Wilson, August 1945–2005

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Editor: Jelena O. Krstovic
Date: 2008
Black Literature Criticism: Classic and Emerging Authors since 1950
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Author bibliography; Biography; Critical essay
Pages: 18
Content Level: (Level 4)

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About this Person
Born: April 27, 1945 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States
Died: October 02, 2005 in Seattle, Washington, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: Playwright
Other Names: Kittel, Frederick August, Jr.
Full Text: 
Page 439

August Wilson 1945-2005

August Wilson August Wilson. AP Images

(Born Frederick August Kittel) American dramatist. For additional information on Wilson's career, see Black Literature Criticism, Ed. 1.


Widely regarded as one of the most notable African American playwrights of the twentieth century, Wilson is recognized for award-winning dramas that realistically portray the struggles of the black middle class in the United States. He reached a theatrical milestone in 2005 when he completed his ten-play cycle that depicts the history of the African American experience from the early 1900s to the late 1990s. Each play is set in a particular decade and the cycle includes two of his most acclaimed plays: Fences (1985), which won such coveted prizes as the Pulitzer Prize for drama, a Tony Award for best play, and the New York Drama Critics Circle Best Play Award; and The Piano Lesson (1987), which also garnered a Pulitzer Prize for drama as well as another New York Drama Critics Circle Best Play Award. His works, which are commended for their vivid characterizations and authentic-sounding dialogue, often center upon conflicts between blacks who embrace their African past and those who deny it. A talented storyteller, Wilson has been singled out for his efforts at preserving distinct elements of the African American oral tradition, and is much admired by a large segment of the theatrical community, which maintains that he changed the landscape of American theater—thereby opening up new opportunities for other black playwrights. In the last ten years of his life he became known as a staunch defender of black theater and a strident opponent of the practice of colorblind casting. His racially and politically charged views prompted controversial debate in both the regional theater and theater-studies communities.


Wilson was born in 1945 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to a white father, Frederick August, and a black mother, Daisy Wilson Kittel. Named for his father, who was largely absent during his childhood, Wilson took his mother's name when his parents divorced. He grew up in the impoverished Hill District in Pittsburgh, which he later used as the setting for many of his plays. He recalled encountering racism for the first time at the age of fourteen, when he entered Central Catholic High School, where for a time he was the only black student. Facing racial slurs and threats, he eventually transferred to a vocational school, then to the public high school, where, at the age of fifteen, he dropped out after a teacher falsely accused him of plagiarism. Thereafter he received his education from neighborhood experiences and at the local library. Excited at the prospect of choosing his own reading material, he discovered, in a collection marked "Negro," works of Harlem Renaissance and other African American writers. After reading pieces by Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, and Arna Bontemps, Wilson realized that blacks could be successful in artistic endeavors without compromising their traditions. In addition, he found inspiration in the work of poet Amiri Baraka, the Black Power Movement of the 1960s, and particularly in the work of collagist painter Romare Bearden. He subsequently pursued a literary career while working at menial jobs, successfully submitting poetry to small periodicals including Connections and Black World.

In 1968 he became active in the theater when he co-founded Black Horizons on the Hill, a theater company in Pittsburgh aimed at raising black consciousness in the area. Without any formal training, he began to direct plays and to occasionally act, using the theater as a forum for his early dramas. His first professional breakthrough occurred in 1978 when he was invited to write plays for a black theater founded by Claude Purdy, a former Pittsburgh director, in St. Paul, Minnesota. From Page 440  |  Top of Article there, Wilson moved to the Science Museum of Minnesota, where he was hired to write educational scripts for the internal theater group. He returned to drama in the late 1970s, writing Jitney, which was produced in Pittsburgh in 1982. In that same year his play Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (1984) was accepted at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center for workshops and readings. While at the O'Neill Center, Wilson met Lloyd Richards, then dean of the Yale School of Drama and director of the original Broadway production of Lorraine Hansberry's Raisin in the Sun. The two became lifelong collaborators. Following the enormous success of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom after it opened on Broadway in 1984, Wilson was financially able to devote himself to writing full time. In the early 1990s he moved to Seattle, Washington. With the exception of Jitney, all of the plays in Wilson's cycle were ultimately produced on Broadway, including his last drama, Radio Golf, which he completed shortly before his death in 2005 and which premiered on Broadway two years later, in May 2007. Wilson died of liver cancer in 2005. In his honor, Broadway's Virginia Theater was renamed the August Wilson Theater, marking the first time in history that a theater was named for an African American.


While Wilson did not set out to create his plays in a series, it became clear to him over time that his plays in combination were creating a twentieth-century history of the black experience in America. Jitney, set in 1977, tells of a down-at-the-heels Pittsburgh gypsy cab company that is struggling for survival. Set in a Chicago recording studio in 1927, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom depicts the turbulent relationship between the legendary blues singer Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, her band, and exploitative white business managers and recording executives. One band member, the trumpeter Levee, desperately wants to succeed in the white-dominated world of commercial music, but his rage at the inherent injustice of a system controlled by whites leads to a shocking act of violence. Wilson next turned his attention to the 1950s as the setting for Fences. Earning Wilson his first Pulitzer Prize, Fences revolves around Troy Maxson, an outstanding high school athlete who was ignored by major league baseball because of his color. Struggling through middle age as a garbage collector, Troy experiences increasing bitterness, which results in clashes with family members, including his son, who also aspires to a career as an athlete.

A new play by Wilson, Joe Turner's Come and Gone (1986), debuted while Fences was still running on Broadway, an unprecedented accomplishment for a black playwright in the New York theatrical world. Regarded as more mystical than Wilson's other works, Joe Turner's Come and Gone is considered by many critics Wilson's finest work. Set in a Pittsburgh boardinghouse in 1911, during the Great Migration of African Americans from the South, the play concerns the struggles of migrants in the post-Civil War North. Following seven years of illegal bondage, Herald Loomis, a black freedman, travels to Pennsylvania in search of his wife who fled north during his enslavement. The critical issue of white oppression is symbolized in Herald's haunted memories of Joe Turner, the infamous Southern bounty hunter who captured him. Herald's sojourn ends at the boardinghouse, whose black residents are also searching for wholeness in their lives. Wilson won his second Pulitzer Prize in 1990, for The Piano Lesson. Set during the Great Depression of the 1930s, the drama pits brother against sister in a dispute over the future of a treasured heirloom—a piano. Decades earlier, their grief-stricken grandfather, an enslaved carpenter, had etched African-style portraits of his wife and son into the piano's legs after the two were traded away in exchange for the instrument. In the play, the brother wants to sell the piano to buy land, while the sister adamantly insists on keeping it, revering the instrument as a means of preserving their family's history. Wilson's next play, Two Trains Running (1990) is set in a run-down diner on the verge of being sold. Reactions by the diner's regular patrons to the pending sale make up the body of the drama, which takes place on a single day in 1969. Set in the 1940s, Seven Guitars (1995) recounts the tragic story of blues guitarist Floyd Barton, whose funeral opens the play. Action then flashes back to recreate the events of Floyd's last week of life. In 2000, Wilson completed the eighth play in his cyclic history. King Hedley II, a dark retrospective, draws upon the life of the title character, an ex-convict attempting to rebuild his life in 1980s Pittsburgh. Hedley deals with his past while figuring out how to go "legit" in the midst of the brutality of a black ghetto. The play depicts the decline of the black family and the prevalence of violence and guns in contemporary inner-city neighborhoods.

In Gem of the Ocean (2003), set in Pittsburgh in 1904, audiences learn that spiritual healer Aunt Ester, a recurring matriarchal figure in Wilson's work, is over three hundred years old. Aunt Ester assists people who seek her guidance, allowing them to reconnect with the past, their history of slavery, and to draw strength from the experience. Radio Golf, set in 1997, is the last of the ten plays that constitute Wilson's cycle. In this work Wilson introduced Harmond Wilks, who, while on the threshold of success in the white-dominated world of business, struggles between the past that shaped him and the future that lures him. In 1996 Wilson laid out his views on race, theater funding, and multiculturalism in a keynote address to the Theatre Communications Group's annual conference. The speech, titled "The Ground on Which I Stand," was first published in American Theatre in 1996. Wilson's remarks created critical controversy and feud. A series of responses and counterattacks appeared in print both from Wilson and from New Republic critic Robert Brustein, culminating Page 441  |  Top of Article in a debate between the two on January 27, 1997, at the New York City Town Hall. Wilson's original speech appeared in book form in 2001.


Wilson has achieved the stature of a preeminent dramatist in twentieth-century American theater. While his individual plays have garnered various critical responses, the scope of his ten-play historical cycle has received an overwhelmingly positive reception. Calling the sequence "epic," observers have remarked how, viewed together, the plays form a complete dramaturgical account of black American history. Overall, Wilson has been commended for his realistic depictions, multifaceted characters, and authentic and lively dialogue, which many critics note is a faithful rendering of black urban speech. He also has earned acclaim for his use of traditional African folklore, with scholars pointing out the "oral-history quality" of his dramatic works. His use of mystical and supernatural elements, especially in Joe Turner's Come and Gone and The Piano Lesson, has received a mixed response among critics, with some finding the elements "contrived" and superfluous, and others lauding the playwright's ability to dramatize the connection between twentieth-century African Americans and their enslaved ancestors. Another area of critical focus involves Wilson's presentation of the problematic dual nature of African Americans—the pressure to conform to white society while struggling to retain their African roots. Whether or not his works can be viewed as political has also inspired critical discussion. Some commentators have argued that even though on the surface Wilson's emphasis is on family and the details of everyday life, underneath, he presented the Western world as severe and unjust for blacks, who are displaced and separated from their African ancestry. They also note that Wilson suggested that by forging a renewed connection with their African culture and heritage, people of the African Diaspora can experience healing on an individual as well as on the communal level. Although the length of some of his plays and the frequency and duration of his characters' monologues have spurred some reviewers to call for a tightening of his works, critics are almost unanimous in lauding his dramatization of the twentieth-century experience of black Americans—a cycle Wilson was determined to finish even after he found out he had only a few more months to live. The ten plays serve "as regenerative models of healing," writes scholar Harry J. Elam, Jr., "integrat[ing] the political, the historical, and the spiritual in ways that push the realms of conventional realism and evoke a spirit that is both timeless and timely."


