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Blues, History, and the Dramaturgy of August


Wilson

ugust Wilson's dramatic project is comprised of a cycle of


plays that explore some of the historical choices that have
confronted African Americans during the twentieth century. Wilson contends that the black community currently is floundering
because it has failed to turn to its history for strength or guidance:

. . . blacks in America need to reexamine their time spent here to see


the choices that were made as a people. I'm not certainthe right choices
have always been made. That's part of my interest in history-to say
"Let's look at this again and see where we've come from and how
we've gotten where we are now." I think if you know that, it helps
determine how to proceed in the future. (Powers 52)

Although the process of empowering the African American community through history appears relatively straightforward, it is
potentially problematic, since traditional historiography is the
product of a Eurocentric world view that valorizes white men. Because the cultural experiences of marginalized groups like
African Americans have been interpreted by historians according
to the values and ideals of a white male culture, the recovery and,
indeed, the revaluation of African American history demands an
alternative method of inquiry, one that is distinctly African
American.
Perhaps it is not surprising, considering Wilson's functional
aesthetic as well as the limitations of historical discourse, that Wilson claims his project is "entirely based on the ideas and attributes that come out of the blues" (qtd. in Goodstein and Rosenfeld C4). For Wilson, the blues are the African American
community's cultural response to the world; they are a music
"that breathes and touches. That connects. That is in itself a way
of being, separate and distinct from any another" (Ma xvi). The
blues are a connective force that links the past with the present,
and the present with the future.
The analysis of Wilson's blues aesthetic that follows is much
indebted to the vernacular theory proposed by African American
literary scholar Houston A. Baker, Jr. in Blues, Ideology,and AfroAmerican Literature.Like Wilson Baker provides a broad and openended definition of the blues, describing them as an amalgam of
"work songs, group seculars, field hollers, sacred harmonies,
proverbial wisdom, folk philosophy, political commentary, ribald
humor, elegiac lament, and much more" (5). The blues, rather
than being a hybrid of European aesthetic forms, constitute an expressive matrix that reflects the complexities of African American
culture. Their potential as a critical tool in examining African
American literature is consequently far-reaching. By using
Baker's vernacular theory of the blues as its interpretative
Afdcan American Review, Volume 27, Number 4
0 1993 Jay Pluml
u5

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Jay Plum, a doctoralstudent


in theatreat the Graduate
Centerof the CityUniversity
of New York,is the authorof a
forthcomingbio-bibliography
of Rose McClendon,the
celebratedactorand a championof AfricanAmerican
theatreduringthe 1920s and
1930s.

framework, this study offers an


R.S.V.P. to his "invitation to inventive
play" (14). I specifically seek to explore how Wilson's plays function as a
cultural trope that foregrounds the
marginalization of African Americans
in order to reawaken cultural consciousness.

istory theoreticallyisanopen-

ended discourse that does not


constitute reality but provides a meaning, or an interpretation, of past
events by an objective observer. In
practice, however, historians subjectively choose and arrange events to
reflect their own cultural experiences,
making the so-called objectivity of history a fallacy. In constructing
American history, for example, historians (the majority of whom have
been white male Protestants) have
valorized white male settlers and marginalized women and people of color.
As such, American history tends to be
the story of religious men willed by
God to tame a savage land devoid of
humans and human institutions.
Whereas Puritan and Pilgrim settlers
(and their descendants) function as
subjects in this narrative, marginalized
groups such as African Americans
play supporting roles.
Wilson's dramaturgy challenges
the secondary position of African
Americans within American history
by contextualizing black cultural experiences and, in turn, creating an opportunity for the black community to
examine and define itself. Rather than
writing history in the traditional
sense, Wilson "rights" American history, altering our perception of reality
to give status to what American history has denied the status of "real." To
this end, the blues provide a mediational site where the contradictions between the lived and recorded experiences of African Americans might be
resolved.

