The Theatre of August Wilson

The Theatre of August Wilson. Alan Nadel. Metuen Drama Critical Companions Series. London; New York: Methuen Drama, Bloomsbury Collections, 2018; Pp. 224.

In The Theatre of August Wilson, Alan Nadel critically analyzes the dramatic texts of August Wilson’s cycle of ten plays about African American life in the 20th century in relation to the concept of property rights and the law. In this first comprehensive companion to Wilson’s full cycle, Nadel continues his sustained scholarship and editorial contributions demonstrated in May All Your Fences Have Gates: Essays on the Drama of August Wilson (1994) and August Wilson: Completing the Twentieth Century Cycle (2010). The chapters in his latest study ground Nadel’s argument that “America has always suffered from a profound confusion of human rights and property rights” (2). Beyond presenting an accessible, nuanced study of Wilson’s drama, this volume serves to “underscore… the dimensions of privilege that have transparently enveloped America during what has been called the ‘The American Century’” (2). Nadel argues that throughout American history, law has been an instrument of privilege rather than justice and that the injustices suffered led African Americans to create artistic sites of innovation such as the blues—and Wilson’s theatre. The blues, Nadel claims, provided Wilson an “entry to this history” and serves a “psychic tableau of disrupted dreams and displaced passions…” (2).

Nadel begins his valuable analysis with a brief biography of August Wilson (1945-2005), illuminating aspects of Wilson’s life as key to his multifaceted drama. Chapter one, “Becoming August Wilson,” highlights Wilson’s childhood as Fredrick Kittel and his transformation to working playwright; here, Nadel weaves in Wilson’s own words from personal interviews. Interestingly, he focuses on the playwright’s relationships with his parents, his Pittsburgh neighborhood, and his education, connecting these relationships with Wilson’s early career as a writer. Especially notable to Wilson’s artistry is his introduction to and love for the blues. The second part of the biography focuses on Wilson’s career in Minneapolis, his work at the O’Neill Theater Center (with Lloyd Richards) and then on Broadway.

In chapter two, “History and/as Performance: The Drama of African American History,” Nadel argues that history is performative and that “History” creates rather than “describes events.” The production of narratives gets deemed factual through the method of performing them. Writing without jargon, he uses the example of a witness to an accident to explain his argument: the witness’s viewpoint is told and recorded and thus becomes part of the historical record. He connects this argument with Wilson’s work with characters such as Troy from Fences who “articulates his own version of history” in Nadel’s reading (19). In a sense, Wilson’s work “engages with history” through characters and by dramatizing the blues (19).

The chapters are structured thematically using one or two plays as case study. Chapters three through nine each open with a different play’s production history and plot summary before developing analysis. This structure orients readers who may be curious about the development of specific plays in Wilson’s cycle, as well as those seeking to contextualize the plots. Chapter Three, for example, examines how history and elements of the blues are captured through dramatic structure and characters, using Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. This chapter in particular considers the entirety of the cycle and its relationship to music. In thinking about the blues, Nadel sees the ten plays as “ten cuts on an album surveying the twentieth century African American blues” (38). Shifting back to Ma Rainy, set in the 1920s, Nadel argues that the play provides an introduction to American history and a decade when blues were central to Black life. Nadel emphasizes that Wilson’s work could be read as musical compositions and orchestrations: thus, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom becomes a “paradigmatic play in Wilson’s canon” (42).

Chapter 4 provides a critical analysis of law and property in Gem of the Ocean and Jitney. The chapter considers how Gem of the Ocean, set in the 1910s, begins the Wilson cycle and introduces how capitalism creates the world of Wilson’s plays. Connecting it to Jitney, Wilson’s first piece written for the cycle (set in the 1970s in a black-owned unlicensed taxi service), Nadel examines how characters navigate in that very system where black communities are disenfranchised. Chapter Five examines property in Fences, set in the 1950s, and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, set in 1911. Nadel focuses on the fence as the “idea of property” (68). He argues that the “act of naming” in Fences enacts “fence building”, connecting with the idea of property within the United States (68). Later chapters continue to consider property and the law as they provide critical companions to specific Wilson plays, including: Two Trains Running, Seven Guitars, King Hedley II and Radio Golf.

This compelling volume also includes contributions from scholars Donald E. Pease and Harry Elam Jr. who further critical analysis of Seven Guitars and King Hedley II. An Americanist, Pease’s chapter extends focus on the significance of the blues, giving a brief historical context of the genre, as well as interview material on Wilson’s approach to music. While Nadel examines the dramatic texts, Elam Jr’s chapter considers performance of these texts as theatre. Elam’s chapter analyzes director Bartlett Sher’s production of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone in its 2009 revival on Broadway and Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s staging of Jitney for Broadway premiere in 2017. Elam’s chapter aims to situate these signal performances within the cultural and political context of their times of production, decades after Wilson wrote the plays. These valuable and insightful additions deepen our understanding of Wilson’s contributions to theatre and American history.

In The Theatre of August Wilson, Nadel masterfully weaves theory and history with a thorough analysis of Wilson’s dramatic texts. Fittingly, he provides ample analysis of the blues as a storytelling device while the book’s unique lens considers the plays in relation to how law and property are portrayed. The monograph is useful for scholars from varying disciplines and theater practitioners seeking critical analysis of August Wilson’s cycle plays. Beyond connecting plays across the cycle, Nadel also gives specific evidence of how the plays speak to law and property rights, slavery and the forces of capitalism in America, and the incorporation of the blues by Wilson to illuminate the African American experience and creativity through the 20th century.

Jasmeene Francois
Graduate Center, CUNY

The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 33, Number 2 (Spring 2021)
ISNN 2376-4236
©2021 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center
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