IN GEM OF THE OCEAN, THE PENULTIMATE ENTRY IN August Wilson's decade-by-decade cycle of plays chronicling the black experience in 20th-century America, Aunt Ester embraces into her fold Citizen Barlow, a restless soul who breaks into her house through a window. A troubled man in search of salvation, Citizen has been unsuccessfully trying to claim the citizenship promised in Abraham Lincoln's 1865 proclamation on the emancipation of America's slaves. Having committed some mortal crime, he has come to see Aunt Ester ostensibly to get his soul washed. Because he reminds her of a junebug, she gives him a meal, a job and a place to stay.
Soon we find Ester and Citizen sitting in her Pittsburgh parlor and sailing, as if by magic, on a paper boat she has made out of her bill of sale as a slave. The year is 1904. It is the day before Aunt Ester turns 287 years old. The boat, a slave ship, rocks wildly as a gathering storm disturbs the waters and pounds its hull. Their destination is the City of Bones, a noble kingdom made out of nothing, located a half-mile by a half-mile in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean-- it is the city of "the just dead," the largest unmarked graveyard in the world.
"Those bones," August Wilson will tell you, "are symbolically representative of the Africans who were lost during the Middle Passage"--the voyage of slaves from Africa to the Sea Islands and other destinations--"those whose ships sank into the ocean, the Africans who never made it to America. We find out through the course of the play what it is Citizen has done, and why he did this. Aunt Ester leads him to the answer. He has to find out what his duty is, and through that he can be redeemed."
August Wilson's bluesy dramas rarely center on women, but Aunt Ester has emerged as one of three or four powerful exceptions in the epic cycle of plays he began writing in 1979. Much like the singer Ma Rainey, who doesn't arrive until almost an hour into the play that bears her name, the conjure woman Ester surfaces late as a visible or literal entity. The premiere production of Gem of the Ocean, Wilson's play for the first decade of the 20th century, runs through May 24 at Chicago's Goodman Theatre; it will then travel to Los Angeles's Mark Taper Forum, where it will run July 19-Sept. 19. In the two plays that have previously invoked her name, Aunt Ester was a mystical off-stage figure-- the distant voice of Africa.
"Aunt Ester carries the memory of all Africans, the memory of the ancestors," Wilson explains. "She embodies the wisdom and traditions of all those Africans, starting with the first one. It is a tremendous responsibility to carry all this--to remember for everyone, as well as to remember for yourself--and she's accepted the responsibilities of it, starting when she was nine years old."
Ester is first invoked as 349-year-old spiritual guru in Two Trains Running (1992), Wilson's sixth entry in the cycle, a slice-of-life drama about the threatened redevelopment of a Pittsburgh restaurant in 1969. The personification of an older African spirituality, she is discussed, along with Malcolm X and the Black Power Movement, as one of the few possible alternatives for blacks who might not want to turn to Christianity for sustenance and direction. Aunt Ester's name is once again summoned, this time in graver and more alarming tones, in King Hedley II, Wilson's tragedy, set in 1985, about the stunted lives of Hedley and other key characters from the earlier; 1940s entry Seven Guitars. In Hedley, the pack-rat griot Stool Pigeon reports that Ester is dead at 366 years old--her age being the historical equivalent of the number of years Africans have been in America. She dies--or seems to--before the cycle is even finished, before Wilson even gets around to completing his 1990s entry. "Part of the picture i n Hedley," Wilson notes, "is that the path to Aunt Ester's house is all grown over with weeds and leaves. You can hardly find the door any more. People have simply stopped tapping into that memory. They've simply stopped visiting her. There is no use for her." The link to ancestral roots has been broken. "She died too soon," cries Stool Pigeon, while laying flowers and peanuts on the grave of Aunt Ester's car. "She wasn't supposed to die at all. She wasn't but 366 years old."
Has Aunt Ester--the image of Africa, whose metaphysical presence influences the behaviors of many of Wilson's characters on stage, the black cat whose looming absence invites a belief in otherworldliness--lived out her nine lives? There is a suggestion at the end of King Hedley that she has not. To resurrect her again, a blood sacrifice is required. Her black cat is buried in the yard, and Stool Pigeon works out a bloodletting ritual in order to make God accept the sacrifice, to bring about a rebirth. "As it turns out, it was all preordained," Wilson says finally. "Hedley has proven himself to be a worthy sacrifice. So the sound of a cat's meow is heard. It's the black cat that Aunt Ester came to represent."
