I am often asked why August Wilson? Why did I decide to direct the American Century Cycle? I am producing the America’s greatest playwright’s seminal work in its entirety. I will be the first director to do so in chronological order of the 100 hundred years covered in what is often referred to as the Century Cycle. The answer to the why of it for me is both mystical and practical. Wilson’s work is a part of the progression of my artistic arc and because when the student is ready the teacher appears be the teacher living or dead.
Having intentionally placed an arts practice in a gentrifying community with a long history of being informed by art; as an artist who is also an activist I addressed the cyclical issues plaguing that community by the production and creation of art. I eventually moved intentionally into West Oakland after having lived there for periods in the past and after my arts practice found a place to live in community.
After adapting Shakespeare to make him relevant in a dissolving urban community and adapting James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry to make them matter in the current moment in Oakland; I saw a play set in the early 1900’s in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania that helped me give voice to why I had come to West Oakland on purpose with the purpose of holding an artistic dialog that I hoped might inform change making. This work required no adaptation to make it relevant. No change in site, not need to update it by including current issues, the work resonated across the country and the century.
The play was Gem of the Ocean by August Wilson. The angel who bought the ticket also built the 100 seat outdoor theater in which my theater company enjoyed residence. He had an affinity for Shakespeare and Wilson. It would be years before I would make the personal connection. It was not a leap Wilson is America’s Shakespeare. His work, like Shakespeare’s, will continue to gain momentum and patronage as long as it is performed which I hope is a good long time. As Shakespeare painted a picture of the European times in which he lived Wilson has painted a vivid portrait of the 20th Century in North America.
His chronicle of the 20th Century captures and synthesizes the North American African experience in America from emancipation through the current national wave of gentrification of urban centers. All the plays save Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom are set in Wilson’s home town community the Hill District in Pittsburgh, PA. The sole exception hints at something I knew when I chose West Oakland. All urban spaces have similar challenges and the narratives of these places is carried in the lives of ordinary people struggling to make home in the shadow of institutional and embodied racism, economic inequity, fear of personal safety under the spell of the American Dream in hot pursuit of “freedom and dignity”. West Oakland is emblematic of all North American “red-lined communities” as is Wilson’s Hill District.
They are distinct geographical places but if communities are viewed as more than land mass, if they are viewed as the collection of people who enliven the notion of community, then the Hill District and Oakland are very much the same place. When a people have a tenuous relationship with land ownership and are forced by circumstance to re-imagine what constitutes communal connection, the concept of Diaspora makes the thought that a community is a collection of people hold greater resonance than the thought that a community is contained in a mere land mass. The concept of Diaspora is a necessary lens for a people that have had no resting place since the days of cotton and ocean voyages in the holds of ships.
These North American land masses and others with similar history are the sites North American Africans came to rest in after fleeing oppression and in desperate search for opportunity. They are the geographical spaces where the American Dream failed us and we built in the face of that failure. They were home and places of containment in the same breath, places where wounds inflicted by the public sphere wrapped in the authority of law festered. The resultant trauma does not become a part of the permaculture it is transient, it is carried in the Diaspora, in racial memory predating birth, in communal consciousness, in the people.
America is two places. Its twoness is acknowledged most directly inside the nation in the nation. There is America writ large the home of the brave, with freedom, and justice for all. And there is the America of sundown towns, the America that dropped bombs on Black Wall Street in Oklahoma, the same America that burned and leveled the black section of Roseville Florida. These two geographical points stand out in a collection of black communities in North America that were destroyed by violent racist. The stories of some of those communities have died with the former residents. I am unsure how to synthesize these facts with the myth of America. I am most familiar with the nation that exist inside the nation the one that moves at the pleasure of America writ large in its presence and removed from that presence out of necessity keeps its own rhythm and itself. My America is the one that exist behind the veil. It is this America that is the topic of Wilson’s American Century Cycle.
