Friday, January 20, 2012

African American theatre digest (2)

“Fences” by August Wilson
Denzel Washington in a stage performance of "Fences"

In this realistic play published in 1983, August Wilson has stuffed many of the anxieties of contemporary African American families. The sixth in his ten-part 'Pittsburgh Cycle' where every play is representative of a decade of African American experience, “Fences” tells the story of an ordinary black family of the 1950s: Troy Maxson is a husband and a father, he works as a garbage man and always grumbles when his older son Lyons visits him only to ask for money. He is frustrated because he was an excellent baseball player but was denied entry in the Major League because of his skin colour. For this reason he doesn't want his son Cory to play football. Of course this is a cause of serious argument with his wife Rose. Troy is introverted, he always looks at the past with anger and at the future with resignation. His attempt to get a promotion as a garbage truck driver sounds ridiculous, seen that he doesn't have a driving licence. To give you just another hint, he is building a fence in his yard to keep death away, but also to keep people out. Without realizing that she has stood by him and helped in the household, he cheats on his wife of 18 years. The family, as portrayed by Wilson in this play, is presently precarious, but looking for stability. The play has been awarded the Pulizter Prize for Drama and, although it deals with everyday life and seemingly trivial things there is a lot of symbolism and philosophical insight into the psychological complexities of the characters.

“Ma Rainey's Black Bottom” by August Wilson

Ma Rainey has been one of the first professional blues singers, recording her music at a time, the 1910s and 1920s, when this was perhaps the only way for black people to become rich and famous. She even came before Bessie Smith (a legend telling that Ma Rainey kidnapped Smith and taught her how to sing). Wilson's play deals with Ma Rainey as much as with the musicians in his band and with the white producers. Levee, the youngest member of the band, is bold and ambitious. He has his own innovative ideas about music and tries to impose them on the other musicians, who are however reluctant. He wants to play the songs faster, and with swing. The white producers are interested, but the suspicion that they are only exploiting him is strong. In opposition to Levee there is Toledo. He is the only member of the band who can read and write and has learned a lot of things about African American culture from books, thus he keeps lecturing everyone on the seemingly African influences of their gestures and habits. When Ma Rainey enters the stage, one becomes aware of her stardom: she has her own private car and wants to be served a coca-cola before starting to record the songs. The members of the band, however, keep arguing. Things become even tenser when she stubbornly wants her stuttering nephew Sylvester to deliver a line at the beginning of a song. The tragic epilogue does not leave any hope for the African American experience of the 1920s. It is a grim ending, but one that African American literature has made us accustomed to. Wilson's theatre is humorous at times, but it also has painfully bitter parts. He always constructs complex metaphors of the situation of African American people in a precise moment in time. Hope and defeat go hand in hand in Wilson's work, they are inextricable.    

“Gem of the Ocean” by August Wilson

This the obscurest of the three Wilson's plays I have been reading. It is set in 1904 in Pittsburgh, in the house of a clearly-symbolical 285-years-old matriarch, Aunt Ester, who practices healing with a strange ceremony, the journey to the City of Bones. Citizen Barlow needs to be cleansed because of a crime he has committed, while the city is in turmoil because of an incident at the mill, involving a black man accused of having stolen some nails. The man, faced with the shame of admitting to a crime he has not committed, drowns himself in the river. While Citizen Barlow undergoes the ritual in which he imagines himself on the ship that brought his ancestors to America and visualizes an underwater city of bones, representing the people dead in the voyage and, simultaneously, his ancestors, things get worse in town, until the usual tragic epilogue leaves the audience gasping. What to make of the ritual, with its strong connections to traditional African folklore and animistic religion? How to reconcile it to the dismal fate of black people Wilson insists upon? The hope envisioned at the end of the play, with Citizen Barlow taking up the role of Solly Two Kings, a former guide in the Underground Railroad that led enslaved people to freedom, is highly charged. Finally, after moments of panic and daunting emotions, a small liberation, a cathartic moment that parallels the experience of reconciling oneself with the haunting memory of the Middle Passage.

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