They say King Hedley II, is the darkest play in the American Century Cycle by August Wilson. Dark with all its connotations is an interesting take. It is dark. Dark like black life, dark and heavy like the history of North America’s Nation within the Nation. Dark like a burn on a soul that won’t comprehend the enduring nature of the trauma initiated by the Transatlantic Transgression, the lived experience of chattel slavery, and its living legacy in its descendants.
If you want to know why things are the way they are you might consider Wilson a source of spiritual information. It is not history Wilson seeks to address rather its the fullness of every-day-ness, the extraordinary complexity of the ordinary, the enduring and universal struggle of North American Africans through the decades of the twentieth century to find the center that keeps shifting.
I have always invested Wilson with the ability to be in two times at once: the current moment is always made more clear by looking at his reference to a specific point in the past. I have come to understand that this is not so much a trick of Master Wilson as it is an intentional testament to what the “illusion” reveals; not a lot has changed at the core of North American African existence in North America in the last one hundred years. It is not Wilson’s ability to reside in multiple time frames but rather the unchanging nature of barriers to inclusion and the methods of exclusion perfected over time that we observe in Wilson’s Cycle.
Wilson’s work is important because it sets the two America’s side by side and offers a view of the center from off-center. The better to understand that there are two songs of Americas living side by side in dissonance. The song of America that echos in the world is one of democratic strength, stewardship, might and compassion. There is a moral note borne in its declaration of being a Christian nation that implies certain ethics are in play within greater society where progress is seen as both natural and inevitable. There is a public good and a standard by which this nation views itself.
Yet there are consistent anomalies like the persistent gap in wages and job attainment that exist between well qualified black applicants and their white counterparts. Disproportionate incarceration, as a result of disproportionate contact with law enforcement and lack of access to competent legal representation is another point of observation as is the lack of correlation between education and employment prospects in emerging fields. Another would be the tenuousness of geographical community. Just as The Hill District is a topic of contested space throughout Wilson’s Cycle the relationship with geography, community, space in which to thrive, and the concept of belonging have been and remain a troubling and complex point of reflection in considering tales of the two Americas.
There are multiple places where one can observe the great divide one could visit a court room, a hospital, a school, a Fortune 500 company, a tech campus, or perhaps more telling pay attention on Sunday morning to who prays where. There are two Americas. One has an infrastructure that helps to contain the other which stubbornly persist in refusing to be homogenized with a vigor equal to that which seeks to contain and.other it.
In Gem of the Ocean, Wilson introduces us to “The Mill”, the only source of employment, along with its blatant racism and overt hold overs from share cropping thefts of labor, by the end of Gem the mill has been burned by Two Kings. Solly, a freedom fighter from the Underground Railroad, is murdered by Caesar the black lawman who tragically found a way to go forward against the obstacles he faced by siding with the system of containment in place. Caesar sees no way for the poor blacks to survive without the meager chance for subsistence offered by the mill. He predicts deeper poverty, the decline of morals fed by unmet need, the rise of criminality, and more as the result of the absence of even less than half a chance. Solly acts out of the philosophy espoused by Aunt Ester. “If the wheel is broke somebody got to fix it”. By burning the mill he forces some other way into reality. Some other way must be discovered even if it must be created. The Nation buried within the Nation exist in search of the tools to fashion a way from what appears to be no way.
The Nation within the Nation is a push me pull me phenomenon. It is a place we are constricted to as well as a cosmological event we are joined in, feed, construct by our nurture, a place in the center of the whirlwind – the eye of the storm we stand in endeavoring to become. It is what we become that is in question.
The Black Lens
Off center is an instructive view. It is a view of the center from outside. If the narrative of America from its center its a song of self, a kind of authorized autobiography that is carefully curated then, reading from the side lines gives us a less invested view, one that can afford to not be politically correct because political correctness has never served it outside of the earshot of those invested from the center. Here we measure affect divorced from dressed up language of intention, the pig without the lipstick.
Where else can you get a comprehensible context of life as experienced by those behind the veil unless you step behind the veil to bear witness its beating heart. It is a marvel left untold center stage in the drama of America. Wilson takes us into the cauldron of the lived existence of ordinary people to experience the compelling tragedy of reality meeting rhetoric in the brightness of stage lights so that we can see the places where the peeling paint attempts to obscure a profound brokenness.
A Black lens is a view from the center of the Nation within the Nation. In its gaze, black life is the center of the universe aware of sitting in the belly, orbiting within an internal logic.
Enduring Trauma & Dark Cycles
Hedley is a view of enduring trauma unmitigated by substantive progress. It is a tale of barbed wire, blood rituals, and dying to go forward. It is the observation of the everyday chosen over the stories of exceptionalism that feed the sense of “real black life” as captured by Wilson. There is little room to argue the success of numerous North American Africans within greater society however they are the exception not the rule. Nor is the rule the parade of mug shots and short walks in handcuffs that populate the evening news , rather the rule is reflected in Wilson’s parade of ordinary people struggling to find their way into the dream of American equity.