In Wilson’s most important work he has digested the twentieth century and given it back to us in a way that makes the current moment very clear. He wants us to overstand how it is we are in these geographical places and how we might imagine embodying the truth of being”born free with dignity and everything.” Place, family, dignity, love, trust, honor and pragmatic hope are recurrent themes in Wilson’s work. In his attention to these themes we are also lead to explore their antithesis in North American reality. Wilson’s work is aimed at the diaphanous veil that divides the two Americas bringing them into dialog though the eyes of those who have become proficient in moving though the world Janus faced. In my opinion Wilson is the most important American playwright of the 20th century. His work, The American Century Cycle is the most expansive chronicle of American life in the history of American theater. His tale of America told from a view off center is the contextualization of my American song. It is the view from behind the veil. Wilson’s America is the nation in the nation. His view from off center affords a different vantage than the vantage afforded from the center of the public sphere. Wilson and I start from the same place. I have been walking in his shadow all along trying to understand and give voice to what he clearly overstands. My desire to help us understand how our now is at once a bitter travesty and a reason for hope and celebration is met in Wilson’s epic voyage through the 20th century.
The Importance of August Wilson in American Theater
DuBois speaks of the duality of Negritude in North America and those of us who are conscious behind the veil know that our twoness has followed us through the twentieth century into the new millennium. We are caught in a facade within a facade even in this dubiously titled post-race era, in possession of a President with African blood, and a North American African wife. Even his historic presidency is fraught with duality; the highest office in the land has never been the recipient of such odious disrespect, yet those the most disrespectful also claim to be the most American. It seems race is still a major issue in this “post-race” era. It seems we can’t language our race problem away. It remains onstage be it center or hovering in the wings it is a part of the story. Enter Wilson.
With a sweeping mastery of language he tells us a story laced with music, history, and folk wisdom as we travel though the history of America from the point of view of housekeepers, brick layers, musicians, soul washers, cooks, and impaired prophets. Wilson dances us through a century a decade at a time sampling the music, the dialect, the issues d’jour and the unending longing for honey in the land of milk and honey. Wilson shows us poverty along side wealth, hunger in souls to rival hunger in belly, the wealth in a song of self and other essential elements of our glorious humanity. He dresses our struggle in its Sunday best and sends it out to preach the gospel of us overcoming, failing, rallying, and soaring in the midst of obstacles and snares. Race travels better here than in our strained lived reality. But make no mistake it is center stage as it has been throughout the North American African experience in North America.
It begins with Aunt Ester, (Gem of the Ocean), washing weary souls who are in search of their songs. Most don’t even know they are looking. She told us how to be in a land where your song can get shook loose, she warns us everything ain’t what it seem. We better understand the importance of our song as we search for the shiny man to find him in Herald Loomis, (Joe Turner’s Come and Gone), once he is reunited with his song. Herald sends us the powerful message that we will have to learn to bleed for ourselves; we have to find wholeness. Ma Rainey lets women gain a limited access to the conversation that mostly turns around the trials of men yet can any tale of men be told without women, and remember Ester as mother to all. Ma Rainey allows us to consider the old and the new and how they cohabit and feed it other. The present is grown from the past. The future springs from the present. Sometimes the future fights with the past to be born. What becomes clearest is you must remember where you been to get to where you are going. It is important to remember. Wilson is big on memory. Boy Willie, (The Piano Lesson), weights the value of memory/legacy against the value of being able to invest in the present. His struggle illuminates our struggle to progress and to be rooted in memory/legacy. What does progress cost? Is it worth your song? Can you live in the world without your song. In Wilson’s cosmology it is unlikely. Your song and your soul weigh the same neither should be for sale. Progress without these elemental pieces of self yield characters like Caesar, (Gem of the Ocean), who lives in a narrow space beneath the contempt white people have for him and the contempt he has for those that look like him. Levee, (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), loses his mind when he discovers his song has been stolen and all he has is an empty promise. Floyd SchoolBoy Barton, (Seven Guitars), wants to barter his song for some comfort in his life. He does not want to live in a cold world. When all the ways seem blocked he makes his self a way out of no way. He takes a chance. Although it works out to be his last chance we are encouraged to believe God was pleased by his effort. Floyd, like Herald Loomis, delivers himself.
