Every Wilson play I have directed is about Africans finding their song. The search for our lost song is a part of a conversation about movement literal and figurative both voluntary and involuntary. We have indeed lost our song and we often live without knowimg that there is a rhythm more fitting our growth that the raucous call of the material that one associates with spaces of concrete and neon. We have come to the city to trade on our song, we have put down our country ways, and we have lost our souls.
It is an illusion that all movement is progress. Our involuntary move from Africa to America was not a matter of progress for us although somehow we have tried to make the story end that way. Because those who colonize are in essence thieves who profit off the labor, talent, and natural resources of others our involuntary migration stripped us of all visible resources. Our song snugly stored in the soul sustained us through a holocaust. It allowed us to consider recreating ourselves. That thought is carried forth in our evolving language, our effervescence culture, our stumbling volatility in our continued containment and our song soaring above the heads and understanding of our captors.
In the third work of the Century Cycle, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Wilson spins out the base for the entire cycle. Although the work is third in the cycle it is the first of the ten Wilson wrote. His blues thoughts guide the rest of the cycle’s recurring themes and motif.
In Ma Rainey we see our restless quest that moves us in search of opportunity. We come from the south to the the urban centers of the mid-west, the east coast, the west coast, we come looking for a way up out of our no way. We are determined to rise above the meaness of poverty, the lack of opportunity, the mule like existence of constant servitude and lack of ownership. We come with hunger and hope. Some come to sell the song for the chance to build a future. Some have lost their song and are in search of it. Others have no idea they had a song or that it has gone missing. The latter are full of despair and they are dangerous to themselves and others. For them nothing goes right and we are all the blame for their constant and unrelenting misfortune. Young Levee in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom offers up his song and is crushed when the oppressors steals it from him in front of his face. Unlike young Citizen form Gem of the Ocean hot headed Levee does not recognize the power of the past to light the path to the future. Citizen is redeemed and follows the path that Solly Two Kings lays his life down to preserve. But Levee is deaf and blind he can’t see the wealth in the room he occupies. So when the white man breaks him he is so broken he kills the first black man that crosses his path. By killing Toledo the future kills the wisdom of the past and as the play ends we are left in disarray as Toledo representing the wisdom of the past lie dead. Levee, representative of the song of youth waiting to be sung, is left without a path to follow. Lost in the wilderness without his song. Like Herald Loomis in Joe Turner’s come and gone if he can’t recover his song he will wander lost forever.
Then there are those who gave away their song to become something that dosen’t exist. They gave up their culture to become the rulers over all they could take. They have accumulated great wealth yet they live in great spiritual poverty. It is these pale shadow people who seek the song of others to make them real. They buy songs but some how the songs wither and die away from the soul of the owner. This doesn’t stop their search for a song any song. Have you sold them yours?
Working with Wilson’s Century Cycle has helped me to locate my song. I value it more than ever. For me Wilson’s work is like finally coming home after being lost for a long time. It is confirmation for me. It makes my dreams of iron and water make sense. They say when the student is ready the teacher will appear. I understand that I am in conversation with ancient things. It is my job to keep the conversation going there are students looking for teachers.