Jitney (play) 1982

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom: A Play in Two Acts (play) 1984

Fences (play) 1985

Joe Turner's Come and Gone: A Play in Two Acts (play) 1986

The Piano Lesson (play) 1987

Two Trains Running (play) 1990

* August Wilson: Three Plays [and author of preface] (plays) 1991

Seven Guitars (play) 1995

King Hedley II (play) 2000

The Ground on Which I Stand (essay) 2001 Gem of the Ocean (play) 2003

Radio Golf (play) 2005

* This collection includes Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Fences, and Joe Turner's Come and Gone.

This is the text of Wilson's keyonote address at the Theatre Communications Group's annual conference in 1996. It was first published in American Theatre that same year.


James R. Keller (essay date fall 2001)

SOURCE: Keller, James R. "The Shaman's Apprentice: Ecstasy and Economy in Wilson's Joe Turner." African American Review 35, no. 3 (fall 2001): 471-79.

[In this essay, Keller considers the role of the shaman in Joe Turner's Come and Gone, suggesting that Loomis's attainment of the vocation of shaman parallels the transformation experienced by African Americans after slavery, which the play suggests moves from restoration, to reunion, to religious and social emancipation.]

In his book August Wilson and the African American Odyssey, Kim Pereira briefly engages the theories of the renowned anthropologist Mircea Eliade in order to understand the events and characters of Wilson's play Joe Turner's Come and Gone (82-83). Recognizing that the drama includes a search for self-actualization by a group of African Americans migrating north in the second decade of the twentieth century, Pereira asserts that it is only through the acceptance of their dual cultural heritage that the characters are able to recover from the degradations of their past and experience renewal (56). The allusion to shamanic rituals, for Pereira, signifies this cultural reconstitution. Loomis reconnects with his African self and thus "encapsulates the Black experience" (81). Pereira is certainly accurate in his recognition of the characters' quest for self-affirmation, as well as the importance of reconnecting with their non-Western cultural heritage, but he does not acknowledge the centrality of shamanism to the structure of the Page 442  |  Top of Article drama. The events of Joe Turner dramatize the election and education of a shaman, as the power to heal and to manipulate the spirit world is passed from one generation to the next.

The action of Wilson's play takes place in a Pittsburgh boarding house in 1911. The setting is appropriate to the subject matter since most of the characters are displaced people, whether uprooted by the desire to find economic opportunities in the industrial North or compelled to flee "the eyes of watchful tyranny" in the South. However, their search is not motivated entirely by practical considerations—sustenance and safety; they are also driven by the desire for spiritual renewal. The names of many of the characters reveal their longings for edification.

Bynum is a "conjure man" whose craft is devoted to the reunion of lost and separated persons whom he "binds" physically and spiritually. Having attained spiritual illumination, he is capable of facilitating the same in others. Yet the racial ideology of the play suggests that, in spite of his knowledge of the African folk and spiritual customs, he is nevertheless torn between two worlds. Bynum does not bind people exclusively; he also unifies cultures. His visionary sequence reveals the conjunction of African and Christian motifs (Pereira 71). His quest for the "shiny man" is the search for an individual whose own spiritual awakening exceeds his own, the uncompromising African Man.

This paradigm of cultural resurgence is, of course, Loomis, who recognizes Bynum's negotiation with the ideology that enthralls and exploits people of African descent and who lashes out at the conjure man's effort to bind him as he was bound to Joe Turner's chain gang for seven years: "… Harold Loomis ain't for no binding" (91). Loomis lost his religion when Turner captured him, depriving him of his family and his freedom. Loomis now recognizes the collusion between religion and the racist state and cannot bring himself to celebrate the white man's God, who has demanded such sacrifices from him. Thus he wanders, physically and spiritually, in search of his wife and his beginning. The "illumination" that is implicit in Loomis's name is not the divine madness of the Christian saints; it is derived from a more ancient source—the ecstasy of the shaman.

Loomis's refusal to remain in the company of his newly recovered wife, Martha Pentecost, reveals his aversion to Christianity and particularly to Western ecstatic traditions. The name Pentecost, of course, suggests the visitation of the Holy Ghost upon the disciples of Christ (Acts 2:1). Martha has maintained her faith in spite of the forced dissolution of her family. Loomis has sought her out only to deposit their child in her care and to make contact once again with the period of contentment and confidence that characterized their lives together. However, Loomis's journey into the past stretches beyond the gratifications of those happier times. He seeks a spiritual healing that can only be achieved by an older ecstatic tradition. Martha recognizes that he is lost to Christianity and erroneously associates his new allegiances with evil: "You done gone over to the devil" (91).

Bynum and Loomis are foiled by those characters who have been more fully assimilated into white culture. The most stark contrast is with Seth, the boarding-house owner, who is determined to achieve material success and who has very little patience for those African Americans migrating north, looking for the same prosperity that Seth desires:

These niggers coming up here with that old backward country style of living. It's hard enough now without all that ignorant kind of acting. Ever since slavery got over with there ain't been nothing but foolish-acting niggers.


Seth is very demanding of his boarders, insisting on advanced payment in full, and is preoccupied with maintaining a respectable house. His callousness is antithetical to Bynum's selflessness. While Bynum counsels and guides Loomis through his visionary trance, demonstrating charity and grace, Seth is only concerned with ejecting Loomis from the premises for creating a disturbance. He haggles with all of the characters over their boarding fees and threatens to throw most of them out at one time or another.

The most revealing aspect of Seth's character is his scorn for Bynum's religious practices. The play opens with Seth's derisive account of Bynum's magical rituals, which he refers to as "all that old mumbo jumbo nonsense." The expression reveals Seth's refusal to acknowledge any affinity with his African past. He is a capitulationist who wants to blend into the white man's world. His ongoing negotiation with Rutherford Selig over the manufacture and sale of dustpans manifests his longing for the white man's success and for opportunities to exploit African Americans' labor potential. He fantasizes about hiring Jeremy to toil in his new dust-pan business. However, he does not seem to realize the extent to which he is a victim of the white economy with which he longs to merge: The bank will not give him a loan to start a new business unless he offers his house as collateral, a request which within the context of the drama is unreasonable. The representation of white material success and independence that Seth longs to imitate is Rutherford Selig, the "people finder."

Selig, the only Caucasian character, possesses a name that, in German, means ‘blessed’ or ‘ecstatic.’ In combination with the verb werden, selig signifies the attainment of salvation—‘to become saved.’ It is something of a curiosity that the playwright would include the single white character in his visionary motif, particularly since Rutherford Selig is identified with those Page 443  |  Top of Article forces that have brought the African American characters to their current state of upheaval and degradation. Although Selig offers his services in the search for lost people, he is, by his own admission, associated with those who made it their business to separate Black families. Bertha remarks cynically that Selig "ain't never found nobody he ain't took away" (42). The association of his name with ‘blessed’ may suggest the opportunities that are inherent exclusively to whites in a racist culture. Selig obviates white cultural domination; his blessing is financial and entrepreneurial success, a condition that most of the characters wish to share, particularly Seth.

The play itself dramatizes the effort to introduce African Americans into the American industrial economy of the twentieth century, and Selig's role in the drama suggests that the most enduring link between the characters is the acquisition of material goods. The only Caucasian admits that his progenitors have always made their living pursuing African Americans: His great grandfather transported slaves from Africa; his father captured runaway slaves for their owners; and Selig himself locates displaced people for a fee. These practices reduce African Americans to commodities and are precursors to the assumption of Blacks into industry—the same process that characterizes the setting, both spatial and temporal, of the play. Selig's salvation is his own exclusion from racial oppression and his financial independence. Thus, his name is ironic. He attains his ecstasy through consumer capitalism, through the "selling" of material products. For him, African Americans are objects for exploitation and exchange in the new economy, as in the old. His efforts are thus another manifestation of Joe Turner's chain gang. He finds African Americans and binds them to the economic system, demanding payment for his services and products which, in turn, necessitates subsistence labor.

The mercantile obsessions of Seth and Selig, as well as the sensual preoccupations of Jeremy, Mattie, and Molly, are antithetical to the spiritual yearnings of the shamanic characters. Both Bynum and Loomis do no work within the play, and this refusal to labor is a truly revolutionary practice within a modern economy. While Bynum's motivations are not stated, Loomis specifically rejects the ideology that insists he labor on behalf of white men and their ideology:

Great big old white man … your Mr. Jesus Christ. Standing there with a whip in one hand and tote board in another, and them niggers swimming in a sea of cotton.

And he counting … what's the matter, you ain't picked but two hundred pounds of cotton today.


Bynum's refusal to participate in the economy is a refusal to accept one of the most fundamental social structures of the modern state. His rejection of familial ties and obligations is yet another means of rejecting the same order. The obligation to the family necessitates labor in order to provide for the material needs of dependents. The shaman's path is solitary and anti-materialistic.

Eliade characterizes the shaman as a "specialist in the human soul" (8), the individual who is responsible for the spiritual and physical health of the tribe and who, in a visionary trance, journeys into spiritual realms to seek out and remove the sources of illness (5). Both Bynum and Loomis possess qualities associated with this shamanic legacy. However, Bynum's power is that of a fully realized medicine man, while Loomis is experiencing the agonizing transformations that will lead to his own shamanic vocation.