Playwright August Wilson--born Frederick August Kittel
on April 27, 1945, in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, the son of a white German baker and a black cleaning woman named Daisy Wilson--is one formidable and complex cat.
In the two decades since Ma Rainey's Black Bottom brought him national attention and breakaway success in October 1984, Wilson has emerged as one of American theatre's heavyweight champions. That play, his crowning debut, launched him into a major career: He became the first black playwright to achieve commercial success on Broadway since Lorraine Hansberry, whose A Raisin in the Sun had appeared in 19S9. The odyssey he has so far undertaken--with (in the order the plays were written) Jitney (1970s), Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (1920s), Fences (1950s), Joe Turner's Come and Gone (1910s), The Piano Lesson (1930s), Two Trains Running (1960s), Seven Guitars (1940s), King Hedley II (1990s) and Gem of the Ocean (1900s)--is visionary in size, ambition and scope. Eugene O'Neill, by comparison, barely managed to eke out two plays in a planned nine-play cycle.
Wilson's fame and stature has risen meteorically as the poet-dramatist has assumed the various mantles of producer, leader, public speaker and intellectual, cultural nationalist, self-described "race man," critics' darling, provocateur, trickster-like figure, African griot, blues artificer, inspiration, folk hero and American icon.
And the reappearance this season of four major revivals of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom--at the Classical Theatre of Harlem and on Broadway, as well as at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., and Trustus theatre in Columbia, S.C.--further consolidates the belief that Wilson has spawned a veritable industry of his own, even as he is himself in the throes of a crucial transition. In tandem with his longtime producer Benjamin Mordecai, Wilson recently formed a commercial producing venture, Sageworks. With Marion McClinton as his director of choice, Wilson's 10-play cycle, which emerged under the aegis of Lloyd Richards, is almost reaching its culmination. His screenplay of Fences, the 1987 Pulitzer-winner, is likely to be produced some season soon by Scott Rudin (The Hours). The Penumbra Theatre in Minneapolis, where the first one-acts Wilson penned were mounted in the 1970s, is in the midst of an all-August Wilson season, and New York City's Signature Theatre will devote its 2005-06 season to his works.
And just when you thought he had accomplished enough, the 58-year-old playwright looks as if he's shifting the ground on which he stands. On May 22-June 1, he will perform in his own new one-man play at Seattle Repertory Theatre under the direction of his assistant, Todd Kreidler, as part of the company's Hot Type Festival of New Works. Is he reinventing himself as a solo artist?
"I'm not a performer," the Seattle-based playwright is quick to reply during a rambling conversation at his favorite New York diner, Cafe Edison, located inside the Edison Hotel, on West 47th Street, where he has stayed to room and write since 1987. "I never had any desire to perform anything. I don't like to be in front of a room full of people, but as it happens I've done that a fair amount of times. When I go to an opening-night reception, I may say a few words-which is really all I intend to do in this piece. I will just get up on stage and talk for an hour. I may slip into some dance-like movements to better illustrate what I'm talking about. That's it. I don't see it as performing."
Wilson's remarks about his new solo show slip through your fingers like an agile pussycat. When Seattle Rep announced this new one-man play, it had the working title of The August Wilson Project, but the truth was that he hadn't yet settled on a title. At first, he toyed with the idea of calling it I'm Not Spalding Gray. "The idea of that particular show," he recalls, "was to show all the ways in which I, August Wilson, as a black man, am not like Spalding Gray, a white guy. I wanted to illustrate the differences between the two cultures. But it got away from that. What am I doing, using this guy's name?"
Wilson goes on to proclaim, tongue firmly in cheek, that the show is likely to be called Sambo Takes On the World. "I am playing Little Black Sambo as a 57-year-old man," he shrugs. "I can recall one time when a friend at Seattle Children's Theatre was trying to interest me in writing a children's play. I told him, 'Why don't I write a story about Little Black Sambo?' He nearly fell off his chair. I say: 'What's wrong with being a Sambo? It's a nice story. Sambo is talented, bright, inventive, all of these admirable qualities in anyone else that we would admire. But because he's a little black kid, it's got to be a bad thing.' My idea was to dispel and dispute those negative stereotypes--to resurrect Sambo, so we can find all the positive qualities that this kid exhibits in the way he approaches the world."
