Playwright August Wilson speaks on race and the human condition
Aspen Times Staff Writer
As delicate white flakes of snow fell gently outside, blackness filled the Wheeler Opera House last night.
It’s hard not to read a sentence like that without some sort of value judgment. At best, “blackness” is probably taken to mean mysterious, more likely dangerous, and maybe even evil.
Yesterday, it was the playwright August Wilson filling the Wheeler, as part of a ceremony honoring him with the Comedy Arts Festival’s Freedom of Speech Award. He is black, and he was magnificent.
I first saw a Wilson play at London’s National Theater. The play, “Jitney,” takes place in the late 1970s in a taxicab office in the Hill District, a black ghetto in Pittsburgh.
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As are all of Wilson’s plays, “Jitney” is written in heavy vernacular. It was remarkable to witness a stuffy British audience, the self-appointed guardians of blank verse and high taste, overcome by the power of Wilson’s message.
Wilson is the grand sage of American theater, revered and venerated. His message is simple. The main weapon of racists, hate mongers and oppressors has always been dehumanization ” a black person is somehow less of a person, less of a man; in the case of our original Constitution, three-fifths of a man.
Since his inauguration into playwriting in 1979, Wilson has launched a consistent and eloquent attack on this mode of thinking. His plays demonstrate the universality of the human condition, even in a ghettoized community like the Hill District. His characters are black, dress like blacks, speak like blacks, but feel above all like humans.
Even when set in cramped, dead-end neighborhoods, the scope of Wilson’s plays is remarkable. To him, the great themes of drama are just as likely to appear in the Hill District as in the castles of Elsinore. Wilson is unflinching in the face of inequality and oppression, but is never distracted from the larger themes of life.
The most pressing issues facing his characters might be poverty and oppression, but like all of us, his characters struggle against life itself. They hold no pretenses to grandeur, but still struggle in their own way to answer Hamlet’s most famous question, “To be or not to be,” in the affirmative. It is this struggle that imbues Wilson’s characters with a grand and tragic nobility ” the nobility of being human.
Wilson has become a revered figure in the world of letters, a remarkable feat considering that he has made a career writing about a population that America’s literati had for years only really seen through the tinted windows of air-conditioned cars. He is about to begin a tour of one-man shows that gives an autobiographical account of how he became America’s most honored contemporary playwright.
Last night, before accepting his award, Wilson presented excerpts from the show. Charles Dickens, another author who wrote with great compassion about a previously ignored sector of society, was famous for such traveling one-man performances, and it’s clear Wilson shares his talent for oration.
Yet unlike Dickens, who by all accounts was a mean, repugnant human being, Wilson comes across as a wise and lovable storyteller blessed with a poet’s tongue.
His show, entitled “How I learned what I learned,” is a humorous, often profound look at the myriad of experiences that form one’s sense of self. The main events of Wilson’s life ” dropping out of school at 15, for example ” are glossed over in favor of the small, seemingly insignificant moments that his memory has fixated on as emblematic of his experiences. It is a portrait of an artist as master of his craft.
The show will undoubtedly be well-received across America, as it was last night in Aspen. Wilson should accept the standing ovations, the hoots and cheers. But he should also remember that, like in his plays, we clap not for his story, but for the human story, the human condition, something he handles with the delicacy and beauty of freshly fallen snow.
[Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org]
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