August Wilson Reconstructs Black History:
The Counternarratives of History in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, MaRainey’s Black Bottom, and The Piano Lesson.
In attempting a definition of the postmodern according to Lyotard, Peter Barry writes:
‘Grand narratives’ of progress and human perfectability, . . . are no longer tenable, and the best we can hope for is a series of ‘mininarratives’, which are provisional, contingent, temporary, and relative and which provide a basis for the actions of specific groups in particular local circumstances. Postmodernity thus ‘deconstructs’ the basic aim of the Enlightenment, that is ‘the idea of a unitary end of history and of subject’. (87)
In his plays, August Wilson attempts to construct such mininarratives – or what we might better term counternarratives – which emerge from the perspective of African Americans living in the twentieth century.
Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, August Wilson began to really appreciate the black voices of his birthplace when he moved to St. Paul, Minnesota in 1978. (August Wilson) In St. Paul, his writing career flourished as he produced play after play that center on the lives of African Americans throughout the twentieth century. Wilson explains that his project is to write a play for each decade depicting the life of African Americans:
I’ve written plays that take place in 1911, 1927, 1941, 1957, and 1971. Somewhere along the way it dawned on me that I was writing one play for each decade. Once I became conscious of that, I realized I was trying to focus on what I felt were the most important issues confronting Black Americans for that decade, so ultimately they could stand as a record of Black experience over the past hundred years presented in the form of dramatic literature. What you end up with is a kind of review, or re-examination, of history. Collectively they can read, certainly not as a total history, but as some historical moments. (Powers 52)
The outcome of such project was a collection of plays each set in a decade from 1911 to 1971: Joe Turner’s Come and Gone set in 1911, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom set in 1927, The Piano Lesson set in 1937, Seven Guitars set in 1941, Fences set in 1957, Two Trains Running set in 1969, and finally Jitney set in 1971.
In the following pages I will examine the first three plays listed above in an attempt to understand the history that Wilson is trying to write. It is most important here to understand that these plays provide a view of history that comes from “some historical moments” and are not a representation of total history as that is obviously an unattainable aim when we realize the factors that shape the telling of any history. Wilson is obviously aware of the critiques of the reality of any written history as representative of The History and his project becomes “provisional, contingent, temporary, and relative” because all representations of history are such.
Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is a play set in a boarding house in Pittsburgh in the year 1911. By setting it in a boarding house Wilson was able to enrich his play with a variety of characters that meet at Seth and Bertha’s boarding house in their search for a new identity:
From the deep and near South the sons and daughters of newly freed African slaves wander into the city. Isolated, cut off from memory, having forgotten the names of the gods and only guessing at their faces, . . . marked men and women seeking to scrape . . . a way of bludgeoning and shaping the malleable parts of themselves into a new identity as free men of definite and sincere worth.
Foreigners in a strange land, they carry as part and parcel of their baggage a long line of separation and dispersement which informs their sensibilities and marks their conduct as they search for ways to reconnect, to reassemble. (Introduction)
Wilson informs us that the only way for these “foreigners” to reconnect and reassemble is through remembering their history. African Americans are strangers in this land because they have left their culture behind them and are becoming assimilated in the Western culture of America. Because they have roots in Africa and because they have roots in the South, these characters cannot just rebuild themselves in the North. Here Wilson presents us with the character of Bynum who is able to find his calling in life - his “song” - after he meets “the shining man” on the road. The shining man leads Bynum on the road taking him back to where he, Bynum, came from. Following the shining man, Bynum finally comes to meet his father who tells him that he had been thinking about him and is grieved “to see [him] in the world carrying other people’s songs and not having one of [his] own.” (9-10)
Finding one’s song or one’s place in life is an important theme that runs through most of Wilson’s plays. “Sometimes you got to be where you supposed to be. Sometimes you can get all mixed up in life and come to the wrong place.” (45) It is by finding one’s song that a person can leave his mark in life. This is how the characters in this play can recreate history: by finding their place in life and marking it. Bynum is looking for the shining man again to assure him that he has found his mark in life so he can die a happy man: “A man who done left his mark on life.” (10)
As Bynum is the only character who has apparently found his calling, or his song, he is able to see through the other characters and know if they have found their calling or if they were still lost. Looking at Mr. Loomis, Bynum could see that Loomis is still lost. Loomis comes to the boarding house with his daughter Zonia in his search for his wife whom he has lost years ago when he was taken by Joe Turner and imprisoned for seven years. When Loomis arrives at the boarding house Seth senses something wrong with him “Something ain’t setting right with that fellow.” (19) But Seth is unable to see deeper and suspects that Loomis must have killed someone over a gamble.