The initiation of a shaman can come about either through "hereditary transmission" or "spontaneous vocation" (Eliade 13). He does not choose his work, but is chosen by the spirits to pursue a life as a healer. The medicine men in Joe Turner seem to be the unwitting proselytes of the spirits. Bynum tells of his own election, which occurs on the road near Johnstown where he encounters a hungry man to whom he offers food and who, subsequently, promises to teach him the "meaning of life." The traveler rubs blood on Bynum's hands and encourages him to cleanse himself by smearing it on his face. Following this ritual, Bynum's companion begins to glow, and all of the objects in the vicinity grow to twice their normal size: "sparrows big as eagles!" Next Bynum encounters the distorted image of his dead father, who tells him that there are many "shiny men," and if Bynum ever sees another, his work will be complete; he can "die a happy man." Finally, the father urges Bynum to learn a curative song—the binding song (8-10).

The above narrative constitutes a clever mixture of pagan and Christian imagery. Bynum's shamanic powers are a negotiation between the religious heritage of Western culture and the practices of his African and Carribean ancestors. Bynum's experience is reminiscent of St. Paul's ecstasy on the road to Damascus, where he would encounter the crucified Christ and be converted to the new religion. The location itself near Johnstown may be a very subtle allusion to the Revelation of St. John (another scriptural ecstasy) as well as a reference to John the Baptist, who is cited specifically in the characterization of the "shiny man" as the "One Who Goes Before and Shows the Way" (10). The shiny man's blood that cleanses Bynum is, of course, an allusion to the redemptive qualities of Christ's blood, and the shiny man's glow may be an allusion to the transfiguration of Christ, still another ecstatic moment in the gospels.

However, the imagery of Bynum's ecstasy has a dual signification, one that yokes together historically antithetical religious traditions. Many of the same attributes associated with Christianity are decidedly shamanic. Page 444  |  Top of Article The "shiny man" suggests the shamanic gods and spirits who are also associated with light. Fire is believed to be the easiest way to transform body into spirit (Townsend 440). Moreover, blood is integral to many ancient rituals, since it was believed to open the portal between worlds and nourish the spirits (Freidel, Schele, and Parker 201-02), and it is only after Bynum rubs himself in his companion's blood that his environment changes: His father's spirit appears; objects become larger than life; and his traveling companion begins to glow. The subsequent encounter with his father's spirit suggests the "hereditary transmission" of the shaman's vocation. Many shamanic (most notably Native American) ritual practices involve ancestor worship; the medicine man encountering the spirits of dead loved ones who inaugurate and direct his spiritual vocation (Schele and Freidel 202-03). It is his father's ghost who urges Bynum to find his song. Bynum reveals that his dead father was a "conjure man" whose song had the capacity to heal, a vocation consistent with the shaman's principal objective—to alleviate spiritual and physical suffering through interaction with the spiritual world (Eliade 28). In his effort to discover his own song, Bynum intentionally selects one that differs from his father's, but one that, nevertheless, possesses a philanthropic objective. He will bind those who have been separated, and he is likely to be very busy, since every character in the play is searching for a lost lover or family member.

In Bynum's ecstasy, the father reminds his son that if he (Bynum) ever sees another shiny man, he will know that his work has been successful. There is an element of finality to the father's promise, suggesting that Bynum's life and work will be finished (10). Thus the appearance of a "shiny man" at the conclusion of Joe Turner implies the consumation of Bynum's work and the passing on of his powers to the next generation, the obvious recipient being Loomis, who has been chosen to carry on the profession. Since shamanism is an oral tradition, it is necessary for the practitioner to initiate and train the next generation—those subsequent medicine men becoming the new repositories of the cultural wisdom (Ong 24). However, just as Bynum altered his father's craft, Loomis will also find a unique song, the "song of self-sufficiency … free from any encumbrances other than the workings of his own heart and the bonds of his flesh" (93-94). While Bynum's labors sought to reunite the fragmented and alienated African American population at both the individual and the cultural levels, Loomis's edification signifies the severing of the African from the American. His awakening is a refusal of the most basic tenets of the Western religious tradition. Unlike the other residents of the boarding house, Loomis no longer needs companionship to experience contentment, and he no longer needs the white man's religion to define his place within a culture. The binding of cultures that was a portion of Bynum's song is transcended by Loomis, who emerges as the new African subject. His "shining" represents a new valuation—" a new money" (94). As indicated above, economics, the exchange of consumer goods and services for cash, is what unites all members of the modern state, but Loomis is a new currency, one that will not and cannot circulate within the white American economy. He is the resurrected African man, emerging from the degradation of abduction and bondage. Indeed, the unique goals of the play's three shamans signify the evolution of African Americans following emancipation: a movement from healing, to binding and reunion, and finally to cultural and spiritual self-sufficiency.

Loomis's edification as a shaman is a lengthy process, only the most crucial and auspicious moments of which are depicted in Wilson's play. The medicine man's craft frequently emerges from his efforts to heal his own suffering, and "the initiation of the candidate is equivalent to a cure." Indeed, his infirmity manifests his election (Eliade 27). Loomis is spiritually sick, wandering in search of his wife, who disappeared while he was in bondage to Joe Turner. He does not know how to renew his life in the wake of debilitating disillusionment and suffering, and his experiences with Bynum are pivotal. By reuniting Loomis's daughter Zonia with her mother, Bynum frees Loomis to pursue spiritual renewal: "… he is free to soar above the environs that weighed and pushed his spirit into terrifying contractions" (94). It is after this apotheosis that Loomis is finally able to say goodbye to his wife and to the memory of their lost happiness.

The playwright uses an image of flying to reveal Loomis's liberation from his mundane obligations. Loomis soars "above" his "environs." Soul flight is, of course, central to the shamanic experience. In the midst of his ecstasy, the holy man often possesses the spirit of a bird and describes his visionary flight above the earth (Harner 158).

The Dyak shaman, who escorts the souls of the deceased to the other world, also takes the form of a bird. We have seen that the Vedic sacrificer, when he reaches the top of the ladder, spreads his arms as a bird does its wings and cries: "We have come to heaven"…. The same rite is found in Melkula: at the culminating point of the sacrifice the sacrificer spreads his arms to imitate the falcon and sings a chant in honor of the stars.

          (Eliade 478)

The image of Loomis's soul flight is an unmistakable sign of his spiritual rejuvenation as well as his election to the shaman's vocation. Only now does he begin to shine. Eliade's association of the flight with sacrifice is also pivotal to understanding Loomis's apotheosis.

At the moment of his consecration, Loomis proclaims, "I'm standing! I'm standing! My legs stood up! I'm standing now!" (93). His elation over this simple task is the culmination of an image motif that began with Loomis's vision of the "bones people" at the end of Act Page 445  |  Top of Article I. The vision of skeletal people drifting in ships, drowning in the ocean, and landing on the shore has proven a fruitful metaphor, signifying not only the slave trade and the displacement of African abductees to America, but also the disorientation experienced by the former slaves upon their emancipation and, by extension, the confusion and bewilderment experienced by Loomis following his release from seven years on a chain gang. However, Loomis's ecstasy is also related to the shaman's initiation. The dismemberment and evisceration of the neophyte body is a commonplace thematic in various accounts of the medicine man's genesis (Eliade 34). At his investiture, the novitiate describes being reduced to a skeleton by spirits who devour and then restore his flesh (Townsend 446). Among the Siberian Yakut shamans, the initiate dreams of being ripped apart by a giant "hook": "The bones are cleaned, the flesh scraped, the body fluids thrown away, and the eyes torn out of their sockets" (Eliade 36). In the genesis of the Tungus shaman, the novitiate is dismembered and consumed by spirits. Finally, they "throw his head into a cauldron where it is melted with certain metal pieces that will later form part of his ritual costume (43). The Malekula ritual is recounted in more detail:

… the Bwili made himself a bamboo knife and[,] cutting off one of the young man's arms, placed it on two of the leaves. And he laughed at his nephew and the youth laughed back. Then he cut off the other arm and placed it on the leaves beside the first. And he came back and they both laughed again. Then he cut off his leg from the thigh and laid it alongside the arms. And he came and laughed and the youth laughed too. Then he cut off the other leg and laid it beside the first….

Lastly he cut off the head, held it out before him. And he laughed and the head laughed, too.

Then he put the head back in its place and took the arms and legs that he had taken off and put them all back in their places.

          (Layard 65-66)

Loomis's vision of the "bones people" is instigated by the invocation to the Holy Ghost in the midst of the African Juba dance. Denouncing the characters' continued reverence for Christianity, Loomis "is thrown back and collapses, terror-stricken by his vision" (53). He sees himself reduced to bones and is particularly troubled by his inability to stand up and walk along the road. Thus the triumphant proclamation that he is standing at the conclusion of the drama suggests his restoration and his investiture as a shaman. He describes himself surrounded by "enemies picking" his "flesh." Yet despite his symbolic evisceration, Loomis is restored and is a "new" and better person. Asking incredulously if "blood make you clean," he slashes himself, rubs his blood on his face, and realizes that he is finally walking upright (93). Loomis's enlightenment involves a rejection of Christian salvation: He realizes that he can save himself, and this ability allows him to heal others as well.

Loomis's edification is managed and manipulated by Bynum, who questions the neophyte in the midst of his initial ecstasy and guides Loomis through a detailed account of the bones people. The play suggests that Bynum may have had a similar experience when he saw the shiny man:

Then he carried me further into this big place until we come to this ocean. Then he showed me something I ain't got words to tell you. But if you stand to witness it, you done seen something there.


The lack of details in Bynum's account leaves the interpretation of the passage open, but Bynum's prior knowledge of the content of Loomis's vision argues strongly that the events for which Bynum has no words include skeletons on the sea shore. Loomis recognizes Bynum as a kindred spirit: "You one of them bones people" (73). And just as his father introduced Bynum to the ocean of bodies, Bynum guides his own apprentice through this initiatory vision.

