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CLA JOURNAL 65 August Wilson and the Anti-spectacle of Blackness and Disability in Fences and Two Trains Running Stacie McCormick Although disabled characters appear across August Wilson’s dramas, the subject of disability in his work remains under-examined in the critical discourse. Even as path-making analyses have offered openings into considering this subject in Wilson’s oeuvre more broadly, there exists a limit because most of these investigations consider Wilson’s disabled characters as metaphors for various themes in the narratives or facilitators of growth for other characters.1 Few of these studies have treated the individuals themselves or how their disability informs an analysis of their roles in the dramas.2 Moreover, Wilson’s own theorizing of his disabled characters raises more questions than it answers which, too, exposes a need for further interrogation. To describe his characters, who are disabled in some form, Wilson coined the term, “spectacle characters.” This descriptor refers to characters such as Sylvester of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Gabriel of Fences, Hambone of Two Trains Running, Hedley of Seven Guitars,and Stool Pigeon of King Hedley II. In a 1991 conversation with Sandra Shannon regarding Hambone and Gabriel in particular, Wilson expounds,“They are both mentally deficient. One has a war wound, which I think is most important. They [critics] make me mad when I read the reviews and they would refer to Gabriel as an idiot or some other kind of description without making reference to the fact that this man has suffered this wound fighting for a country in which his brother could not play baseball” (143). Wilson’s words indicate a 1  My work builds on the foundational scholarship of Sandra Shannon and Harry Elam, who have offered valuable insight into how we read Wilson’s disabled characters. Shannon gives greater specificity for how Wilson their roles arguing,“For Wilson, such characters become forceful metaphors; their significance to the play may be measured in terms of the multiple and profound interpretations they make possible” (Dramatic Vision 185). Additionally, Harry Elam notes the significance of Wilson’s use of disabled characters as representations of a “connection to a powerful, transgressive spirituality, to a lost African consciousness and to a legacy of black social activism” (58). Shannon’s and Elam’s assessment do a great deal to advance knowledge on how we understand these characters and August Wilson’s steadfast commitment to presenting this subject on the African American stage. However, I want o relocate critical analysis of these characters away from their functionality in relation to other characters or to them being symbolic of overarching themes and onto how they express the lived experience of being black and disabled. 2  Mitchell and Snyder identify the problem of reducing disabled characters in literature to their “metaphorical materiality.” In such instances, these analyses rarely take up disability as an experience of social or political dimensions, keeping it instead at the level of the symbolic or metaphorical (48). CLA JOURNAL 67 66 CLA JOURNAL desire to address the way disability is often stigmatized; however, in his rejection of this stigma, he reproduces problematic rhetoric about disability by framing these disabled characters as somehow “deficient.” He develops this definition across time by adding further nuance to the term. For instance, in a 1997 interview with Bonnie Lyons, Wilson elaborates that he takes his cue from Aristotle who used the term spectacle in Poetics while enumerating the elements of a tragedy. He states that these characters are “fully integrated into the other characters’ lives, but they are a spectacle for the audience” (213). That Wilson ties disability together with spectacle is notable. He acknowledges that his audiences (mostly mainstream, middle-class, Broadway audiences) would likely witness his disabled characters through a normative gaze that renders them spectacular and unusual.This,he feels, stands in distinction to their reception in the largely all-Black worlds of the dramas where disabled subjects are more enmeshed in their communities. However, it must be noted that their interactions within their respective communities are not without tensions of their own. These complexities notwithstanding, Wilson, with his depictions of disability, engages in experimentation that challenges audiences to see experiences...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2766-0265
Print ISSN
0007-8549
Pages
pp. 65-83
Launched on MUSE
2021-01-01
Open Access
No
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