Bynum, however, realizes that Loomis is not a gambler but a man who has “been out there walking up and down them roads.” (20) Loomis is a person who forgot his place in life because he has been taken in by Joe Turner who is “the personification of white oppression of African Americans.” (Anderson 433):
Now, I can look at you, Mr. Loomis, and see you a man who done forgot his song. Forgot how to sing it. A fellow forget that and he forget who he is. Forget how he’s supposed to mark down life . . . See, Mr. Loomis, when a man forgets his song he goes off in search of it . . . till he find out he’s got it with him all the time. That’s why I can tell you one of Joe Turner’s niggers. ‘Cause you forgot how to sing your song. (71)
Because Loomis spent seven years of his life serving Joe Turner, he no longer sees any value of his life other than in serving the white man. What Wilson is depicting here is the enslavement of African Americans by the white man and how slavery left the African American with a sense of loss that even after the emancipation the African Americans were still left wandering as to their place in America. (Bogumil 464) In the process of enslaving the African Americans, their history was erased from their memory and the history of the white man was inscribed in its place. In their captivity, the African Americans have put a stop to their history and culture; they have stopped singing their songs because they were afraid of being robbed of them.
This is Bynum’s justification for Joe Turner’s imprisonment of the African Americans. He kept them in captivity in order to make them forget their songs and Wilson’s task in his plays is to make them remember that they have a history of themselves. When Loomis wonders at the reason of his captivity Bynum tells him that Joe Turner wanted to take away his song:
What he wanted was your song. He wanted to have that song to be his . . . Now he’s got you bound up to where you can’t sing your own song. Couldn’t sing it them seven years ‘cause you was afraid he would snatch it from under you. But you still got it. You just forgot how to sing it. (73)
This becomes the center of the play: the search for the history that was overshadowed by the white man. By remembering their history the characters will be able to live their future. As their history goes as far back as Africa, it becomes imperative for these characters to remember the African in them. This is where Bynum’s mysticism comes in play. Wilson opens his play with Bynum performing some rituals that Seth finds it difficult to accept; rituals that seem to come from their motherland Africa. While Seth is set against incorporating these rituals, his wife Bertha integrates them in her house. Although a churchgoer, Bertha sees no harm in keeping up with some of these rituals as she sprinkles her house with salt and lines pennies across the threshold. (2)
Yet Seth does not erase his Africanism totally. In the Juba dance we see him celebrating this culture while keeping his Christian faith. This is what Wilson calls for; an integration of African history in any way possible. The Juba scene becomes a portrayal of what Wilson aims to accomplish here as we read his stage directions to how it should be performed:
The Juba is reminiscent of the Ring Shouts of the African slaves. It is a call and response dance . . . It should be as African as possible, with the performers working themselves up in a frenzy. The words can be improvised, but should include some mention of the Holy Ghost. (52)
Loomis, contrary to Seth and Bertha, refuses to allow a place for this “Holy Ghost” and is set on forgoing the religion that makes him in need of someone. He insists that he needs only himself to live: “I don’t need nobody to bleed for me! I can bleed for myself.” (93) When his wife Martha tries to get him to believe in Christ and salvation he tells her that he doesn’t need Jesus to bleed for him, that he can be his own man and is not in need of anyone. It is at this point that Loomis realizes that he doesn’t need the Joe Turners of the world to show him his worth. He says: “Joe Turner’s come and gone and Herald Loomis ain’t for no binding. I ain’t gonna let nobody bind me!” (91)
Loomis defies his wife when she tells him that he needs to be cleaned with the blood of Jesus and he does this by slashing his own chest and using his own blood in a ritual to clean himself from the sin of serving Joe Turner:
Having found his song, the song of self-sufficiency, fully resurrected, cleansed and given breath, free from any encumbrance other than the workings of his own heart and the bonds of the flesh, having accepted the responsibility of his own presence in the world, he is free to soar above the environs that weighed and pushed his spirit into terrifying contractions. (93-4)
And he finally leaves the stage “shining like new money!” (94) After realizing that his existence is not dependent on the white man who enslaved him.
In Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom Wilson uses the Blues as a way for the Black characters to refuse to allow the white man to tell them how to live. The Blues here becomes a symbol of the history that the blacks try to reconstruct after the white man has left them bereft of their own history. The Blues is not just a way of singing. It is way of life. Ma Rainey tells us:
White folks don’t understand about the blues. They hear it come out, but they don’t know how it got there. They don’t understand that’s life’s way of talking. You don’t sing to feel better. You sing ‘cause that’s a way of understanding life. (82)
Like in Joe Turner, there are characters here who are more willing to conform to the white man’s expectations of them than others. Levee is one such character who thinks “a shoeshine and Uncle Tom smile will win white backers to his scheme.” (Rich, Theatre 3) Toledo is more aware of what such attitude might bring as he tells Levee:
See, now . . . I’ll tell you something. As long as the colored man look to white folks to put the crown on what he say . . . as long as he looks to white folks for approval . . . them he ain’t never gonna find out who he is and what he’s about. He’s just gonna be about what white folks want him too be about. That’s one sure thing. (37)
Yet Levee’s character is not as simple as a black man conforming to white man’s expectations in order to gain himself a name in the music industry. Levee is aware of his position as a victim of the white man. When Toledo accuses him of being “spooked up by the white man,” (68) he recounts the story of his mother’s rape and his reaction to it. He shows the other band players his scar as he tells them how his father grinned and smiled in the white man’s face while he was planning his revenge, saying “That taught me how to handle them.” (70)
Levee’s anger, nevertheless, is not only directed at the white man. Like Loomis, Levee doesn’t believe that God takes the side of the black man as he tells the story of the Reverent Gates who was forced by white men to perform a dance for them exclaiming “Why wasn’t God looking out for him?” (98) Unlike his father who attacks the white men for raping his wife, Levee directs his anger at his fellow band members ending the play with an act of violence toward Toledo who becomes a scapegoat on which Levee vents his frustrations. (Shannon, The Good Christian 131)
Levee’s anger and frustration stems from his failure to sell his music to Sturdyvant. Wilson thinks that the Blues “contains a cultural response of black Americans to the world they find themselves in.”(Shannon, Blues 540) So when Levee fails to have his music acknowledged it becomes a failure to express himself. Wilson further explains:
If you look at the singers, . . .They are carriers of the culture, carriers of ideas . . . Except in American society they were not valued, except among the black folks who understand. I’ve always thought of them as sacred because of the sacred tasks they took upon themselves—to disseminate this information and carry these cultural values of the people . . . the blues and music have always been at the forefront in the development of the character and consciousness of black America, and people have senselessly destroyed that or stopped that. Then you’re taking away from the people their self-definition—in essence, their self-determination. (Shannon, Blues 540-41)
When Sturdyvant refuses to allow Levee to play his own music he takes away from him his self-definition as it is through his music that Levee tells his stories. (Glover 69)
The Blues here function as an essential part of the African American culture, because through it, the characters can claim their history. It is not just music. “Suffice it to say that it is music that breathes and touches. That connects. That is in itself a way of being, separate and distinct from any other.” (16) Through this music African Americans are able to reconstruct their history and reclaim their existence; an existence that was taken away by the white man. The result is that African Americans have become what Toledo calls “imitation white men”:
We done sold Africa for the price of tomatoes. We done sold ourselves to the white man in order to be like him. Look at the way you dressed . . . That ain’t African. That’s the white man. We trying to be just like him. We done sold who we are in order to become someone else. We’s imitation white men. (94)
Again here we see Black history that was stolen by the white man trying to rise again through the Blues. The Blues’ players struggle to maintain their music in the face of the all-powerful white studio owner in whose hand their destiny is shaped.
