The Playgoer: Wilson: Pro and Con

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Monday, May 21, 2007

Wilson: Pro and Con

on the left: Ben Brantley

on the right: Hilton Als

Two very different takes on August Wilson in the past week from two prominent critics.

In one corner, Ben Brantley's thoroughly unpolitical aesthetic appreciation of the oeuvre this Sunday.
Mr. Wilson’s most important and most innovative contribution to theater is in how he applied the principles of African-American music, from gospel and the blues to jazz and swing, to playwriting. The ever-shifting world that Mr. Wilson’s struggling characters inhabit demands improvisation, the constant adjustment of tone and tempo of a jazz master.
Arguing against is the New Yorker's Hilton Als:
Wilson is the worst kind of moralist. He uses black people—which is to say, “real” or poor black people—as the barometer by which all others must be judged; anyone who doesn’t fit the bill is just plain evil. (As one character tells Roosevelt, “You a Negro. . . . I’m a nigger. Negroes are the worst thing in God’s creation. Niggers got style. Negroes got blindeyetis. . . . A Negro don’t know he’s a Negro. He thinks he’s a white man. It’s Negroes like you who hold us back.”) This essentially Puritan strain in Wilson’s thinking makes his characters reductive, simple silhouettes projected onto an even simpler backdrop. Near the end of the play, we discover that Harmond is related to one of the very people he wants to displace. (To highlight the symbolic nature of this coincidence, Leon has cast a light-skinned actor as Harmond, and the dark-skinned Anthony Chisholm as his truth-telling bum of a relative.) For Wilson, all blacks are brothers, whether clad in rags or Armani suits. But life doesn’t work this way—at least no lives spent under the yoke of this country’s astonishing and still prevalent racism. In the nineteen-sixties, academic philosophers and sociologists alike tried to address “the Negro problem”—the economic and racial disadvantages inherent in black life. Wilson came of age in that era, and was clearly influenced by the sanctimonious air of their reasoning. With his own lyrical-sounding agitprop, he, unfortunately, adopted the belief structure of the “concerned” oppressor, while claiming to speak for the oppressed.

I myself embrace Wilson's passionate and highly idiosyncratic political agenda, including his "unreconstructed" black power mentality of the 60s. But Als' critique reminds us how inseparable this is form his work and cautions us (especially white audiences) against assuming Wilson's place speak for "Black America." What Als reveals--intentionally or not--is a generational rift among African Americans on the legacy of the 60s and civil rights, whether we are post-identity politics, and whether a worldview like Wilson's "essentializes" blackness at the cost of speaking to the African American experience as it is really lived.

All valid points for debate. Still--wow, that's quite a statement to appear in the pages of the New Yorker (whose other critic, John Lahr, has spent a fair amount of space lionizing Wilson). Why have I not heard more about this?

As for Brantley, it's a nice overview of Wilson's aesthetic and narrative themes, as far as it goes , but quite a retro bit of "New Criticism" even. For all its negativity, Als at least takes on the central engine of the writing of a man who proudly called himself "a Race Man."


Rob Weinert-Kendt said...

At least Brantley cites works other than the one onstage right now to make his case. Als concludes, apparently based entirely on "Radio Golf," that Wilson "was not, in the end, a great artist." My own issue with Wilson is that ever since he decided (or discovered) that he was doing a 10-decade, 10-play project about the African-American experience in the 20th century, and started to interlink characters and storylines, his work got ever more more schematic and slightly less gripping. Compare "Joe Turner" and "Piano Lesson" to anything after "Seven Guitars," the transitional play in the growing "cycle," and you'll see a rise in moralizing and signposting themes, and in writerly self-consciousness, and, to my mind, a commensurate drop in dramatic excitement and spontaneity. That's got nothing to do with Als' beef--which, whatever its merits, doesn't begin to address Wilson's body of work. Lyrical-sounding agitprop? C'mon.

Anonymous said...

When critics are also playwrights, they should acknowledge this, because it will allow the reader to think, "This person's critical opinion may somewhat be based on jealousy -- I'll take it with a grain of salt."

Anonymous said...

Although I would expect Als's review to be somewhat controversial or incindiary, I suspect that we haven't heard more about it because it was tucked in at the back of the reviews section, there was no picture, and you would have had to slog through his dull review of 110 in the Shade before getting to it.

The question I have is would he have written if it Wilson was still alive?