Aspects of Africanness in August Wilson's Drama: Reading 'The Piano Lesson' through Wole Soyinka's Drama

By Bissiri, Amadou | African American Review, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview

Aspects of Africanness in August Wilson's Drama: Reading 'The Piano Lesson' through Wole Soyinka's Drama


Bissiri, Amadou, African American Review


The experimental flourish of the Counterculture and Civil Rights Movement eras brought tremendous developments in American drama. But by the mid-'70s, new conditions in the nation - political, social, cultural, and technological - combined to displace drama as a major vehicle of cultural expression (Herman 9). The move of drama from the center of the cultural stage has not meant its death, however. With Broadway's loss of primacy, regional, Off-, and Off-Off-Broadway activities have come to the fore, and this has meant unparalleled growth for minority (black, Chicano, women, gay) productions. In style and subject matter new patterns and concerns have arisen. Reverting to what Gerald M. Berkowitz defines as the mainstay of twentieth-century American drama, domestic realism, dramatists have started to express their concerns "through the everyday, personal experiences of ordinary characters" (167). In black drama, the traditional emphasis on cultural identity has continued. Instead of Amiri Baraka's once-dominant revolutionary style, characterized by images of revolt (Bigsby, Critical 414), at work now is the claim to possess an authentic black culture expressed through a recognizably black sensibility. This emphasis can be seen in the work of August Wilson, whose plays deal with the common folk, "those who were continuing to live their lives," rather than "what you could get from the history book" (qtd. in Bigsby, Modern 297). Wilson has little interest in those black figures and experiences that have been at the center of political and social activism.

August Wilson has dedicated himself to writing a cycle of plays dramatizing black experience during crucial historical periods in order to play out his individual sense of commitment to the cause of black America - which is to allow black men and women to tell American history, a history that, so far, whites have mostly told (Goldman 14). To him, blacks can best write and stage their experiences and cultural identity. This vision frames the significance of his project, which involves a concern for the survival struggle of black cultural values in the midst of a hostile white culture: "The message of America is 'Leave your Africanness outside the door.' My message is 'Claim what is yours'" (qtd. in Freedman, "Voice" 39-40). Wilson's sense of identity looks emphatically toward Africa, and carries a large part of his ideological program. He seeks the recognition of African American identity - acceptance of the fact that Afro-American mythology is not "strange," but "a common, natural part of life"; he seeks acknowledgment of African Americans' link "to Africa, to who we are" (qtd. in Freedman, "Voice" 2 (40). Wilson obviously denies the assumption that slavery exterminated African culture. He believes with Lawrence Levine that "from the first African captives, through the years of slavery, and into the present century black Americans kept alive important strands of African consciousness and verbal art in their humor, songs, dance, speech, tales, folk beliefs and aphorisms" (Levine 444). Despite the long and painful historical separation, there remains an African sensibility among African Americans. Wilson consciously seeks to integrate this sensibility and all else that stems from African culture into his plays (Goldman 6).

My aim in the present paper is twofold: first, to trace aspects of Africanness in Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Piano Lesson, by reading it through Wole Soyinka's drama; and, second, to probe the overall significance of Wilson's dramaturgic interest in Africanness. Methodologically speaking, my approach is not purely comparative. My interest in Soyinka's drama is mainly practical: a reference guide to focus my perspective, to ground my selection of African elements in The Piano Lesson, and to analyze or assess Wilson's African sensibility.

Conceptually and practically, Soyinka draws on Yoruba ritual drama and mythology. In his Myth, Literature and the African World, he explores African world views and rituals and how these can help to build a true modern African drama. …

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