actors and others, Lloyd Richards was rehearsing the Wilson play.

Of course we all knew who Lloyd Richards was. The legendary director was not only dean of the Yale School of Drama at the time but also the director of the 1959 Broadway production of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, starring Sidney Poitier, Diana Sands, Ruby Dee, and others in the black theater firmament. He was American theater royalty and a black theater deity. But this playwright, this new guy, this August Wilson, was something else, working right here in our hothouse. Even as a college senior, I knew when the curtain fell on those first performances of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom that something not just important but shifting had happened. We’d spent two hours (or probably three, because Wilson plays ran famously long in their early incarnations) in a Chicago recording studio in the 1920s, at the dawn of recorded jazz and blues and thus a new era for African-American popular culture, and we had listened to characters with historical integrity talk, really talk, about profound issues of black progress. No matter the decade, no matter the characters, all of August Wilson’s plays ask black people: Where do we go from here? What is progress? Can we do it together? What is our inheritance? Lest you imagine that talk as dissertational, however, August Wilson makes characters named Slow Drag and Levee and Toledo and Cutler woof, lie, and signify, in the great oral tradition of Negro talk in the spaces we’ve made our own.

I went to the premiere of Radio Golf this past spring at the Yale Repertory Theater. It would be Wilson’s last opening in New Haven before his death at age 60 on October 2, and the play was the 10th and final of his 20th-century cycle. The curtain came up on the same stage where I’d seen Ma Rainey. This time the milieu (for in Wilson’s plays, workplaces were spaces where human beings speak their minds and hearts) was an office in which people came in and out singing their arias (metaphorically speaking), and the same questions were raised, approached from different angles: What does black progress mean if it does not attempt to bring along a community and respect a community? What do we need to know and bring forward from our history? And why is none of this a straightforward enterprise? In Radio Golf, the discursive tug of war (or the rational distance) between Harmon Wilks and Elder Joseph Barlow does not yield easy or immediate answers to these questions. This is apt, for we have not yet overcome, nor reached the promised land. The play ends on a hopeful note, with family ties revealed between the “progress-seeking” bourgeoisie and the materially dispossessed “folk.” Wilson sees black people of different classes as necessarily connected. The folk character in this play gets all the good lines, but he does not have the answers. Difficult interactions across class lines move the community closer together—connections made tenuously, perhaps, with the string and Scotch tape of conversation.

In Elder Joseph Barlow we have a familiar Wilson type: the street poet, corner philosopher, mother wit, or half-wit character he writes like no one else. Wilson understood the street-corner poets with rural Southern roots who abound in urban America, and he imbues them with a Southern sense of the aphoristic and the mysterious, that kind of hyperbole and non-sequitur that tends toward wisdom. “I want my ham!” is a cri de coeur from his play Two Trains Running, and it is not just idle exclamation, but an existential howl, time signature, grace note, cypher. Levee’s obsession with his footwear in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom shows us that a pair of shoes is not always only a pair of shoes. Wilson understood the symbolic dimensions in which everyday life presents itself to us if we pay attention. The metaphorical is ever present, which is to say that life and its lessons are not always best apprehended straight on but rather after the groundwork of associative thinking or attuned listening. When, in the play Fences, Troy Maxon makes his speech about fences, we understand how the most quotidian and familiar objects give us a way to think about historical wrongs and the complex pride of character. In all Wilson’s plays, the men, especially, strive for dignity, despite the soul-crushing challenges they face and have faced for generations.

In The Piano Lesson, Wilson asks what we, as black people, do with our cultural and familial legacies, symbolized in the play by an elaborately carved piano whose decoration tells a story reaching back to slavery. He asks the question about black people in a specific historical context, and that is part of what is extraordinary about his work. While white people—indeed anybody—can, of course, hear the question and appreciate the plays, he is speaking to black people, without winks or smiles, dilution or translation. What to do with our cultural legacy is, ultimately, our question. How families remember is our question. The press of history and its challenges is always present in a Wilson play, but he uses history to situate us in a moment where we might ask what we are to do next. So high, you can’t get over it/ so low you can’t get under it/ so wide, you can’t go around it. You gotta come in at the door. That is the truth of history.