562

The story of Joe Turner's chain


gang is a case in point. Although the
chain gang affected the personal lives
of many African Americans, traditional histories of the United States make
little or no mention of the
phenomenon; historians in effect have
written this experience out of existence. At the turn-of-the-century, however, a group of African American
women musically documented the effect of the chain gang on their lives:
Theytell me JoeTurner'scome and
gone
Ohhh Lordy
They tell me JoeTurner'scome and
gone
Ohhh Lordy
Got my man and gone
Come with fortylinks of chain
Ohhh Lordy
Come with fortylinks of chain
Ohhh Lordy
Got my man and gone. (Wilson, Joe

67)

By singing the blues, these women became their own cultural historians and
moved from an absent to an always
present subject position. In much the
same way, Wilson positions African
Americans as the subjects of his plays,
offering a countertext to traditional
American history.
Wilson's dramaturgy specifically
resists the egalitarian myth of America
as a land of endless opportunity for
everyone, focusing instead on the social and economic displacement of
African Americans. For example, in

Ma Rainey'sBlackBottom,Wilson inverts the familiar meaning of the


American Melting Pot, suggesting that
America more accurately is a cultural
stew in which African Americans are
the leftovers:
Everybody come from different
places in Africa, right? Come from
different
tribes and things.
Soonawhile they began to make one
big stew. You had the carrots, the
peas, and potatoes and whatnot
over here. And over there you had
the meat, the nuts, the okra, corn ...
and then you mix it up and let it

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cook right through to get the flavors


flowing together .. . then you got
one thing. You got a stew.
Now you take and eat the stew. You
take and make your history with that
stew. All right. Now it's over. Your
history's over and you done ate the
stew. But you look around and you
see some carrots over here, some
potatoes over there. That stews still
there. You done made your history
and it's still there. You can't eat it all.
So what you got? You got some leftovers. That'swhat it is. You got some
leftovers and you can't do nothing
with it. You already making you
another history . . . cooking you
another meal, and you don't need
them leftoversno more.Whatto do?
See, we's the leftovers. The
colored man is the leftovers. Now
what's the colored man gonna do
with himself? That's what we waiting to find out. But first we gotta
know we the leftovers. (57)

Wilson uses the blues as "a 'negative


symbol' that generates (or obliges one
to invent) its own referents" (Baker 9).
In this case, he rejects the falsity of the
American Dream, which has made it
difficult for many African Americans
to achieve a state of self-actualization.
Toledo warns:
As long as the colored man look to
white folks to put the crown on what
he say ... as long as he looks to white
folks for approval ... then he ain't
never gonna find out who he is and
what he's about. He's just gonna be
about what white folks want him to
be about. (Wilson, Ma 37)

Wilson uses the stew metaphor


similarly in Fences to illustrate the
economic inequities experienced by
members of the black working class.
Troy Maxson recalls the following incident witnessed in a restaurant:
I seen a white fellow come in there
and order abowl of stew. Pope picked
all the meat out of the pot for him.
Man ain't had nothing but a bowl of
meat! Negro come behind him and
ain't got nothing but the potatoes and
carrots. (23)

Through the metaphor of the cultural


stew, then, Wilson illustrates what
Baker calls the "economics of
slavery" -a governing statement of
American history that perpetuates the

economic structure and patriarchal


myths of the antebellum South (26-27).
In the end, Wilson argues, the assimilation of African Americans into
the dominant culture has denied them
a means of defining themselves culturally. Presumably lured by the
promise of industry and the apparent
success of European immigrants, millions of African Americans moved
north at the turn-of-the-century in the
hope of finding a better life. But this
migration, according to Wilson, actually displacedmany African Americans
because it removed them from a distinctly African American culture already founded in the South:
From the deep and the near South
the sons and daughters of the newly
freed African slaves wander into the
city. Isolated, cut off from memory,
having forgotten the names of the
gods and only guessing at their
faces, they arrive dazed and
stunned, their heart[s] kicking in
their chest[s] with a song worth
singing. They arrive carrying Bibles
and guitars, their pockets lined with
dust and fresh hope, marked men
and women seeking to scrape from
the narrow, crooked cobbles and the
fiery blasts of the coke furnace a
way of bludgeoning and shaping
the malleable parts of themselves
into a new identity as free men of
definite and sincere worth.
Foreigners in a strange land, they
carry as part and parcel of their baggage a long line of separation and
dispersement which informs their
sensibilities and marks their conduct as they search for ways to
reconnect, to reassemble, to give
clear and luminous meaning to the
song which is both a wail and a
whelp of joy. (Wilson, Joexi)