The conditions that instigate Loomis's ecstatic trance in the midst of the Juba dance are reminiscent of the shaman's possession that is an initial sign of election by the spirits. "Drumming, dancing, [and] chanting" are traditional means of invoking a mystical trance (Needham 505-14). When Loomis hears the Juba chanting, he dances, speaking in tongues. Just as the shamans of the Sudan become possessed by spirits, begin to tremble, and lapse into unconsciousness as a prelude to their visionary trance (Eliade 55), Loomis, at the conclusion of his dance, falls to the floor and begins to prophesy.

Bynum's preoccupation with helping others find their songs may also have its origin in the medicine man's ritual, where the song is frequently equivalent to the magic that the shaman practices (Eliade 98). One account of the role that song plays in the shamanic initiation is derived from the indigenous people of the Carribean: "… the first piai [shaman] was a man who, hearing a song rise from the stream, dived boldly in and did not come out again until he had memorized the song of the spirit women and received the implement of his profession from them" (qtd. in Eliade 97). "Each shaman," writes Eliade, "has his particular song that he intones to invoke spirits" (96).

It is not difficult to perceive the application of these ideas to Wilson's Joe Turner. Bynum's efforts to help the other boarders, particularly Loomis, find their songs is a definitively shamanic process. The conjure man has received his own song from the spirit of his father, a song that has a magical quality—the capacity to bind people together. His father's healing song was magical in a more traditional sense, and the song that Loomis learns at the conclusion of the play will teach others self-sufficiency. Bynum stipulates that he is not teach- Page 446  |  Top of Article ing new tunes, but helping others to rediscover the music that they have forgotten. In each case, he suggests that it is the domination of white European culture that has caused the African American characters to forget their songs. Thus the discovery of this music is a recovery of the past, the ante/anti-bondage consciousness. Loomis's reclamation and rehabilitation of his song is a call to evangelize once again, not advocating the Holy Spirit, but promoting self-sufficiency and a rediscovery of African cultural traditions. Loomis's current isolation was not always characteristic of him. He had once been a deacon in his church, and on the day he was captured by Joe Turner, he had stopped to preach to a group of men. Bynum tells Loomis that Joe Turner stole his song. Its recovery implies a renewal of his desire to guide and heal others.

A customary attribute of many shamanic rituals is the blood sacrifice of animals—pigs, goats, cows, etc. The blood served to nourish the gods or to transfer affliction and offense onto the sacrificial subject. Although the practice was uncommon, even human sacrifice might be conducted in a period of social crisis (Blacker 120-21). Initially, the blood imagery in Wilson's Joe Turner has a decidedly Christian quality. While both of the play's shamans experience a blood baptism as an introduction to their vocation, Bynum's clearly alludes to Christ's blood. The blood-covered hands of the "shiny man" suggest the stigmata, and he invites the neophyte to cleanse himself with that blood (9). The action results in an initiatory vision that launches his shamanic profession. In contrast, Loomis's blood ritual is a clear refusal of Christ as the sacrificial subject. While his wife prays for his soul, Loomis declaims against Christianity's false pledge to alleviate the suffering of African Americans. He identifies Christ as an instrument of domination, encouraging African Americans to abide their maltreatment patiently and offering little more than abstract promises of happiness after death. Dismissing the idea that Christ can atone for his sins, Loomis explains that he has done enough bleeding to warrant salvation on his own terms, and it is at this moment that the play declares Loomis's "self-sufficiency," his liberation from Western cultural and theological traditions. Loomis's transfiguration into the African medicine man is complete; he has gone beyond the negotiated shamanism of Bynum, who still allows Western culture to define his spirituality. Just as Bynum's "shiny man" "Goes Before and Shows the Way" (10), Bynum himself was merely a precursor to and facilitator of the newly enlightened African subject, and Loomis will light the way to the spiritual renewal of still others.

The passage of the shaman's vocation encompasses four generations in the play, revealing the means whereby African culture has been transmitted despite the cultural imperialism of white America. The embassy moves from Bynum's father, to Bynum, to Loomis, and, by implication, to the neighbor boy Reuben, who also has a vision. He reveals his experience to Loomis's daughter Zonia. Reuben sees the spirit of Seth's dead mother near the pigeon coops; she is wearing a white dress and radiating light. She beats him with her cane and encourages him to release the caged birds. The spirit's visitation suggests spontaneous election: The beating implies the shaman's suffering and the pleasurable pain of the traditional ecstasy, and the charge that Reuben release the pigeons implies the liberation thematic that is closely related to the shamanic task within the drama. It looks forward to Loomis's liberation and subsequent flight following his final consecration.

The multiplying holy men within the text are set off in sharp contrast to the more mundane characters, who are preoccupied with material wealth, companionship, and sex. These individuals, who are more easily assimilated into white culture, are the very same subjects who must be enlightened and converted to an African consciousness by the play's wise men. Jay Plum describes the "black rite of passage" that is so common in African American literature:

The initiand first rejects the socially fixed position of African Americans as a cultural "other" and withdraws from white society. He or she then moves through a timeless and statusless liminality in which he or she receives instruction, often in the form of ancestral wisdom. Finally, the initiand achieves a sense of self-sufficiency and is reincorporated into society.


The neophyte recognizes that there is no place for him in white culture, so his reintroduction to society involves an embracing of his distinct differences as a man of African descent (565). It is easy to perceive the application of the above paradigm to the character Loomis in Wilson's play. However, the character's reawakening after his encounter with "cultural wisdom" is not the self-discovery of the average African American subject, but the creation of a new source of cultural wisdom, a new African holy man.

Wilson's play Joe Turner participates in the same process that it depicts. The audience experiences the transformation vicariously through the agonies and ecstasies of Harold Loomis. Wilson recognizes the antithetical influences that define African Americans—the impulse to assimilate into white culture and the impetus to extricate and maintain a distinct black culture. In his interview with Sandra Shannon, Wilson expresses his confidence in the viability of a distinctly African American spirituality and culture (546). In Joe Turner, even those characters most fully assimilated into white culture are familiar with and participate in the Juba dance and are sufficiently conversant with non-Western religious traditions to appreciate and fear Bynum's conjuring. However, the play stages an apotheosis which, by example, urges the audience to move toward an uncompromised African spirituality and consciousness. Thus the play- Page 447  |  Top of Article wright himself becomes the shaman, manipulating the ghosts of our imaginations, healing the wounds created by four hundred years of racial oppression and cultural imperialism, and urging the audience to stand up and get back on the road.

Works Cited

Blacker, Carmen. The Catalpa Bow: A Study of Shamanistic Practices in Japan. London: George Allen and Urwin, 1975.

Eliade, Mircea. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Trans. Willard R. Trask. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1972.

Freidel, David, Linda Schele, and Joy Parker. Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shaman's Path. New York: Morrow, 1993.

Harner, Micahel J. "Common Themes in South American Indian ‘Yage’ Experiences." Hallucinogens and Shamanism. Ed. Michael J. Harner. London: Oxford UP, 1973. 158-75.

Layard, John W. "Malekula: Flying Tricksters, Ghosts, Gods and Epileptics." JRAI [Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland] 60 (1930): 501-24.

Lewis, Joan. Ecstatic Religion: An Anthropological Study of Spirit Possession and Shamanism. Baltimore: Penguin, 1971.

Nadel, S. F. "A Study of Shamanism in the Nuba Mountains." JRAI 76 (1946): 25-37.

Needham, R. "Percussion and Transition." Man 2 (1967): 505-14.

Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. New York: Routledge, 1982.

Pereira, Kim. August Wilson and the African American Odyssey. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1995.

Plum, Jay. "Blues, History, and the Dramaturgy of August Wilson." African American Review 27 (1993): 561-67.

Schele, Linda, and David Freidel. A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya. New York: Morrow, 1990.

Shannon, Sandra G. "Blues, History, and the Dramaturgy: An Interview with August Wilson." African American Review 27 (1994): 593-59.

Townsend, Joan B. "Shamanism." Anthropology of Religion: A Handbook. Ed. Stephen D. Glazier. Westport: Greenwood P, 1997. 429-69.

Wilson, August. Joe Turner's Come and Gone. New York: Plume, 1988.

Harry J. Elam, Jr. (essay date 2004)

SOURCE: Elam, Harry J., Jr. "The Overture: ‘To Disembark.’" In The Past as Present in the Drama of August Wilson, pp. ix-xix. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004.

[In the essay below, Elam reflects on Wilson's historical cycle of plays within the larger framework of African American social, political, and cultural history.]

A series of wooden crates sits in the corner of a room. They emit barely audible sounds—Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" and "Travelling Light." A black man who bears a striking resemblance to Abraham Lincoln is shot by an assassin who shouts, "Thus, to Tyrants!"1 A gay, black doctoral student and his 189-year-old grandfather travel back in time to slavery and the insurrection of Nat Turner; their vehicle is a bed that lands, Wizard of Oz style, on the evil "Massa Mo'tel," whose feet dangle from underneath it. Emerging from a watery grave, the ghost of a murdered baby haunts her mother's postemancipation home. Imagining himself the archangel Gabriel, a World War II veteran with a metal plate in his head performs a strange, possessed dance, and through it opens up the gates of Heaven for his deceased brother to enter.

