August Wilson and the Amplification of Black Stories on Broadway

Authored by Roseanne Pensabene

Brown, Mary E. (2020), Collage of Playbills (l-r), Seven Guitars, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Jitney, Fences, The Piano Lesson, and Two Trains Running, all written by August Wilson. From the Harris Papers archive, Marymount Manhattan College, Manhattan, New York. Courtesy of Mary E. Brown.

August Wilson was a wildly lauded playwright in the 1970s and 80s, and used his abilities to share the stories of the struggles African Americans faced and the responsibility to make sure those voices were heard and that they had a place in the theater. Stories of Black Americans were told by Caucasians, which is problematic in of itself, as indicated in Wolfe (1998) “No people can gain authenticity by either accepting others’ judgment of them or looking to others for approval” (4). Wilson exhibited the Vincentian value of respect by giving a platform and awareness to struggles that were so often hidden and ignored (St. John’s University 2017). He also made sure to give opportunities to African Americans within the theater community with the creation of Pittsburgh’s Black Horizons Theater.    

The Playbills featured by Marymount Manhattan College in the Harris Papers archive (2020), are just some of the stories August Wilson told, all of them with the common thread of showcasing the resiliency of African-Americans and power of being self-sufficient and telling one’s own story. As mentioned in his own words in Savran (1987), Wilson was “…trying to write plays that contain the sum total of black culture in America, and its difference from white culture. Once you put in the daily rituals of black life, the play starts to get richer and bigger.” As mentioned in Nadel (2010), the basis of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1982), is of “…the role of black music in a white industry, the problem of artistic control…” (1). The cycle of Black labor for White profit is also exhibited in Fences (1985). He featured music as well in his works from time to time, namely in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Fences, The Piano Lesson (1987), and Seven Guitars (1995). August Wilson was acutely aware of the role the blues played in Black lives and stories and made it a point to have them featured. Wilson wanted to promote the concept of African Americans providing and owning for themselves and lived that theory himself.

August Wilson, along with friend and fellow playwright Rob Penny, founded the Black Horizons Theater, in 1968, in his native Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which featured Black artists and stories. The Black Nationalist theater group subsequently dissolved in the mid-1970s, however, it played a prominent role in giving opportunities and creative outlets to Black artists.

August Wilson and his work were the embodiment of the Vincentian values of respect and opportunity. He wanted to give a proper and empowering voice to his people, and his cycle of plays cemented this and his place in the lexicon of great American playwrights.

References

Center Theatre Group. n.d. “August Wilson: The Man Behind the Legacy.” https://www.centertheatregroup.org/programs/students-and-educators/august-wilson-monologue-competition/august-wilson-biography.

Collage of Playbills, Seven Guitars, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Jitney, Fences, The Piano Lesson, and Two Trains Running, All Written by August Wilson. 2020. Harris Papers, Marymount Manhattan College.

Nadel, Alan, ed. 2010. August Wilson: Completing the Twentieth-Century Cycle. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

Savran, David. 1988. “August Wilson.” In In Their Own Words: Contemporary American Playwrights. New York, NY: Theatre Communications Group, Inc.

St. John’s University. 2017. “St. John’s Mission and Values.” St. John’s University. https://online.stjohns.edu/about-us/mission.

Wolfe, Peter. 1999. August Wilson. Twayne’s United States Authors Series 712. New York, NY.

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