August Wilson and the African-American Odyssey

Article excerpt

August Wilson and the African-American Odyssey by Kim Pereira. Urbana and Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1996. $12.95 paper.

With the publication and performance of Jitney/(1979), Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (1985), Fences (1987), Joe Turner's Come and Gone (1988), The Piano Lesson (1990), and Two Trains Running (1992)--as well as several apprentice and shorter works--August Wilson has become the best-known contemporary African American playwright. The past few years have seen a groundswell of publishing concerning his work. Given the success of his plays, the depth of his cultural commitment, and the breadth of his artistic vision, it is clear that the time is ripe for serious scholarship ,on his work. Kim Pereira's August Wilson and the African-American Odyssey and Sandra D. Shannon's The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson are two of the most recent contributions to this discussion about the meaning and value of Wilson's work.

Distillations of African American folk traditions, the blues, and 1960s radicalism, Wilson's plays are potent reminders that the past, present, and future of African American lives matter, that the fact of the black presence in the United States is fundamental to the very existence and prominence of the nation. In this respect, Wilson's works are the very stuff of the American Dream; they are celebrations of history, endurance, and achievement. Indeed, Wilson has placed his works in close connection with a complex of African American cultural forms and figures: African American folk wisdom, the blues, Amiri Baraka, Romare Bearden. In addition, Wilson has developed a plan to dramatize a black perspective on each decade of the twentieth century. Much criticism about Wilson reflects the close interaction between history and African American experience that is a fundamental feature of Wilson's plays.

Both Kim Pereira in August Wilson and the African-American Odyssey and Sandra D. Shannon in The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson make Wilson's articulated intention to re-examine history and retrieve culture the starting point for their readings of the plays. Pereira performs a strong, traditional reading of Wilson, while Shannon constructs a biography-based investigation into the origins and practices of Wilson's work. In both studies, Wilson emerges as an extraordinary artist, and yet the sum of that creative strength is not entirely identified. Both works succeed in claiming more critical space for Wilson, and yet both works leave more complex, less duty-bound readings for others to attempt.

Kim Pereira's August Wilson and the African-American Odyssey asserts a traditional reading of Wilson's works based on the proposition that the significance of the plays lies in their relationship to American history. Pereira traces the outline of what he calls the African American odyssey through three phases: separation, migration, and reunion. Appropriately, these phases can be superimposed comfortably onto his readings of Wilson's plays. The movement of conflict and resolution in Pereira's hands becomes a cultural odyssey which each play re-enacts in one way or another. Conscientiously laying a foundation for his historical analysis with references to the work of Eric Foner, Sterling Stuckey, and Ralph Ellison, Pereira links his conception of the African American odyssey to large-scale historical, cultural moments: the removal from Africa, the cultural disruptions caused by slavery; as well as the migrations from South to North.

Such a historical/cultural reading allows Pereira to focus sharply on the articulations of "odyssey" in the plays he reads. The disadvantages of this approach, however, are also clear. Such flatly-defined, starkly-drawn lines of inquiry--while well approved amongst many commentators on Wilson--lend a quality of inflexible determinism and repetitiveness to the study. Treating Wilson's four major plays--Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (the 1920s), Fences (the 1950s), Joe Turner's Come and Gone (the 1910s), and The Piano Lesson (the 1930s)--Pereira suggests that the plays are examinations of the "effects of separation, migration, and reunion on the descendants of slaves who migrated from the rural South to the urban North. …