The Unconscious Rebellion of August Wilson

Two new Netflix films, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Giving Voice, honor the late playwright’s rejection of white commercial restrictions.

August Wilson in 1987
“Do we assimilate into American society and thereby lose our culture, or do we maintain our culture separate from the dominant cultural values?" — August Wilson (Tom Sweeney / Minneapolis Star Tribune / ZUMA Press / Alamy)

It’s a glorious moment for devotees of the late, great playwright August Wilson, even with many theaters closed. Netflix has two new Wilson films on offer: a swift, sumptuous version of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and the heartening documentary Giving Voice, about high-school students who discover the thrill and resonance of Wilson’s characters while preparing for a national monologue competition. Together, the films reflect not only on the achievement of Wilson’s American Century Cycle—his 10-play chronicle of Black life in America through each decade of the 20th century—but also on his long-running battle with the conventions of white, Eurocentric drama.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom features two Black artists (in the film, Viola Davis’s eponymous blues singer, Ma, and Chadwick Boseman’s jazz trumpeter, Levee) struggling for a white-dominated music industry in 1920s Chicago to recognize their worth. Much of the play takes place in a subterranean rehearsal room where Rainey’s backup musicians swap stories, boasts, and insults as they debate the prospects of gaining approval from the white executives who control the recording studio upstairs. It was Wilson’s breakthrough play, his first to be accepted in the National Playwrights Conference, in 1982, after five previous scripts were rejected, and his first to be  produced on Broadway. Commercial theater was, however, a strange fit for a play that, as the critic Frank Rich noted, has “virtually no story.” Wilson, who wrote poetry before he turned to playwriting, drew inspiration from what he called “the four B’s”—the oral tradition of the blues, the collage art of Romare Bearden, the political engagement of Amiri Baraka, and the metaphysical explorations of Jorge Luis Borges. Wilson produced lyrical, chatty, digressive scripts, rich in African American character, history, and ritual, that didn’t slot neatly into mainstream expectations of a well-made play.

Viola Davis stars in a scene from Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. (David Lee / Netflix)

Though it became a Broadway success, Ma Rainey was criticized for lacking a unified structure around a central protagonist whose rising conflict could generate the play’s action. For his next play, Fences, Wilson responded to critics by writing a recognizable, realistic arc for a tragic hero, the baseball slugger turned garbageman Troy Maxson, who could take his place alongside Willy Loman, King Lear, and Oedipus. The play won the 1987 Tony for Best Play and Pulitzer Prize for Drama, earned $12 million on Broadway, and has long been Wilson’s most widely produced work. But having proved his Aristotelian credentials, he returned to loosely structured, spiritually adventurous ensemble riffs in his subsequent plays (Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, The Piano Lesson) even as American theater tried to shoehorn him into forms that were seen as universal—which is to say, more familiar to white producers and audiences. Fences “was not the kind of play I wanted to write,” Wilson told Vanity Fair in 1989. “But all these people who are used to theater kept trying to tell me my work should be something different.”

The politics of dramatic structure might appear tenuous. It’s not obvious that a director’s request, say, for Wilson to trim his characters’ monologues so that Ma Rainey would build more swiftly and clock in at under three hours (as, indeed, he was asked—and eventually agreed—to do) has a racial valence. (The new Netflix film, directed by George C. Wolfe from a script adapted by the longtime Wilson collaborator Ruben Santiago-Hudson, runs at a fleet 90 minutes.) For Wilson, however, holding space for a character’s story was an invitation for audiences to listen to the speech of ordinary Black people—rhythms that first captivated Wilson in the songs of Bessie Smith, and then in stories he’d hear elders swap in his native Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. As he explained to an interviewer in 1990, “I think the long speeches are an unconscious rebellion against the notion that Blacks do not have anything important to say.” If that derailed the expectations of a well-made play, Wilson didn’t mind. In a 2003 interview, he welcomed the development of “a Black theater that is not based on Aristotle’s Poetics and European conventions,” constructing a Black aesthetic instead from sources such as the blues and Black nationalism.

