Sir August Wilson and Other Guilt-Less Pleasures

“Confront the dark parts of yourself, and work to banish them with illumination and forgiveness. Your willingness to wrestle with your demons will cause your angels to sing. Use the pain as fuel, as a reminder of your strength.” – August Wilson

Saturday, March 26th from 10-5pm, I was the mistress of ceremonies for the National Black Writers Conference Biannual Symposium Honoring the Work & Life of August Wilson presented by my CUNY colleague Dr. Brenda Greene at Medgar Evers College. I’ve seen two of August Wilson’s plays. The Piano Lesson in grad school at the University of Michigan around 1992. (My UofM colleague actor/conductor Damon Gupton was showing off his wise and young talent as the lead back then). The other may have been Seven Guitars on Broadway in 2001 but to be honest I don’t recall. I slept through most of the performance. I had no clue then of the mirror he was holding up to the black life I knew until the symposium opened up the world of his works to me on Saturday.

You should know something about me. When I confront certain deep-seeded truths that I don’t want to face, I can’t stay awake. Guilt, and other irresponsibilities, has a way of hijacking me. It takes the real me away.  As a professor, I’ve seen lots of students fall asleep. Like me at Wilson’s play, they haven’t connected the presentation, the learning, with anything about their real lives. I didn’t even realize it was my responsibility to do that. Prepare for the play. Prepare for life’s lessons. This can make an August Wilson play as well as college difficult. Slumber makes it seem like the difficulty is outside you.

This was my third appearance as MC at a NBWC event and let me say how much I love providing a context and an environment that honors and respects each and every panelist and participant in the audience. I love MCing. I do! And this time, I learned more than I ever expected about the life of playwright August Wilson (1945 – 2005) and his remarkable cycle of plays.

August Wilson…no SIR…August Wilson (Yeah, I said “Sir”! We black folks should dub or knight the leaders of our traditions. “Mister” just doesn’t cut it. Its’s Sir August Wilson, you hear! lol.) His bio in the program for the symposium read:

Poverty, racism and broken aspirations–key through-lines of Wilson’s plays–are inspired by his experience growing up in Pittsburgh’s Hill District [also known as “The Hill” or “Little Africa”]. His “Decade Cycle,” composed of one play set in each decade of the twentieth century earned seven New York Drama Critics’ Circle Awards, an American Theatre Critics Award, and a British Oliver Award. [Sir] Wilson also won Pulitzer Prizes for The Piano Lesson, set in the 1930s and opened on Broadway in 1990, and Fences, set in the 1950s and premiered in 1987. The Piano Lesson was adapted into a television film with a broadcast premiere in 1995.

The day was full of amazing moments and contributions from presenters including Brooklyn College Professor Dale Byam whose film August in April is a must-see (request a showing at your institution; playwright Ed Bullins; Woodie King, founder of the New Federal Theater; Paul Carter Harrison, the remarkable playwright, director and theatre theorist; Kimberly Ellis, Sir Wilson’s niece  aka @drgoddess on Twitter; and the program was closed by Jeffrey Wright, a humble and intimate actor’s craftman who read scenes from Fences (1987) and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1988) that stopped time in Brooklyn.

I created a through-line with one question that I asked each panelist. I introduced their responses during my intermittent moments at the microphone. “What genre of literature is your guilty pleasure?” Panelist Don Gagnon, Assoc. Professor of English at Western Connecticut State University (who had students in tow from his home institution) was initially reluctant to admit his guilty pleasure. He enjoys graphic novels. Actress/Dancer Tanya Wright admitted her guilty reading pleasure is People Magazine. Founder and Director of the NBWC Dr. Brenda Greene said novels at first and then found me later on to clarify that it was “historical novels.” The event manager Julia Shaw said her guilty pleasure in lit was historical fiction esp. California Cooper because “women always come out triumphant in the end.” My guilty pleasure is my addiction to micro-blogging on Twitter (and Facebook though I failed to mention it from the mic).