Similarly in The Piano Lesson we read of a white man who goes around “to all the colored people’s houses looking to buy up musical instruments.” (11) This white man is like Joe Turner trying to keep the black voice in captivity by offering Berniece a substantial sum of money for her piano. Berniece, nevertheless, is aware that:
Money can’t buy what that piano cost. You can’t sell your soul for money. It won’t go with the buyer. It’ll shrivel and shrink to know that you ain’t taken on to it. But it won’t go with the buyer. (50)
In this play we see a struggle between a brother and sister each pulling in a different direction. Berniece wants to cling to the past by keeping that piano even though she refuses to pass its story on to her child. On the other side we have Boy Willie who wants to make something out of this piano; to sell it in order to be able to buy land. Owning land is so important to Boy Willie that he is willing to sell part of his past for it. Yet Boy Willie provides a valid argument against Berniece’s decision to keep the piano when he tells her that he is supposed to make something out of what his ancestors left him, and letting the piano sit there would not gain them anything. (51)
The crucial part of the play comes of course when Wilson guides us through the family history as Doaker tells the story of the carvings on the piano:
See that right there? That’s my grandmother, Berniece. She looked just like that. And he put a picture of my daddy when he wasn’t nothing but a little boy the way he remembered him. He made them up out of his memory. Only thing . . . he didn’t stop there. He carved all this. He got a picture of his mama . . . Mama Esther . . . and his daddy, Boy Charles. . . Say it was the story of our whole family and as long as Sutter had it . . . he had us. Say we was still in slavery. (44-45)
Realizing that the piano contains the family history, the three brothers Boy Charles, Wining Boy, and Doaker reclaim it by taking it out of Sutter’s house into their own.
This act results in a chain of events that ultimately lead to Boy Charles’s murder in the train called the Yellow Dog, the development of the story of the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog, and the appearance of Sutter’s ghost in Berniece’s house. When Boy Willie tells Berniece that The Ghosts of the Yellow Dog pushed Sutter in the well, she refuses to believe him and accuses him of pushing Sutter himself in order to get his land. Yet Berniece is not totally rejecting these voices of the past as we come to realize when she tells us of her mother and the piano:
When my daddy died seem like all her life went into that piano. She used to have me playing on it . . . say when I played it she could hear my daddy talking to her. I used to think them pictures came alive and walked through the house. Sometime late at night I could hear my mama talking to them. . . I don’t play that piano cause I don’t want’ to wake them spirits. (70)
This is why Berniece refuses to play the piano anymore. She does not want to be reminded of her past and she realizes that she is apt to awaken the spirits of her ancestors if she played it. The piano becomes the instrument through which this family preserves its history. So when the white man offers to buy the piano, he is asking for more than just a musical instrument. He wants to buy the family history and it is this history that Berniece refuses to sell.