Yet later in the interview he wonders aloud that, since his plays go through an unbelievable number of drafts and revisions, The August Wilson Project might as well be comprised of outtakes from his play-cycle. "I'm a good reader," he muses. "I can read my material. But I have a hard time finding a focus for it--I know what it's not going to be. It's not going to be autobiographical stories of my life.
Whatever final shape his one-man show takes, Wilson already has his heart set on the title for its HBO special version--Move Over, Chris Rock. It's a funny quip. But he gives me a blank stare when I ask if the solo show might be a fitting 1990s entry to his 10-play cycle.
A month later, I receive a call from Wilson's personal assistant in Seattle. She reports that his solo play will not be called Sambo Takes On the World, after all. It's going to have a different title instead--How I Learned What I Learned (and How What I Learned Has Led Me to Places I've Wanted to Go. That I Have Sometimes Gone Unwillingly Is the Crucible in Which Many a Work of Art Has Been Fired).
Watch out, Anna Deavere Smith.
O Ma Rainey, Sing yo' song; Now you's back Whah you belong, Git way inside us, Keep us strong... O Ma Rainey, Li'1 an' low; Sing us 'bout de hard luck Roun' our do'; Sing us 'bout de lonesome road We mus' go... --"Ma Rainey" by Sterling Brown
The kiln in which August Wilson was fired was the blues. The Black Arts Movement profoundly influenced him, too, but it is in the idiom of classic blues songs that his dramas find expressive forms to ritually recast and carry forth. Just as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith gave musical expression to the new social and sexual realities encountered by African Americans as free women and men, so has Wilson, as the most prominent African-American dramatist of his generation, done his part in reflecting (and helping to construct) a graph-like unfolding of black consciousness in the past century.
Classic blues are as inward-looking as Wilson's dramas. Both insist on the meaningfulness of black lives by pushing white characters to the periphery or rubbing them out of the central picture altogether. Like blues songs that are full of life and energy even as they sing of the pain, suffering, anger and disillusionment of black working-class people, Wilson's play-cycle maps and registers the changes and variations in values, concepts, attitudes and symbols from the Reconstruction Era, to the Harlem Renaissance and Great Depression, to the Civil Rights and Black Power years, to the decades of racial integration and supply-side economics. When his characters speak, the discourse is a jam session of individual struggles and collective woes--and the determination to conquer them.
Indeed, the womb from which Wilson's plays were born was Ma Rainey (nee Gertrude Pridgett, 1886-1939)--she was the historical "Mother of the Blues" and, inevitably, the mother of Wilson's volcanic outburst of creativity. Bessie Smith, too, had fired his imagination (in particular, "Nobody in Town Can Bake a Jelly Roll Like Mine," which Wilson says he played 22 times after he first heard it in 1965). Ma Rainey was, in fact, Bessie's mentor; anchored in the folk culture of southern blacks as they emerged from slavery, Rainey was the pacesetter. Bessie patterned herself after Ma Rainey, who liberated the blues from the fields and backwoods of rural black America and made it an accepted form of professional entertainment.
"Ma Rainey herself, the real person, is really a forgotten figure," says Tazewell Thompson, director of the Arena Stage production. "It's always been Billie Holiday, Ethel Waters, Alberta Hunter or even Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge whom we always hear about and know about. So we have to really credit August for establishing Ma Rainey in our consciousness as being an important figure in black music."
Set in a 1927 Chicago recording studio of the imagination, Ma Rainey is a tinderbox of overlapping strifes and ignitable motifs. It's about the exploitation of black artists by white record producers and, on another level, about the calamitous certainty of black-on-black violence, caused by institutional racism. It's a bitingly satiric portrait of seething competitive tensions among live musicians during the advent of technological reproduction--but also a devastating indictment of capitalist advantage and economic injustice as perpetrated by the "race music" industry on blues performers in the 1920s.