If African Americans hope to free


themselves from the bonds of the
economics of slavery, they must accept the choices inherited from their
ancestors. As Black Arts critic Larry
Neal explains, "History, like the blues,
demands that we witness the painful
events of our prior lives; and that we
either confront these painful events or
be destroyed by them" (286). For Wilson, the historical knowledge

OF AUGUSTWILSON
ANDTHEDRAMATURGY
BLUES,HISTORY

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563

"Youdon't even have to tell me no


provided by the blues is the first step
more. I know the facts of it. I done
in transcendingmarginalexistence.
heard the same story a hundred times.
As an ever-changingnetwork of
It happened to me, too. Same thing"
ceaseless input and output, the blues
are, in Baker'swords, "themultiplex, (97).By documentingthe experiences
of individuals which have occurred
enabling scriptin which Afroprior to the dramaticaction, such anecAmericanculturaldiscourseis indotes comprise an "alreadysaid" text
scribed"(4).Wilson similarlyviews
of AfricanAmericanculthe blues as an empowerture analogous to the dising text that recordsAfrican
August
course of history. The act
American experiences. In
Wilson's
of telling personal anecMa Rainey'sBlackBottom,he
characterizesthe blues as a
dramaturgy dotes, moreover,marksa
uniquely African American emerges as a shift from dialogue to a
third-personnarrative
phenomenonthat makes the
blues trope that in effect creates"an
unreal "real" by filling the
emptinessof life:
that challenges anonymous (nameless)
MaRainey:Whitefolksdon't white cultural voice issuing from the
Black(w)hole"associated
understand about the blues.
Theyhearitcomeoutbutthey
hegemony.
with the blues (Baker5).
don't know how it got there.
AfricanAmericanlisThey don't understand that's
life's way of talking. You don't sing
to feel better. You sing 'cause that's a
way of understanding life.

Cutler: That's right.You get that understanding and you done got a grip
on life to where you can hold your
head up and go on to see what else
life got to offer.
Ma Rainey: The blues help you get
out of bed in the morning. You get up
knowingyou ain'talone.Tire's something else in the world. Something's
been added by that song. This be an
empty world without the blues. I take
thatemptiness and try to fill it up with
something. (82-83)

For Wilson, the blues are a supportive


force that allows listeners to transcend
their hardships; the blues reawaken
cultural consciousness and provide a
new understanding of life.
The blues in this sense serve as an
African American "always already"
text that inscribes cultural experiences.

In Ma Rainey'sBlackBottom,for example, Cutler recalls the story of


Reverend Gates, a man who missed
his train and found himself stranded
in a strange town. Harassed by some
of the town's citizens,

..

the only

way he got out of there alive-. . . was


to dance." Before Cutler finishes the
story, however, Toledo interrupts:

564

teners may recall shared cultural experiences and, like Toledo, come to
the realization that they too have
heard this story before.
This reawakening of cultural consciousness, in turn, initiates a black
rite of passage in which Wilson's characters strive for a new existence. In his
study of tribal rites of passage,
anthropologist Amold van Gennep
identifies three stages to such
ceremonies: separation, transition, and
reincorporation. In reading African
American literature (particularly the
works of Richard Wright), Baker suggests that the position of blacks in a
white-dominated society forces many
into a "life crisis" of black identity that
results in a black rite of passage (152).
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.
Rather than assimilating white cultural values, however, the initiand ex-

