"By writing about black people, you are not limiting yourself. The experiences of African Americans are as wide open as God's closet. " — August Wilson...
“By writing about black people, you are not limiting yourself. The experiences of African Americans are as wide open as God’s closet.”
— August Wilson
PLAYWRIGHT and self-proclaimed “cultural nationalist” August Wilson has left us an enduring legacy. His death on Oct. 2 at the age of 60 left his public in shock over his abrupt exit. Though we were warned late this summer that his liver cancer would prove fatal, his passing has prompted many of us in the cultural community to assess how his work changed and influenced our own.
For the Central District Forum for Arts & Ideas, his work was especially meaningful. Wilson wrote with passion and wisdom, and the scope of his work proudly illuminated the African-American experience. He was a master storyteller capturing the breadth of African-American life. From “Jitney” to “Radio Golf,” Wilson’s 10-play cycle portraying the 20th-century African-American experience is a remarkable achievement. He introduced us to memorable and familiar characters whose conflicts spoke to the vagaries of life.
Moreover, Wilson introduced audiences around the world to the idea that the exclusive portrayal of African Americans is anything but narrow or limiting. To the contrary, African-American culture has proved to be as much an icon of America as apple pie or baseball. The triumphs and the struggles of a people who are neither native nor immigrant have been chronicled in literature, paintings, drawings, and through music and dance. What Wilson did was to solidify its rightful place on the stage.
Like Jacob Lawrence’s meticulous documentation of black migration from the agrarian South to the industrial North in his “Migration Series,” so, too, has August Wilson put forth a rich, personal rendering of the African-American experience decade by decade. His plays allow us to see the growth, progression and setbacks of his characters’ quest for a well-lived life that is fair and fulfilling.
If this search seems familiar, or even mundane, it may be because it is a desire that is shared by the vast majority of Americans. The idea that we have a right to a decent wage for decent work, that our children deserve to be safe, secure and educated, is not specific to a particular race or class of people. However, the struggle for justice is writ large in the African-American community because of its tragic legacy of slavery and disenfranchisement. From extreme circumstances are born extreme stories of survival from which all of us can learn.
African-American culture, to us, happens to be a particularly potent metaphor for the American experience as a whole. And as such, our programs at the Central District Forum ask for each and every one to come as they are — whoever they are — but leave, open to new possibilities. What African-American audiences might take away from a program exploring blacks in science fiction or a recital by an African-American countertenor is different from what a white person, or an Asian person, or an African immigrant or someone of mixed race might glean. But all of their beliefs, whether altered or reinforced, contribute to the roiling, complex mélange of people and ideas that make up American culture.
By focusing on African-American life, Wilson had a muse that was “as wide open as God’s closet.” This made him not limited, but unrestricted, in his creativity and imagination.
From quintessential American themes of resistance in “Gem of the Ocean” to migration in “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” Wilson explored the complexity of American existence through the lens of the African-American experience that was so familiar to him. Wilson told The New York Times: “All I want is for the most people to get to see this play,” referring to “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.”
He spoke to all of our aspirations, our fears and our humanity. There was so much more to explore. Wilson’s insight and ability to capture the nuances of African-American life along with our universal humanity will be a lasting legacy and sorely missed.Stephanie Ellis-Smith, left, is founder and executive director of the Central District Forum for Arts & Ideas. Denee McCloud, right, is the forum’s program director. The Central District Forum (www.cdforum.org), established in 1999, presents multidisciplinary art and humanities programs that explore the African-American experience as a reflection of a shared American identity. The forum’s goal is to challenge assumptions about the role, and elevate the place, of African-American culture in American society.