Sankofa: Go Back to Go Forward
Wilson like Shakespeare is a teacher, a poet, a preacher, and a sooth-sayer. He is the master magician who bends time and memory to his service and invites us to understand the significance and the meaning of the trick. In his skillful movement decade after decade he shows us how time has stood still in the Nation in the Nation only the clothes and music have changed.
Fences is the fifth work in the ten-play cycle, as a work it serves to take us from the recent past into a more recognizable moment within the 100 year cycle. This particular work for me seats the cyclical issues and the baggage explored in each installment firmly in the wheelhouse of my life time. It is in Fences where we see the historical burden of twoness jump into modernity fully dressed dragging its historical context behind it. We come to the place where our separateness is no longer the letter of the law but racism continues as a primary factor of lived reality in the North America we live in, the America your parents and grandparents lived in. We begin to comprehend the narrowness of the gate for black men who seem only able to succeed in entertainment or sports. Wilson points out the pitfalls in music outside of your control in Ma Rainey. In Fences he turns us to the history of sports in this country. Allowing us to view today with a contextualized sense of how our relationship to these industries is made.
In Fences, Troy Maxton has decided what paths are open and what paths are closed in life, and in his bitter disappointment he guards the boundaries of his son’s dreams seeking to keep him safe from the cost of dreams that can’t come true in a racist America. The tension between what has happened and what might happen in an America that seems new to each unconnected generation is underlined. Father and son stand in place of past and future beating each other to make sense of the present. If Wilson’s work is memory work he wants to help us understand the cost of reinventing the wheel with each generation. In Fences the idea of Aunt Ester who is the embodiment of African wisdom and our compass though this journey here, is carried in the character of Gabriel who is considered brain damaged (outside prevailing logic). He intercedes with St. Peter to open the gates of heaven for Troy, a man who tried the best he knew how to live and love with dignity and honor, but was found wanting by life. It is the artist son Lyons who remembers when Troy had a song and how tall that song made him. We are left to understand that the silencing of that song and the settling for living without it poisoned Troys spirit leaving him to wrestle with the certainty of death and never having fully lived. Viewing the cycle chronologically as whole cloth one could offer that Fences sets the last brick in the foundation of the cycle creating space for further conversation. Fences is also the production that marked the end of my producing work in West Oakland. At this juncture all funding for this work went away. In the middle of this play which marks the middle of the cycle I had to decide whether to continue.
2013 was a most challenging year. It was the year I discovered and began to consider forced migration in my life. The concepts of honor, duty, family, death, place and home, were center for me personally. And in fact where Wilson’s work was about to lead me was in keeping with the events of where I was in time and geographically. I knew West Oakland was gentrifying when I moved my practice here. The process was well under way at that time. It would occur to me later that my exodus from South Berkeley was also a forced migration related to gentrification. The latter half of the Century Cycle concerns has issues related to gentrification as an additional motif. At this point in my journey thorough the production of the cycle my black neighborhood has become a hipster destination. Traditional residents are fleeing in droves as a result of years of disinvestment, crime and horror stories exaggerating the crimes, because black boys are not just being incarcerated they are being murdered by police and each other.
The schools are underfunded and graduate fewer seniors each year. The law is oppressive and there have not been jobs for years and even in the face of gentrification there are still no jobs for those who live here beneath the federal poverty line. I clearly understand that our theater company is caught in this rip-tide I want to keep my practice here but we can’t find the traction to stay where we want to be. No appeals to the city, newly enfranchised artsy folk, or the general public seem to be able to keep us in West Oakland. I independently produced both Fences and the next work in the cycle Two Trains Running while trying to find a place for the oldest North American Theater troupe in Oakland to continue to produce theater. The August Wilson Center in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania is fighting to stay out of receivership and it could just be in my head, my heighten sense of awareness or a fact, that more Wilson is being produced since I committed to the production of the entire cycle in order. As a displaced artist in preparation for Jitney at a new venue in what’s now called Uptown (used to be plain old downtown) Wilson continues to mentor me.