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periences a separate way of being because, Baker argues, "an enduring


BlackDifferenceis the only world available to the initiand" (154).
Wilson's dramaturgy similarly
marks the movement of African
Americans toward a subject position.
All of his plays to date present characters on the threshold of a new existence who seek an answer to the question asked by Levee in Ma Rainey's
BlackBottom:"How can I live this life
in a society that refuses to recognize
my worth, that refuses to allow me to
contribute to its welfare-how can I
live this life and remain a whole and
complete person?" (Powers 53).
Of all of Wilson's characters,
Herald Loomis (in Joe Turner'sCome
and Gone) most noticeably achieves a
new social status through selfknowledge. After spending seven
years on Joe Turner's chain gang and
being told repeatedly that he is worthless, Loomis searches for "a world that
speaks something about himself. He is
unable to harmonize the forces that
swirl around him, and seeks to
recreate the world into one that contains his image" (Wilson, Joe14). In
order to "soar above the environs that
weighed and pushed his spirit into terrifying contractions" (94), Loomis
must discover the song that is within
him. He ultimately receives strength
and vision from the Juba dance,
reminiscent of the dance of African
slaves. Empowered by his African ancestry, he begins to shine.
The story of Herald Loomis arguably suggests that African
Americans, if they are to transcend
their liminal existence, should recover
their "African sensibilities"; that is,
they might benefit from adopting an
African humanist world view in
which human beings are considered
"a part of the world," rather than
"apartfrom the world" (Livingston 31).
By celebrating difference, African
Americans potentially can transcend
their liminality.

In the process, however, African


Americans must remember to harmonize individual and communal
needs. As Toledo explains in Ma
Rainey's BlackBottom, "It ain't just me,
fool! It's everybody! What you think
. . . I'm gonna solve the colored man's
problems by myself? I said, we. You
understand that. We. That's every
living colored man in the world got to
do his share. Got to do his part" (42).
Although this world view can be
found in all of Wilson's plays, it is perhaps explored most fully in ThePiano
Lesson.The fate of a family piano becomes a source of conflict between a
sister and brother: Berniece wants to
keep the family heirloom as a
reminder of her family's suffering and
hardships, while Boy Willie wants to
sell the piano to buy a farm once
worked by their ancestors. The piano
proves too much of a load for just a
few individuals to handle, however.
"It's going to take more than me and
you to move this piano," Lymon tells
Boy Willie (Wilson, Piano 83). Indeed,
it will require that the entire Charles
family come to terms with the familial
legacy represented by the piano. Berniece eventually finds the courage to
play the piano once again, asking
Papa Boy Charles and Mama Ester to
help the family drive Sutter's ghost
from her home. By calling upon her
ancestors, Berniece protects her family
and propels it into the future. African
American heritage in this light is not a
burden but a positive force that can
empower the African American family at large.

In the contextof Baker's vernacular

theory of the blues, August


Wilson's dramaturgy emerges as a
blues trope that challenges white cultural hegemony. For Wilson the blues,
rather than defining African
Americans through the limited discourse of American history, enable
African Americans to explore their

OFAUGUSTWILSON
ANDTHEDRAMATURGY
BLUES,HISTORY

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565

liminality through the everyday experiences of the past and to reclaim


their cultural history.
If Wilson's plays are successful in
this aim, it seems curious that they
somehow have transcended cultural
boundaries and found commercial as
well as critical success in the white
theatrical mainstream. The responses
of Richard Homby and Holly Hill are
typical of critics who regard Wilson as
one of the foremost American
dramatists of our generation. Hornby
maintains that "Wilson makes trendy
white playwrights like Mamet look
paltry; he is now the only American
playwright of his generation who can
be mentioned in the same breath as
O'Neill, Williams, or Miller, our best"
(518). Hill also draws comparisons between Wilson and the so-called
"giants of American playwrights,"
going as far as to suggest that "the
size and shape of his vision remind us
of Shakespeare's, and of the beginnings of western drama in Greece"
(95). In contrast, Robert Brustein argues that Wilson's project has been coopted by the white theatrical establishment; Brustein attributes Wilson's
success to his conservative approach
to playwriting (i.e., "the mainstream
American realist tradition") which appeases white liberal guilt without intimidating (28).
Ironically, what is missing from
these critiques is a sense of Wilson's
place within African American history, specifically within the history of
the blues. The resistant/co-opted position of Wilson's plays in the theatrical
mainstream seems analogous to that
of the "classic" blues of the race record
industry of the 1920s. In Blues Fell This
Morning, Paul Oliver identifies the
race record industry as a significant
moment in the history of the blues because it preserved the work of blues
artists in a permanent form and dis-

