This year's scholarship explores an unusually broad variety of perspectives on American drama. Studies in diverse fields illuminate hitherto unconsidered aspects of major plays and define new subgroups of material. For example, historical approaches examine 20th-century social activism and political theater, trace the lives of Arab immigrants in the United States, and explore feminism as reflected in changing concepts of rape and views of aging. More surprising, while some of this scholarship uses the play texts simply as evidence of historical movements, often it also evinces insights into the structure of a play as both representing and furthering social context.
i African American
Perhaps the best example of this variety of work in drama is the MLA volume Approaches to Teaching August Wilson, ed. Sandra G. Shannon and Sandra L. Richards. The collection, appropriate to the mission of the series, examines the playwright who has himself elicited such a diversity of cultural response. Harry Elam's essay, "Teaching Joe Turner's Come and Gone" (pp. 128–45), illustrates how to take advantage of this diversity. In the classroom Elam asks students to research their own experiences. "Students enter the classroom with various racial investments, religious beliefs, and cultural baggage. … Yet their experience must not be an end in itself, but must be processed, tested, and then marshaled in the service of critical analysis." In this way students are not led "astray" [End Page 339] by wrenching a play into a single context. "Focusing on the text helps prevent students from asserting authority through experience or race and facilitates the formulation of … 'communities of meaning,' in which students and teacher struggle collectively for knowledge." Thus Elam employs a specific approach not as an end in itself but as an opening to examine the text, encouraging students in turn to explore how multiple perspectives can be interrelated. Working with this variety of contexts, his students essentially create an annotated text. In Joe Turner's Come and Gone they explore the original protest song and its historical background to see "how Wilson shapes history to his own ends." They read Wilson's own history of living in his grandparents' boardinghouse and his reaction to Romare Bearden's collage painting Mill Hand's Lunch Bucket, which reminded him of that history and inspired the play. They learn about Yoruba and other West African rituals. The ardent Christianity of Martha Loomis, who enters late in the play, introduces the topics of black assimilation and feminist self-determination. Finally, Elam leads his students in a reenactment of the juba scene and then debriefs them to explore feelings of community that are part of their response and the play's openness not just to them as audience but to actors and directors too. Moments in the play that, devoid of context, knowledge, and experiential learning, at first produced nervous laughter are thus transformed after the whole class has shared this exploration.
Individual essays in Approaches to Teaching August Wilson explore specific dimensions of the diversity Elam's comprehensive approach addresses. But one aspect of Wilson's work is unreachable this way: Wilson's concept of the whole cycle of ten plays, one for each decade of the 20th century. Only one essay addresses the issue, Faedra Chatard Carpenter's "Teaching the Cycle: Understanding August Wilson's Fractal Dramaturgy" (pp. 169–78). Most of the essay is devoted to defining "fractal" form as reflecting Afrocentric art: "circular rather than linear qualities in terms of form, shape and structure." Carpenter's examples come more from the novels of Toni Morrison, where the circular idea is a feature of écriture feminine, than from Wilson's plays. Here what is identified as circular is a set of generalized themes: "slavery and imprisonment, religion and spirituality, music and creative expression, rebirth and rejuvenation, love and loss, and allegiance and betrayal." What Carpenter misses is the playwright's effort to place each play inside the issues of its specific decade, which is addressed only in one of the student assignments in the essay's appendix: "Consider how this specific era [End Page 340] speaks to the play." Further, nothing in this volume seems to...