August Wilson's dramas of black American life


August Wilson.


University of Pittsburgh.

318 pages. $24.95.


The word "breakfast" got him started.

August Wilson has been in love with words ever since he discovered that "breakfast" was two words. "I thought, 'This could go on forever,' " he once explained.

Forever is a long time. But Mr. Wilson thinks in broad terms. He is halfway through a cycle of plays chronicling the black experience in 20th century America decade by decade.

So far, the plays have fared just fine. The first four to be produced all made it to Broadway and the most recent of those, "The Piano Lesson," won the Pulitzer Prize.

Considering this achievement, a collection of Mr. Wilson's work seemed a long time in coming, but at last one has been published. "Three Plays" contains the playwright's first three produced works: "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," set in 1927; "Fences," set in the 1950s; and "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," set in 1911.

Local readers will be interested in this volume not only because all three have been produced in this area, but also because Mr. Wilson's favorite actor, Charles S. Dutton, is a Baltimorean. The playwright has created two lead characters for Mr. Dutton, who is scheduled to reprise one of those -- Boy Willie in "The Piano Lesson" -- at the Mechanic Theatre in May. "I am still challenged to write a role to match his talent," Mr. Wilson says in his introduction to "Three Plays."

But beyond the local angle, this volume offers an excellent opportunity to examine the links between these plays. In the introduction, Mr. Wilson describes the influence of the blues on his writing: "I saw the blues as a cultural response of a nonliterate people whose history and culture were rooted in the oral tradition."

The blues and the oral tradition inform all three of these plays. "Ma Rainey" takes place in a Chicago recording studio where the famed blues singer is attempting to cut a record. The play is structured like a jam session in which the musicians' stories weave in and out like musical motifs.


"Fences," Mr. Wilson's most atypically conventional script, is built around a central character instead of an ensemble, but that character -- a former Negro League baseball player named Troy Maxson -- is a storyteller. Although music figures in the play at several points, the only attempt to play an instrument on stage is deliberately thwarted. Troy's brain-damaged war veteran brother can't get a sound out of his trumpet because, like Troy, he has lost his song -- a continuing metaphor in Mr. Wilson's work.

"Ma Rainey" adopts the fluid, poetic structure of the blues; "Fences" reverts to a more traditional narrative form; "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" combines the two. Like "Ma Rainey," the title derives from a song, in this case a turn-of-the-century song written by black women in Memphis after their husbands and sons were taken into illegal peonage by a white man named Joe Turner.

All the characters in the play are searching for something. Expanding a theme that surfaces in the two previous plays, "Joe Turner" emphasizes the necessity of coming to terms with the past before getting on with the present. This theme is developed in the succeeding play, "The Piano Lesson," which questions what you do with your legacy.

Regrettably, "The Piano Lesson" isn't included in this collection; however, considering the scope of Mr. Wilson's play cycle, presumably we can look forward to volumes II and III. With luck, those volumes will not include an academically written afterword such as the one that appears here by Paul Carter Harrison, a faculty member at Columbia College in Chicago. "Wilson carefully avoids freezing the social landscape into tidy frames of social realism by invoking authentic mythic insinuations which amplify the African experience in America with cosmic resonance," Mr. Harrison writes. Such obtuse, stilted prose is hardly a fitting tribute to the lyrical language in August Wilson's plays.


Ms. Rousuck writes about theater for The Sun.