These divergent images, produced in the 1980s and 1990s by African American artists, trouble the interconnections between the African American past and the present. The final reference comes from the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Fences by August Wilson, the author who is the focus of this study [The Past as Present in the Drama of August Wilson]. I set Wilson's work in relation to these other images in order to reinforce my contention that the creation of his twentieth-century cycle of plays does not happen in a vacuum, but within a confluence of artistic creation that includes visual, literary, and dramatic texts. The first representation cited is part of an installation included in conceptual artist Glen Ligon's exhibit at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., from November 1993 to February 1994 entitled "To Disembark." The crates, which vary slightly in size and design, approximate the proportions of the box in which the slave Henry "Box" Brown traveled from Richmond, Virginia, to freedom in Philadelphia in 1849. The title "To Disembark" connotes the transitional process of unloading at the end of the voyage, the impersonal disburdening of black Africans, like cargo from the hull of slave ships. In another section of the gallery hang lithographs that imitate nineteenth-century wanted posters for escaped slaves in which all the descriptions of the runaway slaves concern Ligon himself. Entitling this exhibition that visually foregrounds the impact of slavery on the contemporary African American subject "To Disembark," Ligon implies that African Americans are still in the process of disembarking, still discharging historic baggage, always and already on the physical and psychological journey toward liberated self-definition.

The texts from which the other images come also negotiate issues of disembarkation as they foreground the impact of the African American past on the present. Playwright Suzan-Lori Park's imaginative work, The Page 448  |  Top of Article America Play (1990-93), which contemplates the profound effects that the myth and legacy of Lincoln's freeing the slaves continue to have on the African Americans, is the source of the second image. Irreverently questioning the lack of a gay presence in the history of slavery, Robert O'Hara's play Insurrection: Holding History (1999) is the source of the third. The fourth comes from Toni Morrison's now classic novel Beloved (1987). Set in the period of emancipation, Morrison's novel wakes the dead in order to provoke the processes of African American living. The last occurs during the climax of Fences, a play that explores and, with this final invocation of ritual, transcends the tensions of black family life in Pittsburgh, 1957.

I begin my examination of August Wilson's twentieth-century history cycle with this reference to Fences and to other African American works of the 1980s and 1990s in order to situate Wilson's historical cycle within a larger sociohistoric context. Throughout this volume [The Past as Present in the Drama of August Wilson], my allusions and references will not be limited to the African American dramatic canon but will draw from other genres of black cultural expression as well. Wilson's dramaturgy, like the cultural productions of all those mentioned above, depends on the circulation of images and conditions conducive to such historical explorations. In the 1980s and 1990s, as scholars and artists came increasingly to understand race as a social, political, and historical construction, they correspondingly came to consider how the political and cultural constructions of history helped to constitute the meanings of race.2 And yet, concern for the politics of history and historiography is not particularly new within African American culture. The inability to suppress, control, manipulate, and right histories of race has repeatedly affected the social and cultural dynamics of African American life. W. E. B. Du Bois in his 1935 treatise Black Reconstruction in America took issue with the representation of race within American history at that time, arguing that "the story of Reconstruction from the point of view of the Negro is yet to be written. When it is written, one may read its tragedy and get its truth."3 David Blight notes that the final chapter in Du Bois's work, "The Propaganda of History," served as "an indictment of American historiography and a probing statement of the meaning of race in American historical memory … the stakes in Black Reconstruction were the struggle over the nature of history itself."4 Correspondingly, these artistic imaginings of history in the 1980s and 1990s, let me suggest, are part of a continuing battle over "the nature of history."

The emergence of this artistic return-to-the-past movement testifies to a present desire to reckon with unfinished business. Yet these artistic engagements do not simply offer a compensatory history for that which has been lost or omitted within the American historic lexicon. Rather, in keeping with the historical materialism expressed by Walter Benjamin in his "Theses on the Philosophy of History," they "brush history against the grain" not only to fill in gaps in historic knowledge but to expose history's relativism, as they explore how history means in the present.5 In one of nine etchings with chin collé that mimic the frontispieces by white abolitionists of nineteenth-century slave narratives included in "To Disembark," Ligon writes, "The Narrative of the Life and Uncommon Sufferings of Glen Ligon, a colored man, who at a tender age discovered his affection for the bodies of other men, and has endured scorn and tribulations ever since."6 The etching's style and words write Ligon's personal history into the slave past. Yet the etching also points to Ligon's own negotiations of identity in the present, how he is figured within a history, ghosted by the past. Critical to his and other interpretations of history, including that of Wilson, is an understanding that history is formulated in the now. According to James Baldwin, "If history were past, history wouldn't matter. History is the present…. You and I are history. We carry our history. We act our history."7 With their fantastical, mystical, spiritual imaginings of the past, these artists see history not as static fact, but as malleable perceptions open to interpretation, as a place to envision the past as it ought to have been in order to understand the present and to achieve a future they desire.

Sparked in part by the sociopolitical circumstance of the times, this African American literary and theatrical archaeology in the 1980s and 1990s evidences an approach to the interaction between art, politics, and community more perhaps nuanced than that expressed in the Black Arts movement of the 1960s and 1970s. As Philip Bryan Harper notes, that movement "was characterized by a drive for nationalistic unity among people of African descent."8 This mandate led in many cases to relational artistic practices that explicitly linked black advancement to the destruction of white hegemony, that sought to combat the "white thing," as Mike Sell calls it,9 in terms of both form and content. The Black Arts orientation was decidedly presentist, critiquing Western aesthetics, challenging white privilege in order to effect immediate change. The movement preached a functional aesthetic that envisioned art as a powerful tool in the struggle for black liberation. Yet, writing in the early 1990s, after the black urgencies of the previous decades had largely dissipated, critics such as Harper and David Lionel Smith have pointed to the constraints that such an aesthetic imposed on black artists.10 Rebelling against past, prescriptive paradigms that posited the fight against racism and white oppression at the center of all black artistic creation, playwright Suzan-Lori Parks writes:

There are many ways of defining Blackness and there are many ways of presenting Blackness onstage. The Klan does not have to be outside the door for black people to have lives worthy of dramatic literature…. And what happens when we choose a concern other Page 449  |  Top of Article than race to focus on? What kind of drama do we get? Let's do the math: Black People + x = New Dramatic Conflict (New Territory).11

The "new dramatic territory" that she imagines does not mean an art evacuated of social efficacy. Rather than an obliteration of the politics of race, Parks calls for a freedom to explore new visions of what constitutes black art and the liberty to discover how, within this art, the complex social dynamics and political impulses of black life find expression. Glen Ligon expresses a similar sentiment: "The work of artists of color is often reduced to being simply about race and nothing else as if our gender, sexual, class, and other identities didn't complicate any discussions of race as subject matter, or as if race was our natural subject matter."12 Ligon speaks to the stereotypical expectations placed on black artists from external sources, while Parks discusses the agency of black artists themselves to create beyond the constraints of conventional racial politics. For both, as for Wilson, turning back toward history offers a place to construct "new dramatic territory," to disembark; to explore race and yet to operate seemingly removed from the immediacies of current racial contexts.

Significantly, the fire of the Black Arts movement of the 1960s—even as critics and artists assault its failures, its missed opportunities as well as applaud its successes—still haunts today's black artists. The movement calls out to Wilson and others to achieve its romanticized ideals of real social commitment, material social change, and a functional black unity. Its conjunction of arts and politics raises certain critical questions for artistic practice that challenge African American artists even now: How can we claim a racial unity, celebrate "black power," and cry out that "black is beautiful" without enforcing essentialism? How can we assert our collective blackness while allowing for intraracial differences? How can we marshal or recapture that sense of urgency that we found in black politics of the 1960s? Paradoxically, with such contemporary questions, historical analysis becomes increasingly important, and artists have turned to that past for answers. They seek to reevaluate that past in order to understand the present better. In such an effort, history serves not simply as the site of nostalgia and longing, nor only as progress or as rational, logical process. Rather, this return to the past in the present represents what Giorgio Agamben terms "a critical demolition of the ideas of process, development, and progress."13 The result, then, is a new experience of history, a new contestatory and contingent engagement with the past that puts into question the historical categorization of race as it interrogates the meanings of blackness. For Parks, Ligon, O'Hara, Morrison, and Wilson, revisionist historicism has enabled complex renegotiations of blackness and new delineations of community.

Wilson's self-imposed project, to write a play for each decade of the twentieth century, both links him to and separates him from the other aforementioned history projects. With two Pulitzer Prizes, two Tony Awards and numerous other accolades, August Wilson stands out as one of the preeminent playwrights in contemporary American theater. He has changed the face of American theater, and his emergence has enabled other black writers to follow. As director Marion McClinton states, "A lot of black writers had doors opened to them basically because August Wilson knocked them out…. American theatre now looks toward African-Americans as viable members."14 The viability of Africans in America, their place within the American dream, is central to Wilson's theatrical project. His singular commitment to exploring the experiences of African Americans over time has enabled him to delve into the particular, but also see the process of historic evolution. With this cycle he has shaped a history that is at once personal and collective, figurative and real. John Lahr writes that "his plays are not textbooks; they paint the big picture indirectly from the little incidents of life."15 The plays explore African American history through Wilson's own memories, "his story." Ethics and aesthetics conjoin as the personal dynamics of his characters' lives have profound political consequences. He terms his project "a 400 year old autobiography, which is the black experience."16 In this African American "autobiography," history both shackles his African American characters and empowers them. They must discover how both to embrace the past and to let it go. Because of Wilson's investment in "the souls of black folk" (as W. E. B. Du Bois would say), there is not simply a matter of unfinished business with the past but a hunger for redress and regeneration in the present. As regenerative models of healing, his cycle integrates the political, the historical, and the spiritual in ways that push the realms of conventional realism and evoke a spirit that is both timeless and timely.

Wilson's own movement in writing these plays in his cycle has been far from linear, moving back and forward through time and negotiating the past's impact on the present.17 In fact, he did not originally set out to write a cycle, but in the process of writing discovered that this was exactly what he was doing.