Wilson harnesses the hope, the determined struggle, the callings and failings of a tribe stranded in the process of transition wanting to “be” in the most literal sense while trying to become at the same time. The Cycle is replete with round unvarnished tales that reflect Wilson’s mastery of storytelling and offers a view of humanity obscured by its lack of access to the stage of the American public sphere. In his tales from off-center he connects the hopes and desires of these dark spaces in the authorized biography of America to the shining ideals America uses to light its way.
Wilson lights the considerations of love, honor, duty, dignity, and the desire to thrive complexified by invisible lives and dark history. He clears the stage for the articulation of how it is we sit behind the veil, the coldness born in the shadow of America’s song of itself, and the tragic rawness of sitting so long in the storm. His work is the storms song remembering itself , valuing itself, singing itself whole again.
The ever two-ness in which we sit and the blocked paths are the geography of Wilson’s work in a figurative sense he demands we understand the distance Caesar Wilkes travels from murdering Solly Two Kings to remembering what he did not know what he had forgotten. We know something in him shifts when we reach Radio Golf, (the final installment in the Cycle), we discover he assumed the taxes on the sanctuary he violated in Gem of the Ocean, ( first installment), 1839 Wiley St, the home of Aunt Ester. Caesar’s tale of origin has always struck me as instructive. The lesson begins in the first installment. Caesar becomes Caesar because there seems no other path to success in life and he is a striver with a hard-wired imperative to survive. He becomes successful in the eyes of those beyond the pale at the cost of disconnecting from what placed him behind the veil and taking what he perceived as the only path open to success by becoming an overseer. Yet he becomes steward to Aunt Esters sanctuary where the blood memory of self as articulated by the mythic Ester guides dark travelers for a century that we know about. In the distance of the cycle Caesar comes full circle and reaches some understanding with his song of self. The Nation in the Nation is still traveling the road of Caesar’s logic trying to understand the cost of unsung, squandered, and lost songs of self. Wilson urges us to make it a consciousness interrogation and charges us with manifesting the fortitude to insist we be fully sung.
Resistance & Sacrifice
Resistance and sacrifice are implicit themes in all of Wilson’s work. They are brought center stage in King Hedley,II as are love and honor all metered through the motif of blood.
What must North American Africans sacrifice to a be part and un-separated parcel of the American pubic sphere? What must be let go, what part of the self must be set adrift, amputated to find firm purchase in the public square of American consciousness?
The redundant reference to the song of self, the need for reconciliation between now and how it came to be, the recognition of the point of origin and coming into being Africans who are North Americans, the struggle endured in pursuit of belonging, and the cost of the journey are touchstones for Wilson’s retrospective of the twentieth century.
Wilson strongly suggest that we have an innate “self” guided by a cosmology, an epistemology that resides so deeply in us we may have forgotten it but it has not forgotten us so it keeps itself alive in narrative personified in the water wise metaphor of Aunt Ester, traveling a line, emanating from the ocean anointing us as a new tribe here – ever African and American. Wilson embodies in theater pieces the lived experience of Du Bois’s theory of two-ness. The work gives flesh to the narrative of the lived experience of being cast into seeking wholeness, looking for a song of self even if we don’t know what it is we are searching for, and a textured consideration of what we are trying to reconcile. Wilson is the great interlocutor, interrogating our experience in the context of American progress, wanting us to claim our part of the story, to tell the truth to ourselves about what’s been lost, what can be gained here, and to do the work of conceiving how we go forward, who we will become. One of the central questions posed by Wilson’s work is what it cost to become American from the lens of those bound both willingly and without choice within the Nation in the Nation.
Wilson wants us to know that redemption is a necessity. He calls attention to the way in which we sit in the belly. He has cast us as our own redeemers. No one else is coming to right the wheel. It is our duty to find a way to harness the wind if we want it to blow this way. If we want to sit on top of the mountain we must find the key. He wants us to know that we know. We know because we have lived the story-we were there. He wants us to remember — to connect events to one another, and to believe the story it tells when you stack one decade a top another. He wants us to be clear on what progress looks like. He wants us to recognize cycles, where we bent, where we were broken, and to create options where none seem to exist. He wants us to remember that we are able, we are enough, we were born with dignity and honor. He wants us to know that we have a duty to life itself, that duty is to live, living is not the same as surviving and he wants us to note that. He wants us to see ourselves as dignified in our struggle to create a way out of no way, to observe the ways in which we leave the path, and the cost of losing one’s self. He wants us to be awake in our journey and to understand the things that bind us, the things that sustain us, and to value them appropriately. He wants us to celebrate the ordinary and accept it as the space in which extraordinary things can be achieved. He wants us to make our better, best. Redemption could come any day it does not require a special day. The day will be made special by the song we choose to sing.