At stake was a broader issue of assimilation. The fundamental question that African Americans had faced since the end of slavery, Wilson said, was: “Do we assimilate into American society and thereby lose our culture, or do we maintain our culture separate from the dominant cultural values and participate in the American society as Africans rather than as Blacks who have adopted European values?” As a playwright, Wilson dramatized this question dialectically, and his characters repeatedly learn the danger of adopting European values at the expense of their ancestral heritage. “We done sold Africa for the price of tomatoes,” the piano player mourns in Ma Rainey. “We done sold ourselves to the white man in order to be like him.” When Wilson disparaged Fences as his least favorite of his plays, despite its critical acclaim and commercial success, it was hard not to hear his resentment that the play had compelled him to adopt artistic values that weren’t his own.

One of the joys of the high schoolers in Giving Voice encountering Wilson’s work is that they perform monologues liberated from the plots of the plays. Their interests—and the judging criteria for the competition—are characterization, language, energy, not dramatic structure. The students find their own courageous voice onstage in speeches that play like earthy arias, revealing Black experiences in richly textured, everyday language, rather than advancing a theatrical arc. As one of the students says, the rhythm of a Wilson monologue is the blues: “The only thing you have to do is hear the song.” Listening to these teenagers’ voices becomes, in some ways, a return to Ma Rainey’s art—the blues liberated from white commercial restrictions.

Aaron Guy performs in the August Wilson Monologue Competition in Giving Voice. (Netflix)

Through interviews with artists such as Viola Davis and Denzel Washington (who produced Netflix’s Ma Rainey after directing and starring alongside Davis in a 2016 film of Fences), the documentary also insists on the universality of Wilson’s writing, putting him alongside Shakespeare as a poet of human experience. “August belongs to everybody,” the actor Stephen McKinley Henderson tells us. “Everybody that’s got a mother, father, sister, brother—this speaks to you.” It’s an inspiring message, but it appears slightly at odds with Wilson’s own professed aesthetics of a theater by and for Black artists. In a controversial 1996 speech, “The Ground on Which I Stand,” Wilson opposed the so-called color-blind casting of Shakespeare plays and other classics, arguing that it reinforces white drama as the norm into which artists of other identities have to fit: “The idea of color-blind casting is the same idea of assimilation that Black Americans have been rejecting for the past 380 years.”

Although Wilson was attacked as a separatist, his point was that Black theater has just as much power to lay claim to universality as the works of any other tradition. “I write about the Black experience in America,” he explained, “and contained within that experience, because it is a human experience, are all the universalities. I am surprised when people come up to me and say, ‘Well, Fences is universal.’ Of course it is! They say that as though the universals existed outside of Black life. It was Romare Bearden, the artist, who when asked about his work said, ‘I try to explore in terms of the life that I know best the things which are common to all culture.’ And I thought, Ah-hah! That is also what I aspire to do.” Wilson accomplished his goal by expanding both the range of human experiences that could count as universal and the range of dramatic forms that could portray those experiences.

In Giving Voice, we see the finalists in the competition each receive a hardcover box set containing all 10 plays in the American Century Cycle—the canonization of Wilson in print. I like to think of some of the students opening the cycle’s final play, Radio Golf, which Wilson completed just before his death in 2005. The volume has a wry introduction by the playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, who relishes a moment in the play when a real-estate developer, planning to gentrify a historic Pittsburgh neighborhood, readies a $10,000 check to reimburse a longtime resident whose house will soon be torn down. “I have something for you,” the developer says. “It ain’t no bread pudding, is it?” Old Joe replies. “I was just thinking about some bread pudding. You like bread pudding? My mother used to make bread pudding. She made the best bread pudding. She didn’t do it too often but when she did she used to make a great big old pan last two or three days. It ain’t no bread pudding, is it?”

As Parks points out, this little riff—almost a song in the cadence of its longing repetitions—knocks both the play’s momentum and the redevelopment project off course. A reverie about bread pudding doesn’t belong in a well-made play, any more than Old Joe’s house belongs in the new neighborhood, but Wilson makes room for both. “The bread pudding is saying, ‘Wait a minute, there’s a history here and it doesn’t fit in with you guys’ stuff,’” Wilson once told Parks. “The bread pudding is not part of the traditional structure of the play, but it’s part of the structure of this particular community backed up against change.” If Denzel Washington ends up producing the complete American Century Cycle, as he’s previously announced, I hope bread pudding makes the cut.