Somewhere along the way it dawned on me that I was writing one play for each decade. Once I became conscious of that, I realized I was trying to focus on what I felt were the important issues confronting Black Americans for that decade, so ultimately they could stand as a record of Black experience over the past hundred years presented in the form of dramatic literature.18

Although not written in chronological order, Wilson has to date completed plays on the 1900s, Gem of the Ocean, 1910s, Joe Turner's Come and Gone (1988), 1920s, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (1984), 1930s, The Piano Lesson (1990), 1940s, Seven Guitars (1996), 1950s, Fences (1987), 1960s, Two Trains Running (1992), 1970s, Jitney (2000), and 1980s, King Hedley II (2001). His play of the century's first decade, Gem Page 450  |  Top of Article of the Ocean, premiered at the Goodman Theater in Chicago in April 2003 and moved from there to the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in July 2003.

With each work, Wilson re-creates and reevaluates the choices that blacks have made in the past by refracting them through the lens of the present. In his most recent plays, he has decided not only to unearth the continuities and disjunctures of African American experience in time, but also to mine the relationship between his own texts. Wilson's King Hedley II explicitly revisits characters seen close to forty years earlier in Seven Guitars. In his final two plays of the cycle, Gem of the Ocean and a newer play to be set in 1999, Wilson intends to "build an umbrella under which the rest of the plays can sit. My relating the '00s to the '90s play should provide a bridge. The subject matter of these two plays is going to be very similar and connected thematically, meaning that the other eight will be part and parcel to these two. You should be able to see how they all fit inside these last two plays."19 Gem of the Ocean, set in 1904, focuses on Aunt Ester, a character as old as the black presence in America, and the action that transpires when Citizen Barlow arrives at her house, seeking sanctuary from spiritual turmoil. While Wilson previously discusses Aunt Ester in Two Trains Running and King Hedley II, Gem of the Ocean marks the first appearance of this figure he now believes is "the most significant person of the cycle. The characters after all, are her children."20 In this play that marks the ultimate inception and near culmination of the cycle, Wilson has worked his way around to staging Aunt Ester.

Because Wilson repeats and revises certain ideas, concepts, phrases, and ritualized actions within the plays—such as Aunt Ester—I have organized this book [The Past as Present] around key questions and critical thematic issues that evolve through his dramaturgy. Rather than constructing the chapters around individual plays, I examine Wilson's self-reflexive intertextuality. His plays purposefully speak to each other; they develop a common agenda. Therefore, examining them in consort and dialogue with each other is crucial. By considering the intersections and continuities across the cycle, I intend this analysis not only to provide insight into the individual plays but, more significantly, to explore how the cycle as whole makes meaning and to theorize how Wilson (w)rights history.

Invoking the concept of (w)righting, I consciously riff on the meanings of writing, righting, right, and rites to frame and analyze Wilson's processes of reckoning with the African American past. (W)righting underscores the etymology and the denotations of the word playwright. Just as a wheelwright makes wheels, a playwright functions not simply as writer but as a play maker. Playwriting is a selective and collective act of creation. "(W)righting history" implies that Wilson, through his three-dimensional constructions of the past, his meditations on black experiences in each decade of the twentieth century, is making history. Carefully situating each play at critical junctures in African American history, Wilson explores the pain and perseverance, the determination and dignity in these black lives. In the introduction that follows, "(W)righting History: A Meditation in Four Beats," I will further develop the concept of (w)righting, as I establish a theoretical overview around the concepts of history, memory, time, and ritual that will prove critical to this study and that are fundamental to an understanding of Wilson's dramaturgy.

Wilson's (w)righting history, his project of dramaturgically documenting the African American past, raises important questions of authenticity and essentialism in representation: How can one play capture, as Wilson proposes, "the most important issues confronting black Americans for that decade"?21 Does Wilson's (w)righting therefore limit and essentialize blackness? Unlike Ligon's "To Disembark" or O'Hara's Insurrection, Wilson's African American history never refers to black homosexuality, nor does Wilson, like Lynn Nottage or Kathleen Collins, depict the historic images of the black bourgeoisie.22 He intends to take up the subject of the black middle class in his final play of the cycle that he will set in 1999. Wilson has situated all his plays to date within very particular social, cultural, sexual, and even geographic spectrums. Can the Hill District of Pittsburgh serve as the symbolic home of all black America? Discussing his April 2001 production of Wilson's Piano Lesson for the San Jose Repertory Theatre, director Kenny Leon proclaimed, "It's like these characters represent all the African-Americans who have ever lived."23 Certainly Leon is not alone in such contentions, as the very nature of Wilson's historical project lends itself to such generalizations. Given our current understanding of the diversity within African American life and of race and history as constructions, however, any criticism that takes Wilson's cycle simply as representative of all African Americans is problematic. Yet I would argue that the "limits" of Wilson representation do not need to be understood as essential, or romanticized as definitive portraits of authentic black experience. Rather, the critical task with Wilson's dramaturgy is that we recognize the utility of the representation without reading it as totalizing; that we note the possibility of responding to its symbolic meaning without corresponding absolutely to it or subordinating oneself to its authority. For theater and performance are always sites of surrogacy, where the figurative becomes charged increasingly with symbolic import and where collective recognition, empathy, and sentiment can be generated in the shared experience of spectatorship.24

One day as I was working on this Overture, my mother, whose social and educational background are very different from that of Wilson or his characters, remarked, Page 451  |  Top of Article "August Wilson's theater makes me proud to be a black person." Not to be overly sentimental, I think her statement encapsulates complex relations of history, racial identity, and identification at play in Wilson's representation and reception. Wilson through his own style of realism, his three-dimensional portraits, his storytelling bravado, validates a history of black experience. Rather than locating blacks in positions of victimization, subordination, or objectification, Wilson places them as subjects of his drama. Given the history and politics of black representation in America, this is a significant move, as signaled by my mother's comment. She identifies with his creation. Even in her difference, it resonates. Wilson's imaginative, selective grounding of black America feels "real" and engenders racial pride. And yet my mother's remark, as well as Leon's, suggest the weight that Wilson bears in the public sphere. As the singular African American playwright, he must be responsible to all black people; he must uplift the race. Do we expect too much of him? Perhaps. Still, as evidenced by his interviews and speeches, Wilson takes on the mantle of social responsibility willingly. How Wilson, employing the vernacular, "keeps it real" historically, theatrically, and culturally is a question of critical import in this analysis of Wilson and his cycle.

Wilson writes that his "blood memory" is a guide for his creation.25 Blood memory—the idea that there are some intrinsic experiences, some ontological knowledge that blacks remember just because they are black—also has the potential to seem essentialized. Suzan-Lori Parks, in her play In the Blood (2000), critiques the very notions of a fixed blackness. Her central character, Hester, is a black, homeless woman with a multicultural brood of children, each with a different father. Through her representation, Parks raises questions about what is in the blood and how blood is racialized. My sense is that Wilson's invocation of blood memory equally interrogates what is in the blood, functioning as a metaphor that is at once something and nothing. For memory is never a perfect mirror, and ideas of race are constantly in flux. Or as Ralph Ellison writes, "I said black is … an' black ain't."26 Blood memory, in Wilson's theatrical construction, operates as a metaphor for his central idea of reimagining history and for appreciating how the African and African American past is implicated in the present. Wilson constructs blood memory on and through his dramas not as a biological essence but as a symbolic representation that dramaturgically blurs the lines between the figurative and the real.

Wilson's personal history, in fact, exemplifies the symbolic construction of blood memory operating in his cycle and testifies to the ways in which collective memory and race are the products of historical, cultural, and social construction. Wilson was born Frederick August Kittel on April 27, 1945. He was the fourth of six children. His father, Frederick Kittel, a white German baker, hardly lived with the family. His mother, Daisy Wilson, worked as a cleaning woman and later married David Bedford, a black ex-convict and former high-school football star. As is signaled by his decision to change his surname from Kittel to his mother's name, August Wilson self-identifies as black, not as mixed. In his now famous speech to the Theatre Communications Group in January 1996 Wilson states,

Growing up in my mother's house at 1727 Bedford Ave in Pittsburgh Pa., I learned the language, the eating habits, the religious beliefs, the notions of common sense, attitudes towards sex, concepts of beauty and justice, and the responses to pleasure and pain that my mother had learned from her mother, and which you could trace back to the first African who set foot on the continent. It is this culture that stands solidly on these shores today as a testament to the resiliency of the African-American spirit.27

Wilson notes that he constructs memory through the learned behaviors passed on in his mother's house. The meanings of the cultural traditions he describes in his mother's house, then, are produced in the present. How they come to signify on the past comes through current understandings of self, identity, and of subjectivity. "The resiliency of the African-American spirit" is a testimony to black endurance, adaptation, and the ability to evolve. Central to Wilson's dramaturgical project is the idea that one can move forward into the future only by first going back. Wilson's cycle suggests that African Americans need to confront more integrally the African dimension of their Du Boisian double consciousness, the penultimate principle of both/and in African American experience.28 They must embrace the legacy of slavery, celebrate the African retentions that remain within African American cultural practices, and acknowledge the psychological scars that still endure.

Even as it starts with the 1900s and concludes with a play set in 1999, Wilson's history cycle reveals an African American continuum that is always in process, stretching back into Africa and reaching into the future. Within West African cultures, life is similarly imagined as a circular process that does not end but is linked in a continuum with the world of the ancestors as well as that of the unborn. Sandra Richards argues that for Wilson, the United States, like Africa, "is a site of cultural becomings … though the idea of democracy may be constant, its substantive meanings and referents are continually changing."29 In the cross-cultural connections that Wilson develops, the notion of disembarking, of moving on toward liberated self-definition, is continuous. His cycle, then, does not constitute an end but a beginning. And so we disembark.


1. Suzan-Lori Parks, The American Play, in The American Play and Other Works (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1995), 164, 171.