566

seminated their music to African


Americans across the country. While
remaining a functional form, the blues
evolved into a popular form of
American entertainment. For white
audiences, the blues may have expressed experiences shared by
European immigrants; or, for very different reasons, the blues may have appealed to a white fascination with socalled black primitivism. Yet, even in
this commodified form, the blues
created, in the words of black feminist
Angela Y. Davis, "an aesthetic community of resistance, which in turn encouraged and nurtured a political community of active struggle for freedom"
(201).
Like the classic blues, Wilson's
plays may appeal to white and black
audiences for different reasons. On the
one hand, his dramaturgy provides a
permanent record of twentieth-century African American history; it is a
liminal phenomenon "betwixt and between" black marginality and subjectivity. Wilson's plays are a potential
source of empowerment that helps
African Americans shape their future
by becoming informed cultural historians. On the other hand, Wilson's
dramaturgy "uncover[s] the commonalities of culture" (Wilson, qtd. in
McIntyre D7) by examining the historically specific experiences of African
Americans. White audience members
may relate to these experiences or
share similar experiences as the descendants of European immigrants. To
this end, the blues are a uniquely
American vernacular that, according to
Baker, "enables one to understand
that, rather than being a nation of
strangers in search of Anglo-male
domestication, AMERICA has no
strangers"(112). Through the discourse of the blues, Wilson thus envisions a more inclusive notion of
America.

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Baker, Houston A., Jr. Blues, Ideology, and Afro-Amencan Literature:A Vernacular Theory.
Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984.
Brustein, Robert. "The Lesson of the Piano Lesson." New Republic 21 May 1990: 28-30.
Davis, Angela Y. Women, Culture, and Politcs. New York: Random, 1989.
Goodstein, Laura, and Megan Rosenfeld. "August Wilson: Writing Plays from the Blues."
Washington Post 13 Apr. 1990: C1+.
Hill, Holly. "BlackTheatre into the Mainstream." Contemporary Amercan Drama. Ed. Bruce King.
New York: St. Martin's, 1991. 81-96.
Homby, Richard. "New Life on Broadway." Hudson Review 41 (1988): 512-18.
Livingston, Dinah. "Cool August: Mr.Wilson's Red Hot Blues." Minnesota Monthly Oct. 1987: 24-32.
McIntyre, Mike. "The Worth of the Blues." Washington Post 30 July 1986: D7.
Neal, Larry."The Black Arts Movement." The BlackAesthetic. Ed. Addison Gayle, Jr. Garden City:
Doubleday, 1971. 272-90.
Oliver, Paul. Blues Fell This Morning: Meaning in the Blues. 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge UP,
1990.
Powers, Kim. "AnInterview with August Wilson." Theater 16 (Fall/Winter 1984): 50-55.
van Gennep, Arnold. The Rites of Passage. Trans. Monika B. Vizedom and Gabrielle L Caffee.
Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1960.
Wilson, August. Fences. New York: Plume, 1986.
-.Joe Turner'sCome and Gone. New York: Plume, 1988.
-. Ma Rainey'sBlackBottom.New York: Plume, 1985.
-. The Piano Lesson. New York: Plume, 1990.

Works
Cited

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ANDTHEDRAMATURGY
BLUES,HISTORY

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567