Aunt Ester's Children: A Century on Stage; This Essay, Which Serves as the Preface to King Hedley II (TCG Books), Was Written in the Spring of 2000, before the Playwright Had Begun the Final Two Plays in His 20th-Century Cycle. It First Appeared in the New York Times (April 23, 2000)
Wilson, August, American Theatre
In 1975 I wrote a short story titled "The Greatest Blues Singer in the World." As it turned out, the text of the story was very short. I began, "The streets that Balboa walked were his own private ocean, and Balboa was drowning." That seemed to communicate the idea with more clarity than I could hope to gain by adding to it, so I stopped and typed "The End."
I had conceived a much longer story that spoke to the social context of the artist and how one's private ocean is inextricably linked to the tributary streams that gave rise to, and occasioned, the impulse to song.
Before one can become an artist one must first be. It is being in all facets, its many definitions, that endows the artist with an immutable sense of himself that is necessary for the accomplishment of his task. Simply put, art is beholden to the kiln in which the artist was fired.
Before I am anything, a man or a playwright, I am an African American. The tributary streams of culture, history and experience have provided me with the materials out of which I make my art. As an African-American playwright, I have many forebears who have pioneered and hacked out of the underbrush an aesthetic that embraced and elevated the cultural values of black Americans to a level equal to those of their European counterparts.
Out of their experiences, the sacred and the profane, was made a record of their traverse and the many points of epiphany and redemption. They have hallowed the ground and provided a tradition gained by will and daring. I count it a privilege to stand at the edge of the art, with the gift of their triumphs and failures, as well as the playwrights down through the ages who found within the turbulent history of human thought and action an ennobling conduct worthy of art. The culture of black America, forged in the cotton fields of the South and tested by the hard pavements of the industrial North, has been the ladder by which we have climbed into the New World. The field of manners and rituals of social intercourse--the music, speech, rhythms, eating habits, religious beliefs, gestures, notions of common sense, attitudes toward sex, concepts of beauty and justice, and the responses to pleasure and pain--have enabled us to survive the loss of our political will and the disruption of our history. The culture's moral codes and sanction of conduct offer clear instructions as to the value of community, and make clear that the preservation and promotion, the propagation and rehearsal of the value of one's ancestors is the surest way to a full and productive life.
The cycle of plays I have been writing since 1979 is my attempt to represent that culture in dramatic art. From the beginning, I decided not to write about historical events or the pathologies of the black community. The details of our struggle to survive and prosper, in what has been a difficult and sometimes bitter relationship with a system of laws and practices that deny us access to the tools necessary for productive and industrious life, are available to any serious student of history or sociology.
Instead, I wanted to present the unique particulars of black American culture as the transformation of impulse and sensibility into codes of conduct and response, into cultural rituals that defined and celebrated ourselves as men and women of high purpose. I wanted to place this culture on stage in all its richness and fullness and to demonstrate its ability to sustain us in all areas of human life and endeavor and through profound moments of our history in which the larger society has thought less of us than we have thought of ourselves.
From Joe Turner's Come and Gone (which is set in 1911) to King Hedley II (set in 1985), the cycle covers almost 80 years of American history. The plays are peopled with characters whose ancestors have been in the United States since the early 17th century. …