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2. Certainly, this artistic attention to the political construction of history in this period correlates with the concurrent theoretical developments in poststructuralism and postmodernism from Roland Barthes to Jacques Derrida, from Hayden White to Frederic Jameson and others that interrogate history as discourse and question how history as narrative operates in relationship to the real. But rather than rehearse those arguments here, I want to turn to the particular interconnections of art, politics, and history in African American experience.

3. W. E. B. DuBois, quoted by David W. Blight, "W. E. B. DuBois and the Struggle for American Historical Memory," in History and Memory in African-American Culture, ed. Geneviève Fabre and Robert O'Meally (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 69.

4. Blight, "DuBois and the Struggle," 59.

5. Walter Benjamin, "These on the Philosophy of History," in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn, 1955 (New York: Schocken, 1978), 257.

6. Glen Ligon, "To Disembark," November 11, 1993-February 20, 1994, Hirshorn Museum, Washington, D.C.

7. James Baldwin and Margaret Meade, A Rap on Race (New York: Dell, 1971) quoted in Byron Kim, "An Interview with Glen Ligon," in Glen Ligon Un/Becoming, ed. Judith Tannenbaum (Philadelphia: Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, 1998), 54.

8. Brian Philip Harper, "Nationalism and Social Division in Black Arts Poetry of the 1960s," in African American Literary Theory: A Reader, ed. Winston Napier (New York: NYU Press, 2000), 461.

9. See Mike Sell, "The Black Arts Movement: Performance, Neo-Orality, and the Destruction of the ‘White Thing,’" in African American Performance and Theater History: A Critical Reader, ed. Harry J. Elam, Jr., and David Krasner (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 56-80.

10. See Harper, "Nationalism and Social Division," 460-74. See David Lionel Smith, "The Black Arts Movement and Its Critics," American Literary History 1 (spring 1991): 93-113.

11. Suzan-Lori Parks, "An Equation for Black People Onstage," in The American Play and Other Works, 20.

12. Byron Kim, "An Interview with Glen Ligon," in Tannenbaum, Glen Ligon Un/Becoming, 54.

13. Giorgio Agamben, "Project for a Review," in Infancy and History: Essays on the Destruction of Experience, trans. Liz Heron (London: Verso, 1993), 148.

14. Marion McClinton, quoted by John Lahr, "Been Here and Gone," New Yorker, April 16, 2001, 54.

15. Lahr, "Been Here and Gone," 54.

16. August Wilson, quoted by Sandra Shannon, "August Wilson's Autobiography," in Memory and Cultural Politics, ed. Amritjit Singh, Joseph T. Skerret, Jr., and Robert E. Hogan (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1996), 179-180.

17. He wrote his play of the 1970s, Jitney, in 1979 and then revised it from 1996 to 2000; Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, set in 1927, was his first play to come to Broadway in 1984; Fences, which Wilson places in 1957, received the Pulitzer Prize in 1987; the action of Joe Turner's Come and Gone, occurs in 1911, but the play won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for 1987-88; Piano Lesson, his play of the 1940s, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1990; while Two Trains Running is set in 1969, it premiered on Broadway in April 1992; Seven Guitars plays out in 1948 and won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for 1996; King Hedley II, with its events transpiring during the decade of the 1980s, came to New York in April 2001; and Gem of the Ocean, set in 1904, premiered at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago in April 2003.

18. August Wilson, quoted by Kim Powers, "An Interview with August Wilson," Theater 16, no. 1 (1984): 52.

19. Chris Jones, "Homeward Bound: August Wilson," American Theatre, November 1999, 16.

20. August Wilson, "American Histories: Chasing Dreams and Nightmares; Sailing the Stream of Black Culture," New York Times, April 23, 2000, sec. 2.1.

21. August Wilson, quoted by John Lahr, "Been There and Gone," 54.

22. See Lynn Nottage, Crumbs from the Table of Joy (New York: Dramatist Play Service, 1998); Kathleen Collins, The Brothers, in Nine Plays by Black Women, ed. Margaret Wilkerson (New York: New American Library, 1986), 293-346.

23. Karen D'Souza, "Teaching the Fine Points of ‘The Piano Lesson,’" San Jose Mercury News, March 25, 2001, sec. E.9.

24. My thanks to Ebony E. A. Coletu for her email conversation and her recommendations for this section.

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25. See August Wilson, preface to Three Plays by August Wilson (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991), xii.

26. Ralph Ellison, The Invisible Man (1947; rpt. New York: Vintage, 1995), 9.

27. August Wilson, "The Ground on Which I Stand," American Theatre, September 1996, 16.

28. Sandra Richards, "Yoruba Gods on the American Stage: August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone," Research in African Literatures 30, no. 4 (1999): 100

29. Richards, "Yoruba Gods," 101.

James Robert Saunders (essay date 2006)

SOURCE: Saunders, James Robert. "‘I done seen a hundred niggers play baseball better than Jackie Robinson’: Troy Maxson's Plea in August Wilson's Fences." In Baseball/Literature/Culture: Essays, 2004-2005, edited by Peter Carino, pp. 46-52. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland and Company, 2006.

[In the essay that follows, Saunders uses the character of Troy in Fences to comment on the opportunities available to blacks in the 1950s, comparing Troy with Josh Gibson, the real-life and exceptionally talented Negro League ballplayer who died at the age of thirty-five, never having been allowed to play in the major leagues.]

It goes without saying that Jackie Robinson's entrance into Major League Baseball in 1947 was one of the most significant events in American cultural history. Prior to that time, blacks, even those who excelled mightily at the sport, were relegated to playing in a segregated baseball league without the fame or fortune that accrued to similarly gifted, and sometimes less gifted, white players of that era. But just as significant, as the event of Robinson breaking the color barrier, is the notion that he was not the best that the Negro leagues had to offer for what came to be known in some corners as baseball's "noble experiment."

Consider, for example, that on the same Kansas City Monarchs team where Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey found Robinson, there was also Satchel Paige, an incomparable pitcher so good, says historian Robert Peterson, that he pitched 100 no-hitters; so good that he would vow to strike out the opposing team's first six or nine men, and then promptly make good on that promise; so good that on occasion he would call in his entire outfield and then pitch without them, becoming in effect a one-man team daring the opposing batter to even be able to hit the ball past the infield, if he could hit the ball at all (140-41). Such were the talents of Paige, a player whom Branch Rickey could not have helped being aware of, and yet he declined to make the pitcher an offer to join the Brooklyn Dodgers organization.

Among the numerous Negro League teams that Rickey could have chosen from were the Philadelphia Stars, the Newark Eagles, the Memphis Red Sox, the Cleveland Buckeyes, and the Birmingham Black Barons. Players he could have chosen ranged from Walter "Buck" Leonard, the black Lou Gehrig, to James "Cool Papa" Bell, who legend had it was so fast that he could click a light switch off and be in bed before it got dark. The list goes on in terms of other players who might have been chosen.

Many who played with Robinson in the Negro Leagues contend that he was not even close to being the best ballplayer among them. His Monarch teammate Othello Renfroe asserted, "We had a lot of ballplayers we thought were better ballplayers" (Heaphy 201). Buck Leonard declared, "We didn't think he was too good—at that time" (Heaphy 201). Rickey himself admitted that what he was looking for went beyond just the desire for a great ballplayer. He was in search of a person with the right disposition, someone who could withstand all the insults that the first black player in the majors was bound to face and turn the other cheek. Robinson's biographer Arnold Rampersad describes how, in interviewing the ballplayer, Rickey actually

stripped off his coat and enacted out a variety of parts that portrayed examples of an offended Jim Crow. Now he was a white hotel clerk rudely refusing Jack accommodations; now a supercilious white waiter in a restaurant; now a brutish railroad conductor. He became a foul-mouthed opponent, Jack recalled, talking about "my race, my parents, in language that was almost unendurable." Now he was a vengeful base runner, vindictive spikes flashing in the sun, sliding into Jack's black flesh—"How do you like that, nigger boy?" At one point, he swung his pudgy fist at Jack's head. Above all, he insisted, Jack could not strike back. He could not explode in righteous indignation; only then would this experiment be likely to succeed.


In the interview, Robinson was able to convince Rickey that he was indeed the right choice. The interviewee was not only a ballplayer but also a graduate of UCLA and a retired Army officer. It is understandable how Rickey took everything into consideration and came to the conclusion that Robinson was the right man for the job in spite of not being the most gifted player that the Negro Leagues had to offer.

The irony of the situation was not lost on the playwright August Wilson, who grew up in Pittsburgh, and most certainly was familiar with the exploits of Josh Page 454  |  Top of Article Gibson, the black Babe Ruth who, as Peterson reports, hit 89 home runs in a single season (158) and "hit the longest home run ever struck in Yankee Stadium" (160). And that's taking into consideration all the home runs that Ruth hit when he played for the Yankees. It is conceivable then that had he been able to play in the Major Leagues, Gibson might have proven to be even better than the Babe. Limited to playing in the Negro Leagues, though, Gibson was ultimately not allowed to fulfill his vast potential.

In the play Fences, Wilson has his main character, Troy Maxson, observe, "I saw Josh Gibson's daughter yesterday. She walking around with raggedy shoes on her feet" (9). The play is set in 1957, just ten years after Robinson broke the color line. Gibson had played out his years with the Negro League's Homestead Grays, Homestead being located just outside the Pittsburgh city limits. In spite of Robinson's great achievement in joining the majors, the tragedy that Wilson wants us to acknowledge is that so many other blacks, including Gibson, were denied that opportunity and the consequences go beyond just Gibson's generation but extend to at least one subsequent generation as symbolized by Troy's sighting of Gibson's daughter with her "raggedy shoes."

