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Theatre Journal 52.3 (2000) 361-379

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The Dialectics of August Wilson's The Piano Lesson

Harry J. Elam, Jr.

As the preeminent American playwright of our current technological age, August Wilson suffers from overexposure. The print media documents each of his premieres and performances in detail. His own observations about his plays, about the American theatre, about social change for African Americans receive additional coverage and have made him a site of controversy and complexity. With the opening of Jitney (1979 revised 1998) in New York--his seventh work to win the New York Drama Critics Circle award--an article by Wilson entitled, "Sailing the Black Stream of Culture" graced the front page of the Sunday New York Times Arts Section, 23 April 2000. Three weeks later, as his most recent drama, King Hedley II (2000), opened at the Huntington Theatre in Boston, an interview with Wilson appeared in the Sunday Boston Globe, 14 May 2000. The documentation of and critical fascination with Wilson extends to the creation of a plethora of websites dedicated to his dramaturgy. Fences, his first Pulitzer Prize-winning play, is even required reading in high schools across the country with accompanying study guides. With so much information generated in mainstream publications and venues, with the readily available insights of Wilson himself on his creative production and processes, where is the place for and of the drama critic and scholar? Why are close readings of his work necessary, or do they just further add to the clutter and overdetermination?

My sense is that the space for the Wilson scholar and critic is in the interstices, the gaps if you will: between Wilson's exposition in speeches and interviews and his creative articulation in his dramas, between the dramatic text and the fully actualized performance, between immediate popular acceptance and long-term critical esteem. Entering and negotiating these gaps provides insight into the function of history in Wilson's theatre as well as the significance of Wilson's theatre in history. The parallels between Wilson's ten-play historical project--his series of plays about black experiences in each decade of the twentieth century--and the principles that define dramatic criticism are revealing. Looking back in African American history enables Wilson to reevaluate the choices made by African Americans in the past as well as to suggest their contemporary meanings. The philosophical trajectory of his dramaturgy posits [End Page 361] that one can only go forward by first going backwards and confronting the past. Correspondingly, dramatic criticism and analysis is always and already a looking back. Using new methodologies, theories, and tools of analysis we go back and assess dramas, even those of the recent past, in order to further the field, to move knowledge forward. With eight of the ten-play cycle completed, Wilson, not unlike a dramatic critic, can now review and retrace the project to determine how to structure the remaining two plays. In recent commentaries including the 23 April Times article, the 14 May Globe interview, and an earlier interview in American Theatre in November 1999, Wilson outlines the genesis of his twentieth-century cycle and discusses his design for the two remaining plays within the cycle. Using these last two plays he intends to

build an umbrella under which the rest of the plays can sit. My relating the zero to the '90s play should provide a bridge. The subject matter of these two plays is going to be very similar and connected thematically, meaning that the other eight will be part and parcel to these two. You should be able to see how they all fit inside these last two plays. 1

Thus, his aesthetic distance from the earlier plays becomes a significant factor in his completion of the project. It enables him to reconsider how the cycle operates as a cohesive whole. Similarly, critical distance plays a key role in the dramatic scholar's ability to assess Wilson's dramaturgical project.

As Wilson turns to the end of his cycle, I want to return critically to the middle, to his...


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