“For the songs, rituals and folklore that were lost in slavery’s middle passage, his plays are those forgotten songs remixed for the struggles of adapting to these shores”
Playwright/director/actor Chadwick Boseman, who recently portrayed Jackie Robinson in the movie 42, wrote an article for the LA Times about the playwright August Wilson. Wilson’s legacy, the thing he set out to do and completed, is his 10-play cycle. He wrote a play depicting African American life for every decade of the 20th Century. All but one of his protagonists are black men and all but one of his plays takes place in Pittsburgh’s Hill Community, a neighborhood that never recovered from vandalism and looting after Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination.
He wrote each man from Joe Turner to Troy Maxson to Sterling to Solly Two Kings as a full, living, breathing, dreaming, working being. Among August’s men are trash men, ex-cons, entrepreneurs, politicians, musicians, and everything in between. No matter their walk in life or their lot in life, he left their dignity in tact, even if they were not good people. Wilson wrote men that we could hate and love at the same time. He wrote MEN.
As a student, practitioner, and administrator of the theater, I encounter Wilson’s work frequently. The first time I was introduced to his work I was in high school, and I saw an abridged production of Fences performed for the regional one act play competition. Troy was played by a white boy. I’m sure August would have been horrified, but that’s a whole other story of suburban high schools and colorblind casting…
As I studied Wilson’s work more and more in college, and most recently at my job when we staged a production of Two Trains Running, for which I wrote an article about the Black is Beautiful Movement, I came to realize that this wonderful writer, our black Shakespeare, had set a powerful example. And now, I wish a playwright would do for black women what August Wilson did for black men.
Black women were present in Wilson’s plays, but only because writing a world without women would not make sense. Wilson never delved into their histories, their desires, their lives, their dreams, and rightfully so, because that was not his purpose. But it must be someone’s. In the American theater black women have never gotten up off of the floor. We’re still scrubbing, crying, and dying.
That is not to say that that depiction does not still ring true for some black women, but for the college graduates, the doctors, the lawyers, the politicians, the CEOs, the social workers, the teachers, the writers, the ones that are overcoming– where are we in the American theater? I am not advocating that we forget our grandmothers who scrubbed floors to raise our mothers. August Wilson’s Aunt Ester warns against such things. However, I am advocating for progress in the depiction of black women on stage. I don’t want us to be portrayed as sassy grandmothers by men in drag, welfare mothers, or overachieving ice princesses.
Whose story is that? Whose spectrum is that? Whose soul is that?
With that being said, I am issuing a challenge to myself and to the American theater: Write us with dignity. Write us as people and not imitations of people. Write us as we are. Write our souls so that actors may speak us out loud.
Read the full article “August Wilson’s words came straight from his soul”.