I asked the question about guilty pleasures because I wanted to remind people in the audience that black folks read in lots of places and it includes their passion for reading and seeing the plays of Sir August Wilson. The crowd was full of passionate fans who came from all over the NYC metro area and as far away as North Carolina, Maryland, and Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh and Philly). I counted heads during the morning session and the afternoon sessions and guesstimate that more than 200 people attended. This number could have been multiplied by 2 or more had it been live-streamed for free (every black cultural event should take advantage of this open-source platform) or even if someone was responsible for live-tweeting the entire event. I know hundreds of black scholars and students who would have followed online. You can go back and visit the Twitter timeline on my stream @kyraocity and LMartin JohnsonPratt’s stream @iluvblackwomen to review some of the live-tweets from Saturday.

In preparing for the event I visited the Wikipedia site on Sir Wilson and learned a remarkable connection to my growing commitment to student-as-adult not just at the higher education level but all levels. Empowering students, and thereby empowering all people in learning environments, is a matter of deep concern and reflection in my life. So, I was taken aback and delightfully inspired by the section on Sir Wilson’s education. Wilson, a “dropout” seemed to actually drop in to his true passion for learning. Check this out:

Wilson… dropped out of Gladstone High School in the 10th grade in 1960 after his teacher accused him of plagiarizing a 20-page paper he wrote on Napoleon I of France. Wilson hid his decision from his mother because he did not want to disappoint her. At the age of 16, he began working menial jobs and that allowed him to meet a wide variety of people, some of whom he later based his characters on, such as Sam in The Janitor (1985).

Wilson made such extensive use of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh to educate himself that it later awarded him a degree, the only such one it has bestowed.

Perhaps this educational bio intrigues me most because for too many students their real passions become guilty pleasures within the halls of academia or classrooms in English where People Magazine and Facebook are often denigrated; where students who dare to write beyond their teachers’ perceptions can only be viewed as plagiarists on sight. And here lies the seeds of the structural racism, the embedded inequalities that leads to the need for someone like an August Wilson to write a scene like “How Come You Ain’t Never Liked Me?”

Sir August Wilson, I learned Saturday, captures what I try to uncover to the student-as-adult in my racism course. There are little triumphs on-toppa-a-whole-lotta-pain within our community and as scholar Johnetta Cole once said to me “Doing for others is the debt you pay for just being on the earth.”

How do you heal this? You gotta do some prep work first. Check this analysis of the scene “How Come You Ain’t Never Liked Me?”:

This feeling of failure continues into the relationship that Troy has with his son, Cory.  Cory is an excellent football player, and yet, Troy refuses to acknowledge his son’s ability even when he is recruited by a college.  Troy cannot and will not let Cory succeed where he failed and refuses to let Cory go to college on a football scholarship (Gantt, 10).  But this is not the only time that Troy shows resentment of his son.  In Act 1, Scene 3, Cory asks Troy “How come you ain’t never liked me? (Wilson, 504).  Troy is angry at this question and tells Cory that “…it’s my duty to take care of you.  I owe a responsibility to you!” (Wilson, 505). However, even before this it is obvious that Troy sees Cory as nothing but an irritation that continues until the final scene, when Cory arrives for Troy’s funeral.  Only then is the animosity put to rest on both sides.

We need more than black folks to heal the generations of wrongdoing done to fathers like Troy. That stuff is life radiation. It gets into the ground water and you can’t see it, but it still harms your well-being. We need playwrights like Sir Wilson to help us see the need and desire for that healing. In fact, we are healed by such art. Hollywood rarely if ever gives us that. There was a whole discussion during the event about how powerful Sir Wilson’s plays would be in films. However, producers I believe Paul Carter Harrison pointed out, do not own the films. What happens then is that black playwrights lose the souls of their black folks on the screen. Only this kind of art, the kind Sir August Wilson created, can heal 345 years of pain, centuries of longing to be free, moments of desire unheard, unseen and un-related to what others think it means to be fully human.  And that is what Sir Wilson did with his plays–make love out of certain deaths we live through over and over again. This symposium gave me the vision to see that.

Thank you Dr. Greene, The National Black Writers Conference, and Medgar Evers College for bringing me this insight.

A future post from this one will be about how our guilt takes us out of our responsibility in matters of racism (which I define as “anything that separates the human race”) . Being willing to share that I, a black professor with a P-H-and-D, fell asleep at an August Wilson play is one of the powerful pathways to true growth and development. Be your truth and set yourself and others free. Enjoy guilt-less pleasures and, as Sir Wilson said, let the angels sing!


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