August Wilson touched off a vigorous debate in the theater world when he declared, in 1996, that “colorblind casting is an aberrant idea” and a tool of “cultural imperialism.” Wilson, one of postwar America’s most significant playwrights, was addressing the national conference of the nonprofit organization Theatre Communications Group (where I once worked). His forceful speech (later published as The Ground on Which I Stand) got people arguing about race in the theater, and especially the practice of casting black actors in roles written for whites.

“Colorblind” is an unhelpfully reductive term for a complicated reality. There are valid distinctions to be made between, say, a mixed-race Shakespeare company and—to cite Wilson’s main example—“an all-black production of Death of a Salesman.” For Wilson, the issue was about more than actors; the critical question was whose stories are deemed worthy. He bristled at the suggestion that African-American artists like himself should aspire to the standards of white European culture, as though acknowledging the full humanity of black Americans required erasing their history. “We can meet on the common ground of theater as a field of work and endeavor,” he told his colleagues. “But we cannot meet on the common ground of experience.”

Photo by Joan Marcus

Wilson spent his life making sure black actors and audiences would find their history respected and reflected in American theater. When he died in 2005, he had just completed the final installment of his ten-play cycle tracing African-Americans’ journey “from the hull of a ship to self-determining, self-respecting people.” In each play, Wilson wrote about black Americans “reassembling” themselves and their communities and coping with discrimination and poverty in another decade of the twentieth century. (The plays have been published as a set from TCG, The August Wilson Century Cycle.)

Such an ambitious goal might have yielded drearily didactic historical drama, but Wilson’s plays are immensely entertaining, with a compelling cast of characters and lyrical, expressive dialogue. All but one of the plays are set in the Hill Section of Pittsburgh, where Wilson was raised. Some names and characters recur across the decades. Most of the action unfolds in spaces where families and neighbors gather to talk: a backyard, a coffee shop, a dining room. The plot’s progress is generally disguised in a free-flowing stream of conversation, punctuated by masterfully crafted speeches, hilarious and profound. And woven through it all are the “truth-sayers”—characters whose grasp on reality seems tenuous, but whose spiritual vision is intense. They are a link to the “spirit world,” which Wilson once explained is “the world that the characters turn to when they are most in need.”

The cycle’s mysticism is centered on a character called Aunt Ester, a “conjure woman” who claims to be centuries old and who represents the collective history and memory of African Americans. Her ministry of “washing souls” combines Christian prayer with African ritual, and is one example of how Wilson’s characters make sense of Christianity as both a source of inspiration and an inheritance from slavery. The plays are filled with religious language, sometimes apocalyptic and urgent, at other times bitter and despairing. “God is in his heaven and he staying there,” Floyd Barton says in Seven Guitars. “He must be up there ’cause a lot of things down here he don’t know.” A character in Jitney complains, “I’m tired of waiting for God to decide whether he want to hold my hand.” Aunt Ester’s faith is firm: “God don’t know nothing but the truth,” she counsels. “God got beautiful splendors.”

The closest Wilson came to answering Death of a Salesman was Fences, a gripping domestic tragedy set in 1957. Fences won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for drama (Wilson’s first; he also won in 1990 for The Piano Lesson), and it is currently on Broadway in a splendid revival directed by Kenny Leon. It is the story of Troy Maxson, a garbage collector, former baseball player, and ex-convict who has built a solid living from nothing, and who winds up destroying what he ought to value most in his attempt to assert his identity. Troy’s life has been shaped by racial discrimination, economic injustice, and an abusive upbringing. He is limited as well by his personal faults, and like many of Wilson’s characters, he has difficulty knowing where one source of trouble ends and the other begins. He faces questions that resonate throughout the Century Cycle: What is the proper balance between acceptance and outrage at injustice? When simply getting by is so difficult, how can a person focus on storing up treasure that can’t be taken away?

Troy prides himself on tending to his responsibilities: he owns a home, he provides for his wife and son, and he even wins a promotion after enlisting the help of his union. But the effort to define himself has left him emotionally barren and withholding. Resentment over having come along “too early” to build a career in baseball as a black man keeps Troy from acknowledging that conditions may be better for his son, who has a chance to go to college on a football scholarship: “There ought not never have been no time called too early!” he seethes. His son, smarting from Troy’s rejection of his college aspirations, asks, “How come you ain’t never liked me?” “What law is there say I got to like you?” Troy retorts. His betrayal of his wife, Rose, is still more devastating. Yet even as he informs her of his unfaithfulness, he insists, “I ain’t sorry for nothing I done. It felt right in my heart.” His frame of reference is as cramped as the batter’s box he imagines himself standing in, alone, facing down death.

As Troy, film star Denzel Washington puts his considerable Hollywood charm to use in bringing out the character’s endearing qualities along with his flaws. He expertly locates the vulnerability beneath Troy’s bravado. Viola Davis (Oscar-nominated for the 2008 film Doubt, and a veteran of several cycle plays) is a restrained but powerful presence as Rose. The fence around the yard that Troy is building throughout the play is Rose’s idea—an expression of her desire to define and protect what she values. She is a reconciler, determined to hold her family together; she stays on the margins of the men’s conversation in the yard and changes the subject whenever she senses danger or discord. She looks out for the son from a previous marriage whom Troy neglects, and for Gabe, Troy’s brother, brain-damaged in the war. Rose knows Troy’s faults better than he does, and when she finally explodes in anger, the scene is heartrending: “You take,” she tells him, “and don’t even know nobody’s giving!”

In print, Fences carries an epigraph from the playwright: “When the sins of our fathers visit us / We do not have to play host. / We can banish them with forgiveness / As God, in His Largeness and Laws.” Troy wrestles with his father’s legacy, and his family in turn struggles with the fallout from his mistakes. Wilson’s verse suggests that forgiveness is the key to moving forward as individuals and in community. The clearest illustration of that possibility (a major theme in the cycle) is Rose’s willingness to accept Troy’s illegitimate baby as her own, an act of generosity that looks toward the future, determined to make a blessing out of pain.

Like so many of Wilson’s characters, Rose finds her strength in religion; she turns to the church when her marriage lets her down. But the prophet of Fences is Troy’s disabled brother, who “believes with every fiber of his being that he is the Archangel Gabriel.” Gabe predicts that Troy’s story will end in glory—“St. Peter got your name in the book,” he insists. “I seen it.” And Gabe’s advocacy bears fruit in the play’s final moments, when—according to the stage directions, beautifully interpreted here—“the gates of heaven stand open as wide as God’s closet.”

Wilson died of liver cancer at sixty. His last play was Radio Golf, set in 1997, by which time Aunt Ester is long dead, and her descendants are fighting to save her home from being demolished. This conclusion to the cycle is a final warning from Wilson about the cost of forgetting or abandoning one’s history. Thanks to his efforts and gifts, that history has a strong and lasting voice in American theater. Fences alone secures Wilson’s legacy, and the production now on Broadway is a worthy tribute.


Pictured: Denzel Washington and Stephen McKinley Henderson in Fences. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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Published in the 2010-06-04 issue: View Contents
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