And Ma Rainey bears all the earmarks of the later plays, in form and context--their luxuriant length (usually clocking in at over three hours), the easygoing yet complex treatment of each specific era that suggests the slapdash sprawl of life itself, the nominal realism that is often an anchor for many-sided conflicts and robust carryings-on, the showstopping monologues, the three-line pattern of repeated refrains--and the hard-won scenes about hardscrabble lives that somehow explode into impromptu concerts or ecstatic blues numbers that are all the more profound for turning frustration and heartbreak into a defiant expression of joy.
What ignites Ma Rainey's kindling is a vociferous power play: Who owns popular performance, especially music? Levee, the rebellious trumpet player, derides Ma Rainey's gut-bucket style as "jug band music. He's scheming to form his own jazz band, and he's made arrangements, on the sly, with the white record producer Sturdyvant to perform a hepped-up version of the song "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." Our diva will have none of it: "Levee ain't messing up my song with none of his music shit," she yells at Irvin, her white manager. "If that don't set right with you and Sturdyvant, then I can carry my black bottom down South to my tour, 'cause I don't like it up here no ways."
This allegorical fight for cultural ownership comes to a draw; both Levee and Ma Rainey are correct. In reality, the classic blues that grew out of Georgia and the Carolinas, Texas and Mississippi were going out of favor. In the urban cities, swing and jazz improvisation were on the way in. Even the high modernist elites of the Harlem Renaissance (except for Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston) looked down on classic blues as hick and uncouth. Moreover, the central paradox of the play is that despite its title, Levee is the protagonist who drives its tragic plot, while Ma Rainey remains a stubborn, fiery constant. Like many of Wilson's later plays, Ma Rainey ultimately turns on the issues of black masculinity, revenge and retribution, and sins of the father profoundly affecting the fate of the sons.
This contradiction was never made clearer than in Marion McClinton's Broadway revival, where the force-of-nature actor playing Levee completely overshadowed Whoopi Goldberg's Ma Rainey. Returning to the role he created in 1984, Charles S. Dutton gave it an older, more desperate spin. "This is a man facing his last chance," says McClinton. "This is a man who should know better. Yet he's still making a young man's mistakes. There's a lot more at stake here, and in a way his performance now is deeper than it was before. Here is a Levee at the end of his journey, and he realizes he has nothing to show for It.
Any production that stints on the songs serves only to expose the play's structural oddity--its bifurcated focus. One of the issues that faces any director of the play is technical: Will the actors actually play their musical instruments? How closely should an actress recreate the real Ma Rainey's persona and moaning-and-groaning style?
Nonsinger Goldberg aside, the Ma Raineys in the three other revivals I saw were forces to be reckoned with--vocally and acting-wise. "Whether or not she has the most lines, whether or not it ultimately focuses on Levee's journey as a rebel, Ma Rainey has to have an impact on the play," says Arthur French, director of the Classical Theatre of Harlem's production, whose hot-blooded Ma in Tamela Aldridge looked the most youthful. "Ma is imperialistic. She smashes into the room and takes over. When she has nothing to say, she walks our. Her songs are not just entertainment--they are her statement of who she is and what she's going to do, despite what anybody says. And if you don't like it, you can kiss her big black ass."
Anne Lommel's two-level design for the CTH production contrasted the sordid trappings of the band room with the bright sterility of the recording studio. Similarly, Trustus theatre's production in South Carolina split its long, trapezoidal stage down the middle, visually illustrating the dichotomy between Levee's world and Ma's domain.
Trustus's director Craig Miller demonstrated a solid understanding of the play's power dynamics. Instead of Ma ordering Irvin to tell off Sturdyvant, Miller deleted three words ("You tell Sturdyvant") and revamped Ma Rainey's final moments in the play so that Ma lashed out at both Irvin and Sturdyvant before she signed her name and said, "One more mistake like this, and I can make my record some place else."
"I thought that August let off Sturdyvant too easily by not having him stand there and wait for Ma to sign the release form," Miller says. "I really wanted to power-pack that moment so that when the form changed hands, we saw the power shift. That release form is a symbol, and when it is out of her hand, her power is gone."
Trustus's Ma Rainey, the amply endowed Valdina Hall, remained in control of the means of production from the moment she burst in until the absolute last second that she walked out the door. For, as Ma herself admits in the play, once the white record producers have captured her voice, "It's just like I'm some whore and they roll over and put their pants on."
