Playwright August Wilson’s urban drama “King Hedley II” depicts a black man’s furious struggle for respect as well as his desperate quest for the means to care for the ones he loves. After seeing the play at Arena Stage recently, I wondered whether there was a way for black boys in our public schools to benefit from Wilson’s potentially life-changing insights.
“I would imagine that they would be able to identify with the rage in Hedley, and that could be a jumping-off point for talking about anger,” said Sandra G. Shannon, a professor of English and founder of the August Wilson Society at Howard University. “It begins a conversation about things that are difficult to talk about.”
But is there a school where black boys could have such a discussion, honestly? The only kind I can think of would be a school just for black boys — something along the lines of what D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson recently proposed.
The details of a college-preparatory school for African American and Hispanic boys have not been made public. But what intrigues me is the concept of a school with the flexibility to help boys of color understand the world around them. In real time.
For too many of them, a misunderstanding can be fatal. Too few get second chances. At such a perilous time in these boys’ lives, the lessons of August Wilson would arguably be more relevant than Shakespeare.
“As an American black man, I get so frustrated dealing inside a white world where nothing I say can convey how complicated life really is, how just being black adds so much to everyday complexities,” said Timothy Douglas, a Wilson protege who is directing “Hedley.” “Wilson gives voice to that with his exceedingly insightful language.”
(Arena Stage, in Southwest Washington, underwent a spectacular renovation and is hosting the play on its more intimate Fichandler stage through Sunday.)
In D.C. public schools, eighth-grade literature includes a study of how writers create different moods, and passages from Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “The Piano Lesson” are used as examples. Ninth-graders use the Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Fences” as part of a study of how writers create tension in the minds of readers.
Presumably, the playwright would have an even more significant role in the curriculum of the proposed school for boys.
“Our entire strategy for empowering males of color involves bringing in the best resources for reaching a population that has the greatest need, getting their attention and helping them succeed,” said Melissa Salmanowitz, press secretary for D.C. public schools. “August Wilson’s rich text could be a great resource, and students could dive deeper in a lot of ways.”
The importance of Wilson’s work cannot be overstated. His astonishing 10-part series of plays called “The Pittsburgh Cycle” chronicles the African American experience through successive decades, from the 1900s through the 1990s. “King Hedley” represents the tumultuous 1980s, when Reaganomics and crack cocaine inflicted damages from which many black communities never recovered.
Wilson, who was born in Pittsburgh, died of cancer in 2005 at age 60. To commemorate what would have been his 70th birthday, the Pittsburgh-based August Wilson Education Project has launched an effort to help educators engage students in discussions about Wilson’s cultural impact. The efforts are focused on four cities: Pittsburgh, Chicago, Atlanta and the District. The August Wilson Society at Howard and the Folger Library Teaching Shakespeare Institute have already scheduled professional development workshops for this month.
“A lot of times, teachers are reluctant to deal with anything that is race-specific, anything that has to do with black life,” said Shannon, the founder of the group at Howard. “It’s not just white teachers — African Americans feel awkward, too.”
The workshops will help. And the recently broadcast PBS documentary “August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand” makes for an indispensable resource.
Henderson will also need an education campaign for her plans to succeed. Opponents are raising the specter of a return to Jim Crow’s “separate but equal” racism and questioning the legality of a school that excludes girls.
But there is a precedent for having a public institution in the city that, on any given day, takes in only boys of color. It’s called the juvenile detention center.
Once you accept the jail, I don’t see how you can reject the school. That’s the kind of societal hypocrisy that drives Wilson’s Hedley into a rage.