August Wilson - a new voice for black American theater

In August Wilson's play ''Ma Rainey's Black Bottom,'' one of the main characters says, ''As long as the black man looks to the white man for approval, he ain't never gonna find out who he is and what he's about.'' It is a statement that says as much about the author's intent, as an emerging black American playwright.

In the black American theatrical tradition, distinguished as much by political circumstance as individual achievement, Wilson is being hailed as a significant new voice. With the recent Broadway opening of ''Ma Rainey'' (see review in this section) after its premiere at the Yale Repertory Theatre last April, many observers are calling the playwright a major find for the American theater.

His success comes at a time when few black playwrights are finding and keeping a national audience. One notable exception is Charles Fuller, the author of ''A Soldier's Play,'' the 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama that has recently been released as a film, ''A Soldier's Story'' (see Oct. 11 Monitor review).

''In the past we've gone through a guilt period that allowed the (black) writers to make it in the '60s,'' says Lloyd Richards, artistic director of the Yale Rep and director of ''Ma Rainey.'' ''Black is not exotic now. (Black playwrights) have to earn their own way.''

It's an assessment with which Wilson concurs. ''I think black theater of the '60's was angry, didactic, and a pushing outward. What I try to do is an inward examination.'' While insisting that he writes from the black tradition - ''I think the black Americans have the most dramatic story of all mankind to tell'' - Wilson is just as adamant about his personal tradition as a published poet. ''I come to playwriting out of words, poetry,'' he says.

In his plays, Wilson's fecund use of language borders on the musical. It is a talent he admits flies in the face of ethnic reputation. ''Blacks have generally been considered deficient in the language arts,'' he says. ''The general attitude ... has been towards blacks, if you're dealing in language arts, you're not very adept.''

Wilson, born and raised in Pittsburgh, but now writing from his home in St. Paul, Minn., has been working at his craft for 19 years. He says his intent has always been to ''concretize'' the black tradition. Or as he describes it, ''to demonstrate that (that tradition) is able to sustain a man once he's left his father's house.'' Indeed, the theme that flows through his work like a current is the need for black Americans to chart their own way - to forge an identity that is both African and American. Although this chronicling of the black American's search for identity is thematically similar to that of many of his predecessors, Wilson's dramatic skills are ''alarmingly fresh,'' according to one New York critic.

Wilson says that his works spring from a variety of sources: a snippet from a jazz recording formed the germ of ''Ma Rainey''; a painting by black artist Romare Bearden gave birth to his most recent play, ''Joe Turner's Come and Gone.'' In Bearden, Wilson says he finds his artistic mentor. ''I would hope to accomplish in language arts what he's accomplished in the plastic arts. He reveals things that are hidden by time and custom and the glancing manner in which we view them. He explores things that are common to all cultures.'' In response, Wilson says his own work attempts to ''unmask stereotypes, to uncover the humanness behind that.''

Artistic director Richards, who is also director of the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, to which Wilson first submitted ''Ma Rainey'' in 1982, calls Wilson's work ''terribly authentic and resonant of the black experience in America. He has a fine sense of values, rhythms, and imagination ... a love and understanding for people that does not pander.''

Yet Wilson's works also include the undeniable presence of racial anger, frustration, and even violence; but it is an emotional perspective from which the playwright refuses to write. ''What is there to be angry about?'' he asks. ''If people ask me if my work is autobiographical, I say, 'Yes, 400 years' autobiographical.' '' Wilson says blacks ''have something that informs their sensibilities that is not the same thing that informs European sensibilities.'' Within their history, he says, in their transition from being African to becoming American, they have lost something central to their identity. It is this spiritual journey that is of most concern to him.

''I think we need to reexamine the past ... in order to arrive at different choices,'' he says. ''My generation knows so very little about our parents. There is no real sense of who we are until we discover who our parents are and the indignities they have suffered.''

In his quest to reexamine black history, Wilson has set each of his plays in a decade of the 20th century. ''Ma Rainey'' and ''Joe Turner'' are set in the early 1900s - a time when many former slaves migrated from the rural South to the industrial North. An earlier work, ''Fences,'' which is scheduled as part of the Yale Rep's 1984-85 season, takes place in the 1950s. ''I'm taking each decade and looking at one of the most important questions that blacks confronted in that decade and writing a play about it,'' he says. ''Put them all together and you have a history.''

Although Wilson is writing about ethnic concerns and their effect on individual men and women, he eschews domestic drama. His style, he concedes, is slowly evolving from a strictly naturalistic one, such as in ''Ma Rainey,'' to the less-literal approach he subsequently used in ''Joe Turner.''

At the same time he is conscious of the spotty tradition of black theater - not only from a writer's perspective, but also from the audience's. Although he says he never consciously writes for either a black or white audience, he readily acknowledges that economics has made the theatergoing public largely an elitist one, and one that is nearly all white. ''Blacks have traditionally found their theater in church,'' he explains, adding, ''I think I've seen nine full-scale (theatrical) productions in my life.''

Yet Wilson maintains a happy relationship with the stage. ''Playwriting is a unique form of writing, where (the author) is merely one of the participants,'' he says. ''The play is a map, a blueprint that requires a lot of the creative efforts of other people. It is not alive until it is performed.''

Although Wilson has written only six plays to date - much of his writing career has been devoted to poetry and short fiction - his plays have been produced at theaters in Pittsburgh, St. Paul, and Los Angeles. But it is his current relationship with the Yale Repertory Theatre and its artistic director that has put Wilson's career firmly on the cultural map. He readily acknowledges his good fortune as a new playwright.

''Not having to send my plays out and bang on doors only makes me work harder to reward (Yale's) faith in me,'' he says. ''Any playwright should have a theater who is willing to produce (his) work. A playwright should be allowed to fail on stage. By that you grow,'' he says, adding that ''I think one has a responsibility to say something to people while they are sitting there.''

Responsibility seems to be seminal for this playwright who unabashedly calls himself a religious man. ''In retrospect, I think responsibility is a large part of my work. Loomis's (the protagonist of ''Joe Turner'') slashing himself is a severing of a bond, but also accepting responsibility for presence in the world and your own salvation. I think blacks should quit blaming and start accepting ... themselves in the world, for who they are and what their conduct is. But you can't do that until you know who you are and what your responsibilities are.''

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