Master Wilson and the Willing Pupil
As the community I tenuously continue to live in after my arts practice has moved uptown transforms I have begun to understand things I have never considered. Things like complex trauma, the lack of resting place for the marginalized, the significance and importance of your song, and above all the importance of memory in a prolonged struggle for equity. Without memory there is no recovery from complex trauma; if you can not remember being well how can you imagine it going forward. If you do not remember being wounded you may be wounded again. Wilson connects song, memory, melting into the public sphere (if assimilation is even possible) in tension with being complete as is, as touch stones in the journey to reclaiming being “born free with dignity and everything.”
Place and the unpacking of what belonging in America means or can mean inside the nation in the nation is big in the second half of the cycle. The work grapples with stratification within the race building on the variety of past characters which include Caesar (Gem of the Ocean) who becomes a white man’s nigger out of the need to survive. The self loathing he experiences as a result of his choice make him kill the savior/spirit of struggle Solly Two Kings who must be reborn in the spirit of Citizen the young wanderer who comes to Aunt Ester the soul washer to find purpose. Two Trains Running hits a new note with Memphis who finds it hard to remember after dropping the ball. It is Aunt Ester born 1619 who tells Memphis in 1969 that to go forward he must do what he has not done. He has to get right with his self. Young Sterling in Two Trains, represents the future, standing alone in the midst of examples of older men who did not run into the end zone, like Young Citizen in Gem he picks up the torch to carry us stumbling forward. In Two Trains the Hill District is being redeveloped in a way that resembles the redevelopment of West Oakland that cleared the space for BART and the Post Office. Thousands of people displaced for progress that took years to come turning whole sections of a once vibrant community into a shadow of its former self. In Jitney a decade later the process continues as do Wilson’s motifs. The old and the young, past and future, grappling to make sense of the current moment. We enter discussions of the passing of torches and the burden we pass to youth as we hobble them with staying inside the lines of what we conceive of as safety zones when in reality no progress can be made if we are only willing to do the things that we have already done. We are drawn to continue to consider how the past can inform the future without being perceived as standing in its way.
Having read the cycle I know whats to come including the death of Aunt Ester. I will stop with the play by play here and deal with the themes and metaphors in play in King Hedley and Radio Golf in the year I produce them and complete my walk with Wilson as my teacher. In truth there are things I can’t know about those works until I produce them. I will not know how they correspond with lived reality until I live the process of producing the work. But my eyes and spirit are open I am listening.
By that time maybe I will understand what it means when Wilson decides it time for Ester to finally join the ancestors. I will know if it means she has cleared the path for the men darker than blue that Wilson so concerns his self with to become the redeemers or something less hopeful. As I take stock of the current moment which includes the Ferguson Uprising I know of a certainty the future of young black men is inextricably tied to the future of this country as is the continued forced migration of marginalized people. I also know my apprenticeship with Wilson is sharpening my overstanding of where we are and helping me to conceive of what is necessary for us to continue to hope, to thrive, to continue forward motion in a battle to be free with dignity.
August Wilson is the American playwright who has harnessed the the twentieth century in a basket for out appreciation. He has divided it by decades so that we may ingest the elephant. It is rich and unusual fare offering a view of America not seen elsewhere on the American stage. It offers a frank view from off center showcasing the driving dream myth of America along side its grounded reality for people who hoed, planted, tended but have yet to harvest the fruit of the dream we have so religiously chased. Wilson offers us a glimpse at a whole served in units each whole unto them selves. If you have not discovered Wilson you have not yet understood what the American theater can offer or how rich and textured the unstoried life of America beyond the pale is and has ever been.
This article is an expansion of the article, The Importance of August Wilson in American Theater, originally published in 2013 on http://www.anzinga.com