"Mouths on Fire": August Wilson's Blueswomen

Article excerpt

"A woman is everything a man needs. To a smart man she is water and berries."

--August Wilson (Joe Turner 46)

"A man that believe in himself still need a woman that believe in him. You can't make life happen without a woman."

--August Wilson (Seven Guitars 18)

"You'll see a hard time when your good woman is gone."

--Bessie Smith, "Hard Time Blues" (qtd. in Davis 286)

When August Wilson died in the fall of 2005, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis played a haunting rendition of "Danny Boy" to close his funeral. Such a musical tribute complemented well Wilson's own emphasis on song throughout his work. Employing what he termed "blues" as a "flag bearer of self-definition" (Preface x), Wilson produced an impressive body of plays that record black American life in the twentieth century and incorporate music as a critical element. Acknowledged for their sense of character, poetic language, and dramatic power, the plays focus on male protagonists, on men such as Levee Green in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (1982), Troy Maxson in Fences (1983), and Herald Loomis in Joe Turner's Come and Gone (1984), all of whom are in search of their own songs of identity, no matter how strident the voice. Their songs of quest rendered largely within the blues poetics and in part, as Paul Carter Harrison points out, through the antics of African folklore trickster characters (302)--ring with the authenticity of the African American experience.

Authentic as well are the song-voices of his women characters, though none of these women, Ma Rainey included, holds center stage. (1) Yet their voices provide a tonal framework, a melodic basis from which the men range. Just as some of Wilson's men bear the craft of an Eshu or Anansi, something of the trickster's wife Aso often appears in the sharp-eyed vision of Wilson's women. His female characters function, in fact, as integral counterparts of the blues and African folklore motifs that envelop his male protagonists. Moreover, while they do not hold center stage, at their strongest, they represent the center of wisdom. They know their songs intuitively, for the "ground on which they stand," to paraphrase Wilson's famous speech, is that of self-knowledge. Basing his most admirable female characters on his own mother, whom he describes as "strong" and "principled" (Conversations 72), Wilson privileges his women characters to intuit truths for which his men continue to search. (2)

Tara T. Green points out the importance of female ownership of voice in the plays and reminds us that in Wilson's "experience, the legacy of the culture was passed through his maternal lineage" and that "[o]wnership of voice is ownership of the culture's expression" (146). (3) This paper focuses on female ownership of voice in Wilson's plays and also examines the musical blues voices of three of Wilson's female characters--Aunt Ester, Ma Rainey, and Berniece. Each represents Wilson's dramatic archetype of the strong matriarchal female, the bearer of memories and wisdom, whose songs--though varied in nature--are at the center of their lives and provide an anchor for themselves and others. Each possesses a song of fire, for, like those who drowned in the Middle Passage, they possess a burning tongue, an intensity and drive to arrive at truths through voice and music. They all engage in a ritual of imaginative projection: Berniece in finding her song "piece by piece" (Piano 105), Ma Rainey in her critical understanding of the artistic and cultural integrity of her songs that speak for those who are voiceless, and Aunt Ester in guiding others down the sacred path to salvation.

Unique to the blues voices of these women characters is their intuitive nature. Using their voices to transcend societal and gender restrictions, they forge a music that reconfigures their world--whether that music is Berniece's instrumental performance, Ma Rainey's secular blues, or Aunt Ester's sacred songs. …