When writing is called poetic, it usually means something conventionally beautiful and mellifluous in style. I would call Wilson a poetic writer in the way he understands the poetics of speech and how he recognizes the potent allusiveness of conversation. The stage directions that open Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom point to the kind of rich talk to come and also to the grand historical sweep in which Wilson worked: “Chicago in 1927 is a rough city, a bruising city, a city of millionaires and derelicts, gangsters and roughhouse dandies, whores and Irish grandmothers who move through its streets fingering long black rosaries. Somewhere a man is wrestling with the taste of a woman in his cheek. Somewhere a dog is barking. Somewhere the moon has fallen through the window and broken into thirty pieces of silver.” Spoken language is rich and nuanced and oratorical in the traditions of black talk Wilson feeds on, and thus is his prose poetic.

One aspect of African-American history is a melancholia that comes from the interruption—the violent fissure of the Middle Passage and its subsequent soul-annihilating indignities. The
never-to-be-resolved fissure, the never-to-be-known homeland, coexist with the great possibilities of reinvention that gave the world jazz and blues, music heavily influenced by African music but utterly, yes, purely, completely, African-American, which is to say American. Our death came at the bottom of the ocean and then at the hands of the brutal slave system and of Jim Crow, and then at the hands of the police and of each other. That’s a lot of unending blues. Wilson is always attuned to the “sea of bones”: that it is there, that it is unresolved, that it is a crossroads, that it presses on the present, that it forms a hieroglyphics that the griot needs to unlock in order to prophesy.

I think of poet Gwendolyn Brooks’s wonderful words—“I am a black. I am one of the Blacks. We occur everywhere. Don’t call me out of my name”—and her wish that to be called black links her to other African people, diasporized and not. Does that linkage hold? Is our wish for it to hold sentimental? What is the motherland that each of us may wish for, and what does it mean to try to heal that need with words, deeds, and culture, our bottle trees and shell-studded graves? Wilson’s genius as a writer was his ability to keep the listening ear open, both for the literal sounds of the oral tradition he clearly loved as well as for a proverbial logic and structure that must be called African. In grappling with the literary possibilities of a realist theater, trying consistently to bring the spoken word into the written form, Wilson consistently brought the genius of African-American language into his plays.

In some ways, August Wilson doesn’t feel like a writer of the 1980s, a decade not known for its attention to history. But it was in the ’80s—when so much was new, when theory and multiculturalism were changing the arts dramatically, when the shape of art went in a million different directions—that Wilson began his un-trendy but radical project of looking to the past. It took vision to recognize, as he did, that until we examine our history we will not be able to look or move forward. And looking at that history is also how we come to recognize our seers. In a ravishing speech about “the secret of life” in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, the rootworker Bynum Walker says: “[M]y daddy taught me the meaning of this thing that I had seen and showed me how to find my song. He told me he was the One Who Goes Before and Shows the Way. Said 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 and I could lay down and die a happy man. A man who done left his mark on life . . . So I takes the power of my song and binds [people] together.” Some part of the artist knew that the moment had come when the century could be surveyed, intimately and in the terms and language of black urban folks whose wisdom was sometimes practical and sometimes potently mystical.

Wilson audaciously redefined the American theater canon in just 25 years. He finished the cycle he began, one play for each decade of the 20th century, and while it does not make up for his absence from our midst, let alone for the absent promise of more words, he chiseled something in granite that will stand like Shakespeare. I wonder what he might have said about evanescence and black culture, the way so much of our genius is neglected or misnamed, misplaced, destroyed. Wilson’s genius is at hand; he built his own boat to last.

I am satisfied to have watched him from a short distance 25 years ago and to be able to say today that I was right: something very important was happening. This was a shiny man, humbly telling the village’s tales. He revered the word, and the brilliance with which black people have shaped it. He knew a good story when he saw one. His narrative sense was unerring. He loved black people enough to celebrate us and challenge us. Loving black people to my mind means loving humanity. My favorite-ever quote of his—and he made many rich and profound statements—is one that makes me catch my breath before writing, humble before the task at hand and also wild-eyed with the excitement and ambition his words inspire. He said, “You have responsibilities as a global citizen. Your history dictates your duty. And by writing about black people, you are not limiting yourself. The experiences of African-Americans are as wide open as God’s closet.”
In his work and in his deeds, August Wilson was what the old folks call a righteous man.

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