Tazewell Thompson's Arena Stage production was easily the most musical and the sauciest. Because his father was himself a jazz musician, Thompson mined the play for clues to elaborate on the blues sound. The high point of his show was Tina Fabrique's riffing--although the script suggests two blues songs, Arena Stage's Ma Rainey had three, with Fabrique's fiery rendition of "See See Rider" heralding the start of the second act. Clinton Derricks-Carroll, who played Slow Drag, is a musician as well as an actor, so he played a bass underscore during one long soliloquy. And Frederick Strother's Toledo actually tickled the ivories, at another point.
Donald Eastman's shadowy, arresting visual look for Arena Stage's Ma Rainey ushered the actors in using a revolving stage. "The musicians emerged right out of that purple blackness," Thompson says. "They revolved into the space, like on a long-playing record. Ma Rainey gave the impression that she was stepping off a scratchy record on a huge Victrola."
And Thompson's sassy, in-your-face production didn't just hint at Ma Rainey's bisexuality--she kissed her girlfriend Dessie Mae on the mouth, eliciting gasps from the mostly black audience. "Ma fooled around with young men, but she also liked to be in the company of women," Thompson says. "It was apparently widely known that she and Bessie Smith might have been lovers. Ma was once arrested during a police raid; the only people at this particular party were women. When the police broke in, Ma was in the center of a group of women who were all undressed, and they were all hauled down to the police station. Bessie got her out of jail."
One of the idiosyncrasies of Ma Rainey is that it is not a biographical drama. Like Wilson's later plays, Ma Rainey makes no attempt to rewrite history; it does not dredge up almanac facts or excavate anthropological items, and it is certainly not an episode in a serialized novel or a multi-sequel Hollywood franchise. So a production that pays close attention to or enhances Ma Rainey's perversities and extravagance--her vital vulgarity--reinforces the play's incendiary latticework of race, class, music and cultural identity.
Adds Thompson: "You cannot fully understand the language if you cannot feel the music--if you cannot breathe the music.
"If she ain't used up her nine lives Aunt Ester coming back."
Stool Pigeon in King Hedley II
The Faustian overtones in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom foreshadow the supernatural or metaphysical presence of a spirit world that has become increasingly important to Wilson's work. Slow Drag's story about how Eliza Cotter of Tuscaloosa, Ala., sold her soul to the devil but suffered no fatal repercussions is one example. Upon hearing this, Levee cries out that he wants to meet the devil--and, in a sense, he makes a bargain with the devil when he brandishes his knife and curses "Cutler's God."
"One of the discoveries I made in directing the play was how biblical its force was," adds Arthur French, who was an understudy in the original Broadway production. "I hadn't thought about it that way when I first performed it, but it is part of the mystery of the play. Who does God help? Or is the white man using God against us? What does God do when Levee blasphemes him--or does he believe in a false God? Sturdyvant believes in money as his god. Cutler [the band leader and trombonist] believes in a Christian God. The bass player Slow Drag says, 'Let's just play the music and go out and smoke a reefee Let's enjoy life. I don't want to hear this philosophy shit.'"
Pianist Toledo, the play's resident existentialist, comically pontificates about the significance of African tradition. He preaches about black people trying to become pale imitations of the white man, and this irritates Levee. A bit of an amateur sociologist, Toledo transforms the passing of a reefer into a metaphor of sharing in the African community; he steps on Levee's ego by questioning his grandiose self-image ("The colored man is the leftovers," says Toledo. "Now what's the colored man gonna do with himself? That's what we waiting to find out. But first we gotta know we the leftovers."). But where Hedley in King Hedley II is a sacrificial lamb, Toledo in Rainey is a victim of Levee's misguided rage.
"Toledo is set up as a substitute for the white man," Wilson explains. "Toledo is the only one in the group of Ma Rainey's musicians who can read and is able to articulate an idea that blacks are leftovers from history. As I was writing the play, I realized that if I was going to be honest to it, he couldn't get out of the play alive. People who can articulate ideas, like Martin Luther King Jr, or Malcolm X, or countless unnamed people who might have this knowledge and understanding of who they are, and how in fact your political history dictates your duty--those people often do not survive. That's why Toledo had to die."
