- Performing Ancestry: Reading August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson as a Performative Neo-Slave Narrative
The preservation and promotion, the propagation and rehearsal of the value of one’s ancestors is the surest way to a full and productive lifeAugust Wilson1
August Wilson considered remembering the struggles and triumphs of black American history stretching back into slavery of paramount importance to African-American community. He declared, “I stand myself and my art squarely on the self-defining ground of the slave quarters, and find the ground to be hallowed and made fertile by the blood and bones of the men and women who can be described as warriors on the cultural battlefield that affirmed their self-worth.”2 The playwright said frequently that his own cultural history began with the initial arrival on American soil of American slaves, and he dedicated the performative power of his art to wrestling with how the complex legacy of that history influences black American community. His work in fact reveals a conviction that strong, productive African-American community must include dead ancestors, especially slaves, and he works toward constructing this community with a consistent stress on performance. When his characters perform for and with each other in song or ritual, they do so in such a way that attempts to invoke and commune with ancestral spirits. His plays attempt to do the same in theatres during performance. This impulse in Wilson aligns his work with the goals of neo-slave narratives, a genre that revisits the conventions of slave narratives in order to examine connections between contemporary and slave communities. Theorists associate the neo-slave narrative almost exclusively with novels, but Wilson demonstrates how conceptions of the form can benefit from serious consideration of drama. [End Page 59]
The neo-slave narrative prioritizes historical and aesthetic community. By depicting slavery and its legacy in contemporary literature, neo-slave narratives reveal an investment in exploring the connections between contemporary cultures and their slave ancestors. But that connection is not simply linear. Instead, neo-slave narratives posit an immediacy of the slave experience upon the contemporary landscape. Ultimately, neo-slave narratives seek to close the historical and cultural gap between their epochs and slavery, suggesting that enslaved Africans in America constitute an indispensable component of African-American community. Neo-slave narratives therefore seek fuller understanding of American black life and a more productive conception of contemporary community that includes the presence of historical forebears.
Since Bernard W. Bell coined the term in a study of novels, the critical tradition has identified neo-slave narratives primarily in fiction. When prominent critics like Bell, Ashraf H.A. Rushdy, Valerie Smith, and others discuss neo-slave narratives, they refer almost exclusively to novels from the mid-sixties through today that redeploy conventions of the slave narrative genre originating in the late eighteenth century. Examining novels like Margaret Walker’s Jubilee (1966), Alex Haley’s Roots (1976), and Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), among others, theorists explore how contemporary authors appropriate and reinvigorate a historical form in order to examine African-American community and critique the condition of contemporary black subjectivity.
Among contemporary scholarship on the genre, besides Arlene R. Keizer’s interest in Derek Walcott, drama garners very little attention as neo-slave narrative.3 This could be because Bell’s originary conceptualization of the form comes within a study of novels, or because theorists are most interested in how contemporary novels emulate the form as well as the function of the slave narrative, or simply because the very notion of narrative presupposes certain generic constrictions. But certainly the concept of contemporary literature revisiting the conventions of the slave narrative invites exploration of a variety of forms. Even Rushdy leaves room for generic flexibility when defining the neo-slave narrative: “Neo-slave narratives are modern or contemporary fictional works substantially concerned with depicting the experience of the effects of New World slavery” (my emphasis).4 In his choice of the term fictional [End Page 60] works rather than novels or stories or something similar, Rushdy betrays an awareness that contemporary literary engagement with the effects of New World slavery can come in a...