I am not African-American. But I have found myself strongly responding to the plays of August Wilson. The playwright from Pittsburgh presented with his 10-play cycle a powerful picture of the lives and struggles of African Americans in each decade. Best known of Wilson’s works is Fences and its adaptation to film in 2016. Part of the power of Wilson’s work is its universality. He touches on themes of family, dreams, rage, and the power of Spirit among many themes. His plays go far beyond race.
I find myself responding strongly to Wilson’s theme of “blood memory”. He called on others to embrace their blood memory — the collective memory of the struggles of our ancestors, some of whom created pathways of hope through their blood, literal and spiritual. His play The Piano Lesson speaks strongly to this theme. Bernice is in possession of a piano which has been in her family for generations. Carved on this piano are scenes and images reflecting the family history. Thus, when her brother Boy Willie wants to sell the piano, she forcefully resists, pointing out that their family’s blood is in the piano.
I remember in Cobh Ireland when I stepped inside a replica immigrant ship. I had a strong emotional response knowing that ancestors of mine including my grandmother travelled in these ships for weeks and months, seeking a better life. That connection I had that day is Blood Memory.
I have on my desk a large piece of coal. I have it there to remind me of my roots. Most of my ancestors worked the coal mines of Northeast Pennsylvania. Some got out to other jobs. Others did not. One of my uncles died of Black Lung disease. The emotion I feel when I hold that piece of coal is Blood Memory.
That Blood Memory is important since it honors my ancestors. I must never forget that the blood of those oceanic travelers, those coal miners and factory workers and mothers trying to raise and feed a houseful of children flows in me. What I have achieved in my life I owe to them. I must never forget who and what I come from.
I find too that I respond to some of the themes of family in Wilson’s plays. Here is a scene from the Broadway version of Fences featuring James Earl Jones and Courtney B. Vance. The son asks his father “How come you never liked me?” The father’s intense response may seem harsh but within that response is his definition of fatherhood. And within that response is fatherly love. I believe that it was an attitude that guided many of my own father’s life choices. He too was motivated by a desire to provide well and to help me find a path to a better life. He too taught me that, for him, work and caring for his family gave him a sense of purpose.
Many of Wilson’s plays carry strong spiritual themes. Some like The Piano Lesson speak to the dangers of ignoring that which is spiritual in life and also speak to the power of the spiritual to help with healing. Other plays such as Joe Turner’s Come and Gone speak to the power of redemption, a redemption sometimes found through one’s own blood.
Wilson was criticized for his portrayals of women yet some of his most powerful monologues are spoken by women. The strength of many of these women was inspired by Wilson’s memories of his own mother who fiercely fought to provide for her children, making great personal sacrifice in the process. The following scene features Viola Davis and Denzel Washington in the Broadway revival of Fences. Ms. Davis’ character speaks with power and fury of the many sacrifices she has made to provide her husband and family with stability. I believe that, along with the audience, my own stoic mother would applaud.
Good theater speaks to all of us. I can find myself in Tennessee Williams and The Glass Menagerie. I can find myself in Eugene O”Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. I can find myself in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. And while I did not grow up African American and did not grow up without a father, I do find myself in August Wilson’s plays. His words, spoken in the rhythms of those he knew in the Pittsburgh Hill District, speak also to me. And for that I am grateful to him.
Further Resources: The film version of Fences is readily available and follows the play script closely. The Piano Lesson was presented on Hallmark and is available through streaming services.
A recent biography of August Wilson titled August Wilson: A Life by Patti Hartigan is a very readable picture of the playwright’s journey.