Meanwhile there’s the ghost of Sutter hovering over the house so Boy Willie suggests that he is there looking for his piano and tells Berniece that the way to getting rid of the ghost is by getting rid of the piano. (15) Boy Willie is a character who refuses to have any ties with the past and would rather throw the past away than let it hinder his progress. He chastises his sister for allowing that piano to have more meaning than it should:
See, you just looking at the sentimental value. See, that’s good. That’s alright. I take my hat off whenever somebody say my daddy’s name. But I ain’t gonna be no fool about no sentimental value. You can sit up here and look at the piano for the next hundred years and it’s just gonna be a piano. You can’t make more than that. (51)
But by now we know enough of August Wilson to realize that leaving the past behind is not what he calls for. He calls rather for invoking the past history through any means we have at our hand. In Ma Rainey this is done by singing the Blues, and here it’s done by playing the piano. Calling on the past is what helps Wilson’s character to move on to the future. Loomis was only able to find his identity and make his future when he was connected to his past through meeting his wife Martha. Here in The Piano Lesson life could only go on when Berniece finally accepts to play the piano and calls on the spirits of her ancestors to help her. (107)
In the three plays examined above we come to see Wilson’s project as that of reconstructing the past and rewriting the history of the African Americans. This is Wilson’s song – his calling in life. It is to produce these counternarratives of the history that has been diminished by the white man’s attempt to dismantle the African American existence. These counternarratives are produced by a mixture of myth and superstition that has been erased from the writing of the history. In “Wrestling Against History,” Ching writes that:
every culture generates its own myths ad superstitions, taboos and rituals of exorcism . . . a seamless blend of Christianity with the inherent African cosmology defines the spiritual landscape within which the characters suffer and rejoice. (70)
August Wilson builds on these myths and superstitions in order to build a history for his community that allows this community to survive in the white man’s land. As African Americans try to form an identity denied them by the white man, myths become a vital part in this reconstruction. These myths are recovered from an Africa that had been left centuries ago. It is this myth that connects the African Americans in their communities. Anderson puts this in his article when he writes that:
Wilson’s play depicts ongoing efforts by white society to deflect and misdirect black progress toward community and individual identity. But if white oppression extends into the present, its power to diminish or impugn the self is denied when the history of that oppression is confronted and countered with the collective and personal memory that grounds identity. In reclaiming the self by recovering the past, the individual becomes capable of constructing a future. (434)
Wilson succeeds in building his own mininarrative, narratives that are indeed “provisional, contingent, temporary, and relative and which provide a basis for the actions of specific groups in particular local circumstances.” He realizes that the history he provided is not the total history but a fraction of it seen from a certain angle of the world. This is the history seen through the eyes of elderly black men who Wilson met somewhere in Pittsburgh. (August Wilson) He thus builds one part of the history of African Americans leaving ample room for more parts to be added.
Anderson, Douglas. “Saying Goodbye to the Past: Self-Empowerment and History in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.” CLA Journal 40.4 (1997): 432-57.
August Wilson: a Conversation with August Wilson. SSR-RTSI Swiss Television production. San Francisco, CA: California Newsreel, 1992.
Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1995.
Bogumil, Mary L. “ ‘Tomorrow Never Comes’: Songs of Cultural Identity in August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.” Theatre Journal 46 (1994): 463-76.
Ching, Mei-Ling. “Wrestling Against History.” Theater 19.3 (1988): 70-71.
Glover, Margaret A. “The Songs of a Marked Man.” Theater 19.3 (1988): 69-70.
Powers, Kim. “An Interview with August Wilson.” Theater 16.1 (1984): 50-55.
Rich, Frank. “Theatre: Wilson’s ‘Ma Rainey’s’ Opens.” New York Times. Oct. 11, 1984.
Shannon, Sandra G. “Blues, History, and Dramaturgy: An Interview with August Wilson.” African American Review 27.4 (1993): 539-59.
---. “The Good Christian’s Come and Gone: The Shifting Role of Christianity in August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.” MELUS 16.3 (1989-90): 127-42.
Wilson, August. Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. NY: Plume, 1988.
---. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. NY: Plume, 1985.
---. The Piano Lesson. NY: Plume, 1990.