Wilson is saying no such thing. His generous plays, including the mostly rueful Radio Golf, are all about African-Americans who are denied their history (or who deny it themselves). They’re about the reconciling of a tragic and proud cultural identity with an unmoored, mediocre present. “I stand myself and my art squarely on the self-defining ground of the slave quarters,” Wilson wrote in 1996, “and find the ground to be hallowed and made fertile by the blood and bones of the men and women who can be described as warriors on the cultural battlefield that affirmed their self-worth.”
He went on, contra the patronizing Robert Brustein’s muddled belief that Wilson is a separatist, “Theater asserts that all of human life is universal. Love, Honor, Duty, Betrayal belong and pertain to every culture and every race. The way they are acted out on the playing field may be different, but betrayal is betrayal whether you are a South Sea Islander, a Mississippi farmer or an English baron. All of human life is universal, and it is theatre that illuminates and confers upon the universal the ability to speak for all men.”
August Wilson a cliché-ridden, middlebrow playwright? Look at the major artistic influences on his work that he called the “Four B’s”—the blues, which began as the hollers of slaves in cotton fields; the African-American artist Romare Bearden’s crowded canvases and murals, which burst with the fullness and vitality of everyday life; the magic realism of Jorge Luis Borges; and the early, revolutionary plays of Amiri Baraka, a.k.a. LeRoi Jones.
Dutchman, Mr. Baraka’s masterly prose-poem about a beautiful white girl who sets out to seduce a conventional-looking black man on the subway, was misunderstood by a shaken New York Times when it premiered in 1964, only to be belittled by The Times when it was revived Off Broadway this season. “I bet you never once thought you were a black nigger,” the white girl taunts the black man in the gray suit, who tries to laugh in her face.
In its murderous essentials, Dutchman is as much about corroded black identity and belonging as Radio Golf. Wilson was a playwright who kept rewriting his plays until their final Broadway opening, and my hunch is that he didn’t have the time, or the strength, to tackle the underwritten role of Mame, Harmond’s callously ambitious wife, played here by Tonya Pinkins (who was so powerfully resolute and fine in Tony Kushner’s Caroline, or Change). But then, none of the plays that Wilson created from grief and pride in memory’s unruly cause have been perfect, or can be contained by the dogged rules of dramaturgy.
Radio Golf is the coda to a magnificent and heroic life work that illuminated the historic destiny of former slaves and free men still enslaved. It gave shattering voice to the voiceless; it created leading roles for underemployed black actors of unsurpassed talent and brought an African-American audience into a predominantly white Broadway. It challenged and inspired all of us who could hear the song. Theater will never forget August Wilson.
“I believe in the American theater,” he wrote in The Ground on Which I Stand. “I believe in its power to inform about the human condition. I believe in its power to heal. ‘To hold the mirror as it were up to nature.’ To the truths we uncover, to the truths we wrestle from uncertain and sometimes unyielding realities. All of art is a search for ways of being, of living life more fully.”
And that noble purpose and state of grace he fully achieved.
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