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A Man of Great Characters

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By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 3, 2008

There are virtually no walk-on roles in the plays of August Wilson. Perhaps that's because he wasn't particularly good at writing small.

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His dramas are filled with out-of-the-way people: workers at menial jobs and struggling businesses, itinerant hustlers, backup musicians, sanitation men, petty thieves, street mystics, door-to-door peddlers, railroad porters, cooks, waitresses, cabbies, flimflam men, thugs. People who rarely get starring roles in life, let alone on the stage.

Forgotten people, yes. But never forgettable. Wilson's extraordinary gift had something to do with an ability to enlarge the presence of those on the margins, to lay out their dreams and flaws and passions as if their stories were innately poetic, tragic -- even heroic. Maybe it was the special obligation this great playwright felt to his characters -- the knowledge that he was the vital channel to a world to which theatergoers were unlikely otherwise to turn -- that compelled him to treat each and every one of them as major. To allow them to tell us who they are in mellifluous arias of words, luminous speeches redolent of philosophy and faith, communal loss and personal redemption.

On Tuesday, when an actor playing a denizen of a mystical household in the Hill District of Pittsburgh in 1904 speaks the first line of the first play -- "This is a peaceful house," he says -- Wilson's eloquent, rough characters will begin to unleash their oratory on audiences here. Starting with the turn-of-the-century "Gem of the Ocean," which powerfully reveals slavery's enduring hold on African American consciousness, the Kennedy Center rolls out in chronological order each of the 10 plays in Wilson's sprawling chronicle of 100 years of black life. The festival ends April 6 with the final performance of the last play, "Radio Golf," which is set in 1997 in that very same Pittsburgh enclave, now an urban basket case awaiting the mixed gentrifying blessings of a Starbucks.

"August Wilson's 20th Century" turns out to be both significant and well timed, and not only because it's the first occasion on which the Kennedy Center has devoted an entire festival to an African American dramatist. (The institution in recent years has paid homage to the likes of composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim and playwright Tennessee Williams.)

It also happens to arrive at a fascinating juncture in the evolution of black political identity and ethnic pride in this country. Wilson, who died in 2005 at age 60, would no doubt have been captivated by the dramatic possibilities of one of the biggest political stories of our time: the emergence of a black man as a front-runner for the Democratic nomination for president. A man who, like Wilson before him, straddles the racial divide as the child of one parent who was black and the other one white.

Although Wilson rarely dealt head-on with current events -- in a 2000 essay, he wrote that documentary treatments of the black experience "are available to any serious student of history or sociology" -- his last play did touch tantalizingly on the special challenges a black political leader faces. The central figure in "Radio Golf" is a Hill native contemplating a run for mayor of Pittsburgh. (It is the only work in the cycle that prominently features that city's black elite.)

Harmond, the aspiring politician, is accosted by Sterling, an older black Hill resident of far humbler means who wonders whether Harmond, if elected, will bother being "mayor of the black folks."

"The white mayor, he be the mayor of white folks," Sterling declares, in the distinct vernacular that threads all through Wilson's plays. "Black folks can't get the streets cleaned. The schools don't have no textbooks. Don't have no football uniforms. The mayor be the mayor for white folks. As soon as black folks start a club or something, the first thing they say is it just ain't gonna be for blacks. Why not? They got five hundred thousand things that just be for white folks. . . . What's wrong with being the mayor for black folks?"

Sterling's homespun complaint explores a question Wilson might also have posed to a man of color with a real shot at the White House: Given the unique, historic impediments to success for African Americans, should a black leader pursue with extra diligence a policy of remembering, honoring and redressing the past?

In the universally acknowledged lyricism of Barack Obama, one feels other links to Wilson, whose gift for language, for the elliptical musings and the musical cadences of the people of the Hill District -- where the dramatist himself was raised -- informs virtually all the plays. (Only one, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," the scalding '20s entry that reveals racist divisions in the recording industry, is set outside Pittsburgh.) If something of the preacher's liquid energy exists in Obama's speeches, there is a corresponding strain in the plays of Wilson, although his writing draws far more transparently on the biblical and religious references that are such powerful and abiding influences in black American culture.

Fittingly, it is the literary force of the ways Wilson connected ideas on paper that is the special focus of this month-long celebration. The emphasis here is on the written word. The actors -- the majority of them old Wilson hands -- are going through only minimal rehearsals and are being allowed to hold on to their scripts in the staged readings in the 500-seat Terrace Theater.

That format might help to illuminate Wilson's generous bestowals of eloquence, his ability to make every character a poet, from a numbers runner in a diner to an old prophetess in a former sanctuary for runaway slaves. As Bynum, the oddball dreamer of a tenant in the turbulent boardinghouse of "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," puts it, everyone has "a song" . . . "deep inside." And when "a man forgets his song, he goes off in search of it -- till he find out he's got it with him all the time."

A lot of Wilson's characters musicalize, play instruments. But the songs of characters such as Bynum exist, too, on a metaphysical plane. The plays are in some sense about how black American men and women throughout the past century have struggled to find inner peace, to release their souls from the burdens of a history in shackles -- to seek out, to recover, their people's songs. Sometimes the search ends in violence, as is the case in the generational clash between Levee, the young horn player, and Toledo, the older pianist of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." In others, the results are more comical, as in the experience of Memphis, the owner of the shabby restaurant of "Two Trains Running," who resists City Hall and, quite unexpectedly, triumphs.

The uniqueness of these voices truly does contribute to the idea of Wilson's plays as concerts -- a blending of eloquent songs. Some playgoers might argue that the works are repetitive, and indeed, the plays do share themes and even characters. (These convergences might become even more apparent as a result of having them performed in sequence.) But there is profundity and poignancy, too, in how incisively Wilson's people link up: How, for example, Berniece -- holding on so fiercely in "The Piano Lesson" to a relic from a bitter past -- serves as a template for all the characters in the plays who refuse to forget. Or how Troy, the proud, angry, spiteful father of "Fences," becomes the ferocious standard for all the men in the cycle held back by a system not yet prepared to accept them.

It's intriguing that Wilson's century of individual songs should conclude in "Radio Golf" with the quest for authenticity by, of all people, a politician, who battles with his conscience over a shady scheme to suck federal aid out of the blighted Hill District.

We learn over the course of the play that Harmond's community ties go all the way back to the people and events of "Gem of the Ocean." It's almost as if the metaphorical door that he passes through at the end of "Radio Golf" is a portal back to the beginning of the cycle. And yet, to go full circle in this instance is not the same as getting nowhere. Thanks to Wilson's glorious means of expression, it's a journey to someplace utterly new.


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