Wilson's theatre ritually signifies an African presence. Like a blues refrain, the memory of Africa ebbs and flows in ways both conspicuous and subtle, in major and minor keys, through the literal/metaphysical characters of Toledo in Ma Rainey, Harold Loomis and Bynum Walker in Joe Turner's Come and Gone, Boy Willie in The Piano Lesson, Archangel Gabriel in Fences, the tubercular Hedley in Seven Guitars and Aunt Ester in Two Trains Running and King Hedley II.
"The thematic concerns, the conflicts, in Gem of the Ocean," Wilson says, elaborating on that progression, "are African spirituality versus Christianity, moral versus man-made law and individual expression versus community cohesion. Some of these themes are permanent in all the plays, leaning probably most heavily on the failure of Christianity--the idea of having to follow somebody else's god as opposed to your own gods, while most African gods are on the way out. There may be no African gods left.
"I don't know how Aunt Ester got into my head, but she's become increasingly important to my way of thinking," the playwright continues. "She has emerged for me as the most significant persona of the cycle. The characters are all her children. The wisdom and tradition she embodies are valuable tools for the reconstruction of their personalities and for dealing with a society in which the contradictions, over the decades, have grown more fierce."
One of the problems of forging an African-American aesthetic is that important elements of black people's West African heritage had been distorted by slavery and later by emancipation and the migration to the cities. These ruptures are reflected in the narrative teleology of the canon: Belief in mysticism and the power of rituals, based in part in the religions of the Yoruba and Igho tribes of West Africa, are strongest in the early decades of Wilson's cycle, but by the 1960s, the very idea of an African heritage, which Aunt Ester represents, is receding into the collective unconscious. By the 1980s, amnesia has set in.
Folktales, hoodoo practices and the blues are ways, conscious or not, to keep alive and maintain one's connections with African roots. So both Aunt Ester and Ma Rainey are archetypal figures in Wilson's plays-their voices are central to his large-scale vision, and he has positioned them far more symbolically than the more earthbound women in the cycle, like Rose (Troy's wife) in Fences, Berniece in The Piano Lesson, Risa in Two Trains Running, Vera and Louise in Seven Guitars, and
Ruby and Tonya in King Hedley II.
In Ma Rainey, Wilson has appropriated Gertrude Pridgett and refashioned the blues singer to fit the role of a maternal functionary--the iconic image of the strong black woman as star, selfmade artist, entrepreneur, nurturer and warrior Tn Gem of the Ocean, Aunt Ester emerges as a mythic figurehead, an African-descended conjurer who inherits the mantle of power from her great grandmother-she is the Great Mother of Wilson's flock. Through he; spirituality and belief can bridge the Atlantic gap between America and Africa, between life and afterlife, between the earthly and the superearthly.
"Women are the givers of life," says the playwright. "She's not called Ma Ester--she's called Aunt Ester. So there's a relationship that is about female membership in a family. It's significant that Ester is a mother--in fact, she has a bunch of kids that she talks about in Gem of the Ocean. As you can imagine, she would have a lot of kids after being around for 287 years. She named the stars in heaven after all her children, because when she was lost and she didn't have anything else in the world, at least she could hold on to them. And one way of holding on to them was to name them. Anything you can name, you can control and define; that's what the power of naming is."
Ma Rainey's harsh pathos early in the cycle and the manifestation of Aunt Ester as spiritual beacon in the latest entry echo the blood-memory of Africa. This collective memory comes alive not just in the funky-poetic language and salty conversations of Wilson's characters but also in the canon's blues legacy--its swaggering, wailing world view. The blues are the Word.
RELATED ARTICLE: WILSON'S WORLDS THROUGH AFRICAN EYES.
KAMPALA, UGANDA: In the green room of the National Theatre of Uganda, I'm watching a group of local actors rehearse for an upcoming production of August Wilson's Jitney. When the play opens on March 10, in a staging by American director Daniel Banks, it will become the third August Wilson play to be performed in this Ugandan capital city. Producer and playwright Charles Mulekwa, who is playing the role of Booster in Jitney, has been associated with all three. A resident artist at the National Theatre, Mulekwa is a wiry, soulful-eyed 35-year-old whose passion for theatre seems to bubble to the surface when he speaks.
