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Whistling Past the Graveyard

Reckoning with Wilson

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Pittsburgh's mourning over its native son, playwright August Wilson, has been lengthy, moving and dignified. It's a measure of the man that even the Tribune-Review editorial page managed to offer a dignified homage. ("A literary giant lived among us....Bravo, sir. Well done, sir. Bravo.")

 

I wonder what Wilson would have made of it.

 

Graveside praise, after all, can serve to bury not just the man, but also his ideas. And Wilson never stopped being critical of the very institutions that lauded him. 

 

Though few public accounts of his life have dwelled on it, Wilson frequently challenged the cultural elite now lamenting his death. He insisted, for example, that his celebrated play Fences not be made into a movie unless it had a black director. (So far, it has not been made into a movie at all.) He was often a strident social critic, never more so than in a 1996 speech before the Theatre Communications Group National Conference titled "The Ground on Which I Stand."

 

In a passage you won't see in the Tribune-Review anytime soon, Wilson declared that "the Black Power movement of the '60s ... has much to do with the person I am today and the ideas and attitudes that I carry." He railed that out of scores of major theater companies nationwide, only one was black. He critiqued the practice of "colorblind-casting," an approach Wilson charged was "a tool of the Cultural Imperialists." Whites and "proponents of colorblind casting," he charged, claimed, "'Oh, I don't see color.' We want you to see us....We are not ashamed, and we do not need you to be ashamed for us."

 

Whether or not all these charges were all fair, Wilson's speech generated considerable debate -- most vocally from critic Robert Brustein.  "Isn't there some kind of statute of limitations on white guilt and white reparations?" Brustein asked in an October 1996 essay in American Theatre magazine. "[B]y choosing to chronicle the oppression of black people through each of the decades," Brustein fretted, "Wilson has fallen into a monotonous tone of victimization."

 

That criticism, of course, makes as much sense as faulting Sophocles for focusing on the tragic lives of Greek royalty. Part of the reason Wilson's work grated with whites like Brustein, one suspects, is that they didn't like being cast as the Fates -- those sinister off-stage forces whose whim dictates the hero's unhappy lot. Unlike the audiences for Sophocles' plays, whites couldn't distance themselves from the hardship Wilson dramatized.

 

But Brustein, at least, addressed Wilson's challenge head-on: The two traded barbs in journals, and then in a 1997 debate. The rest of us, meanwhile, have largely been spared having to do so: A sense of funereal decorum has protected not the deceased, but ourselves.

 

Wilson's public pronouncements on race were contentious because race relations are contentious. As much as any character he scripted for the stage, he dramatized this fact, this deep ambivalence permeating our culture.

 

Even in his 1996 speech, Wilson alternated between insisting that race was an unbridgeable divide ("Where is the common ground in the horrifics of lynching?") and laying claim to a theater that could speak to all humanity: "I believe in [theater's] power to inform about the human condition, its power to heal." While he railed against injustice from the podium, those who met him have always noted his graciousness in person. In interviews he decried Pittsburgh as a "hard" and "very racist" city, but he returned here repeatedly.

 

August Wilson has come and gone, and the Pittsburgh -- the world -- he leaves behind is both harder and easier than the one he grew up in. The racial divide, it seems, has less to do with active hatred than with incomprehension and apathy. No longer is it necessary for whites to put hoods over their faces...a hand over the eyes is often enough. That's why so many of us are willing to believe now-discredited rumors of rape and murder in post-hurricane New Orleans. And why some of us are surprised, still, by video footage of police in that city beating a black man just weeks after the flooding.

 

I never knew Wilson, except by the words he has left behind. But something in them tells me that, if we want to do justice to his memory -- and truly remember his sense of justice -- words will never be enough.

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