Troy's wife Rose tries to ease some of that sense of tragedy by pointing out, "They got a lot of colored baseball players now. Jackie Robinson was the first. Folks had to wait for Jackie Robinson" (9). Her fear, even as she reminds Troy of that positive development, is that her husband will soon drink himself to death, unable to bear the weight of the hand that fate has dealt him. In his prime, Troy batted .432 with 37 home runs in a single season, surely good enough to gain him a spot in the majors if he had only been a white man.

So when his wife, in an effort to ease her husband's torment, draws particular attention to the reality that now baseball's color line has been broken, her husband rails back at her with his own dose of reality that is just as crucial as the breaking of the color line was itself. To her assertion of what Robinson has done, Troy responds, "I done seen a hundred niggers play baseball better than Jackie Robinson. Hell, I know some teams Jackie Robinson couldn't even make!" (10). The statement that Troy makes is worthy of consideration. As I mentioned earlier, the great likelihood is that there were quite a few players in the Negro leagues who were better than Robinson. The question, however, concerns just how many were there? And were there actually teams in the Negro leagues that it would have been difficult for Robinson to make? These are questions that, however vital, will be extremely difficult to answer.

We will recall how Robinson's Kansas City teammate Buck Leonard did not think that he was all that good a player. But then in retrospect that teammate would admit, "Of course now we see what he really did. You know, you can be wrong about a ballplayer. You can look at him and don't think much of him, and then he turns out to be one of the best ballplayers of all time" (Heaphy 201). However, a retrospective of the sort that Leonard rendered was not so hard to do. In his first year with the Dodgers, Robinson batted .297, led the team both in stolen bases with 29, and in runs scored with 125. He also tied with teammate Pee Wee Reese for most home runs with 12. For those first-year feats, he was awarded Rookie of the Year. Before his career was over, he would win the Most Valuable Player award in 1949, play in six All-Star games and six World Series, and be elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Still, the question remains as to how good he was compared to other Negro league players. When Troy says there were teams that Jackie Robinson could not have made, we suspect that this much is an exaggeration, more the grumblings of a person denied opportunity than an account of how things really were. Langston Hughes, in his poem "Harlem," warns of what might happen to a person whose dreams are left tragically unfulfilled. One possibility is that the dream dries up "like a raisin in the sun" (268). On the other hand, the unfulfilled dreamer might just explode, and this latter possibility is what Troy's life has in some sense become, a series of explosions evidenced, for example, by the manner that he responds to the mere mention of Robinson's name.

Jealousy is part of the reason that Troy is so angry. Who knows but that he might have been able to accomplish what Robinson achieved had he not, as Troy's friend Bono puts it, "come along too early" (9). One of Troy's difficulties is, just as the literary critic John Timpane describes, that he refuses to accept "that his own time has passed" (74). His baseball playing days are over, and he has been relegated to the sidelines for a front-seat view of changing times. Proud and joyous times, they may be for some; a terribly tragic trick is how Troy Maxson sees it.

It is interesting to note that Josh Gibson died in 1947, the same year that Robinson broke into the majors. That is quite a coincidence, and Robert Peterson informs us that "Gibson himself had had two tantalizing nibbles that suggested he might become the first to cross the line. In 1939, Wendell Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier reported that Bill Benswanger, president of the Pittsburgh Pirates, had promised a trial for Josh and Buck Leonard" (169). It is fascinating to contemplate the different course that baseball history would have Page 455  |  Top of Article taken had blacks broken the color barrier as early as 1939. It is equally fascinating to ponder what a difference it would have made in Gibson's own life if he had been the one chosen to do what Robinson would finally do eight years later.

Watching the actor James Earl Jones playing the part of Troy Maxson, as he did in the mid-1980s at the Yale Repertory Theatre and on Broadway, was like watching an aging Josh Gibson. At six-foot-one and well over 200 pounds, Gibson was a large man, especially for his times. Jones is similarly large and has added the weight that so often comes with the passing of the years. The spectacle of Jones, in his older years, standing on stage, wielding a baseball bat, that he purports to still be able to swing with some effectiveness, reminds us of the quintessential aging athlete lost in his own reveries of a time that has long since disappeared.

Like Troy Maxson, Gibson resorted to alcohol in an effort to alleviate the pain, the latter man ultimately dying as the result of what could be considered a stroke. Peterson is quick to add, however, that "there are those who believe his death was caused by his disappointment at being denied the opportunity to play in the big leagues" (168). In other words, having to watch Jackie Robinson get the once-in-a-lifetime chance to play in the major leagues, just at the time when he himself was playing out the last weeks of his own severely limited career, was more than he, even with his massive physical strength, could handle. Did he really die of a stroke at the age 35? Or did he die of a broken heart, more difficult to diagnose from a strictly medical standpoint, but just as deadly in the final analysis.

In Troy Maxson we are privy to a character of Gibson-like proportions, and through the playwright's art we are allowed to imagine how it might have been if Gibson, instead of dying at age 35, had lived to be age 53. When the play opens, it is the late 1950s, and Troy's son, Cory, is being recruited by a North Carolina college, to play football. In that situation, Troy's response to his son is: "I don't care where he coming from. The white man ain't gonna let you get nowhere with that football noway. You go on and get your book-learning so you can work yourself up in that A & P or learn how to fix cars or build houses or something, get you a trade. That way you have something can't nobody take away from you" (35).

Troy's experience with baseball has left him jaded, to say the least. And if the North Carolina institution is a white school, Troy is right to be very concerned. True, the Brown v. Board of Education decision had been rendered three years earlier. The Supreme Court had insisted that all public institutions be integrated. And now this is Cory's chance. He is evidently a talented football player. But what will it be like when he arrives on that white college campus in the South in the late 1950s? Will he be allowed to perform up to his potential when the coaches will have so much pressure to play less talented white athletes? Will he and a handful of other black football players be the only blacks on campus? Will he even get his college degree? There are those who will argue that Troy is wrong to discourage his son from accepting the athletic scholarship. The father is jealous for having "come along too early" to have benefited from such an opportunity himself. It is as if he is being tormented by the Jackie Robinson phenomenon all over again.

But if one listens closely to Troy's demands on his son, one hears the intonations of Booker T. Washington who advocated industrial education as the necessary steppingstone for future black advancement. In his autobiography Up From Slavery, Washington defended his position, asserting

one man may go into a community prepared to supply the people there with an analysis of Greek sentences. The community may not at that time be prepared for, or feel the need of, Greek analysis, but it may feel its need of bricks and houses and wagons…. Every student who came to Tuskegee, no matter what his financial ability might be, must learn some industry…. I lost no opportunity to go into as many parts of the state as I could, for the purpose of speaking to the parents, and showing them the value of industrial education. Besides, I talked to the students constantly on the subject. Notwithstanding the unpopularity of industrial work, the school continued to increase in numbers.


The Tuskegee principal was determined that his students be trained in fields that would make them useful once they graduated and had to fend for themselves out in society.

Similarly, Troy's main concern is with Cory's long-term survival. The father is trying to help his son avoid the pain of rejection that he himself experienced decades earlier. When Troy insists on auto mechanics or carpentry or grocery store employment as good options, he is urging his son to be safe, to build on a firmer foundation than what the dream of an athletic career generally allows. As a concerned father, he is an advocate for achieving some level of security as opposed to taking what he perceives as an unnecessary risk. And yet, just as was the case with Booker T. Washington, Troy can be viewed as significantly ambiguous. For example, at his public sanitation job, he is actually something of an activist, fighting to be a driver instead of a "lifter," fighting to dismantle a racist system where pre- Page 456  |  Top of Article viously all the drivers had been white and all the lifters black. As jaded as he is, and perhaps much of that jadedness is a consequence of being a realist, he believes in the same cause for which Jackie Robinson stood—a society where equality of opportunity exists. The anguish comes, for Troy and others who are just like him, in waiting for that day to arrive.

Works Cited

Heaphy, Leslie. The Negro Leagues, 1869-1960. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2003.

Hughes, Langston. Selected Poems of Langston Hughes. 1959. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988.

Peterson, Robert. Only the Ball Was White. New York: Oxford UP, 1992.

Rampersad, Arnold. Jackie Robinson. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.

Timpane, John, "Filling the Time: Reading History in the Drama of August Wilson." May All Your Fences Have Gates: Essays on the Drama of August Wilson. Ed. Alan Nadel. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1994. 67-85.

Washington, Booker T. Up From Slavery. 1901. New York: Bantam, 1970.

Wilson, August. Fences. New York: Plume, 1987.



Jackson R. Bryer and Mary C. Hartig, eds. Conversations with August Wilson. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2006, 260 p..

Contains exchanges between Wilson and interviewers including Michael Feingold, Bill Moyers, Vera Sheppard, and Carol Rosen, conducted between 1984 and 2004.

Koprince, Susan. "Baseball as History and Myth in August Wilson's Fences." African American Review 40, no. 2 (summer 2006): 349-58.

Claims that in Fences Wilson used the metaphorical association between baseball and the notions of optimism and democratic freedom to subvert the idea of the American dream, which the play reveals as excluding African Americans.

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Additional coverage of Wilson's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale: African American Writers, Ed. 2; American Writers Supplement, Vol. 8; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 16; Black Literature Criticism, Ed. 1:3; Black Writers, Eds. 2, 3; Concise Major 21st-Century Writers, Ed. 1; Contemporary American Dramatists; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 115 (brief entry), 122, 144 (obituary); Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 42, 54, 76, 128; Contemporary Dramatists, Eds. 5, 6; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 39, 50, 63, 118, 222; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 228; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules, Eds. DRAM, MST, MULT; Drama Criticism, Vol. 2; Drama for Students, Vols. 3, 7, 15, 17; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 4; Literature and Its Times Supplement, Ed. 1:2; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Major 21st-Century Writers (eBook), Ed. 2005; Modern American Literature, Ed. 5; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; and World Literature Criticism Supplement.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3079400100