Mulekwa and I first met in Utah at the Sundance Theatre Lab last summer when I was a dramaturg and he was an international observer, sponsored by the Center for International Theatre Development. Over post-rehearsal tea and samosas, Mulekwa spoke to me about his Africa-based relationship with the August Wilson canon.
CHARLES MULEKWA: It started with Fences in 1988. I'd just come out of secondary school, and was wondering what to do with my life, when I saw an ad in the newspaper for auditions. I told my friends in my small town that I was going to go and audition. They said, "Ha, ha, ha. You have a good trip. You cant get it, because they have all these big actors in Kampala." But I did it, and the director liked me for the role of Corey. From then on, people started getting interested in me, and I moved to Kampala and entered Teacher's Training College.
Ten years later someone showed up with the script for The Piano Lesson. The previous director had left the theatre, so they came to me and asked me to direct it. At first I didn't see how it could be done, but after three readings it unraveled to me and I took on the task. It resonated very well. Audience members would come to me and say, "You know, we have the same problem at home." They would substitute for the piano [the issue of selling] ancestral land, and talk to me about family problems they were having: "My sister completely doesn't understand. I want to bring her to see this play." And I thought, this play is American, but it speaks to us as Ugandans.
In that play I read a speech of Boy Willie's about the kind of life the American system had dealt him: "I've been going this way and that, looking for a moment of quiet, anything that would give me peace, but I was going through a time of fire." I started thinking about my own life and about the wars Uganda went through, and I realized that was a time of fire for me. So that was the play I wrote when I went for my Master's program at Birmingham University [in England]--A Time of Fire. That play had for me very big success. So from acting in Fences to having my own play successfully produced and published, here and in the U.K., I feel like it's been my conversation with August Wilson.
Since then I've written a play a year, and the one I wrote while I was at the International Writers Program in Iowa last summer was my 13th play. Producing is something new for me, but something I want to do more.
KIM EUELL: You mentioned that when "Fences" was performed, the Ugandan audience was very engaged with the gender issues presented by the play.
The first thing that got the audience on edge was Corey challenging his Dad. Given the Ugandan setup, people thought, "What is this boy doing?", because our society is patriarchal. When Troy Maxson had a row with the mother and Corey came and pushed him, there was a stunned silence, when you would have expected a cheer. But when Corey asks Troy, "What did you ever give me?" and he replies "Your pumping heart, nigga. Your black ass," you heard the men going wild. And when he has his argument with Rosie [about his infidelity] and he says, "I just thought I'd steal base but I got caught," the men went wild again, because I think they were guilty of these actions. Strangely, Troy is a character who was very popular with the Ugandan audience. When he came with the kid in his arms and sat on his front porch, everyone felt ever so sorry for him. And when the woman took the child and told him, "From now on, this child has a mother but you are a womanless man," then the women cheered and they ululated. In the end, the men said, "At least she did the right thing taking in the kid." These were very moving things. It became a play of the sexes. It worked very, very well.
It sounds as though the Ugandan audience responds the same way that many African-American audiences do--with the call-and-response tradition. We often talk to the actors while they are on stage, and in mainstream theatres in the U.S. this is not appreciated.
Yes, the Ugandan audience gets very involved. When Troy overpowered Corey and stood over him threatening him with a baseball bat, a man called out, "Yes, he's a fool, but just leave him and let life teach him. You don't do it." Then there was a buzz; people started talking amongst themselves in different languages.
What are some of the challenges of mounting an August Wilson play with a Ugandan cast?
The language. Some actors are obviously very good, but you can't cast them because they have had a limited opportunity at school and English is going to be hard. And this is very specific English--the actors call it "complicated English" because of the double negatives and things like that. But the surprising thing is that it eventually takes shape. When audiences come out, they've completely understood what was going on. Also, a very big challenge is deconstructing all the previous impressions of American life that we get from the movies and best-selling novels, and the fixations we have about what we think African Americans are.
And how do you meet the challenge?
(Laughing) Well, this time around I'm not directing, so I'm letting Daniel worry about that.
Kim Euell is the California Arts Council's playwright. in-residence at the Robey Theatre Company in Los Angeles. in February she conducted a four-week intensive workshop for playwrights in Nairobi, Kenya, sponsored by the Karamu Trust.