We’s the leftovers,” says Toledo, the piano player in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, August Wilson’s play about blues musicians in late-1920s America. It’s a furious explosion, a rant that’s long been swallowed, and the pianist erupts: “We don’t know that we been took and made history out of.”
Dominic Cooke, director of a revival at the National Theatre starring Sharon D Clarke as blues legend Rainey, believes that Wilson is speaking through Toledo. “His argument is that you have to know where you’ve come from in order to make any kind of progress; you have to own your own history.”
The play is part of Wilson’s Century Cycle (also known as the Pittsburgh Cycle), a colossal achievement. A set of 10 plays, one for each decade of the 20th century, that encompasses the African-American experience of the time. Each places black Americans — their lives, their voices, their tastes — at the centre of the action; a corrective, Wilson once said, to “the glancing manner in which white America looks at blacks and the way blacks look at themselves”. As his regular British director Paulette Randall says, “Those stories just weren’t out there. When he realised what he was doing, he just pursued it.”
Born Frederick August Kittel in 1945 to a white father and a black mother, Wilson grew up in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, where all but one of the Century Cycle is set. (Ma Rainey’s studio is in Chicago.) He was the only black student at his first high school, and he dropped out of his second at 15. Wilson’s real education took place in the local library.
His art, however, fermented on the streets. In his twenties, he’d sit in the Hill’s bars writing poems on napkins and watching the world, taking in people’s speech patterns and colloquialisms. When he started writing plays for his own theatre company, Black Horizons, he’d never been to the theatre, and thereafter intently avoided reading the classics. By 1987, with a Pulitzer Prize under his belt, he estimated he had seen only 14 plays. “I haven’t read Ibsen, Shaw, Shakespeare — except The Merchant of Venice in ninth grade,” he told one interviewer. “I’m not familiar with Death of a Salesman. I haven’t read Tennessee Williams.” It’s a marvel, then, that he measured up to them.
Wilson didn’t set out to write a play cycle. He found himself caught up in one after realising that his first three plays were all set in different decades, Ma Rainey being the third. Completing the set would take him 21 years and win him two Pulitzer Prizes, but he finally managed it in 2005, finishing Radio Golf months before dying of liver cancer at the age of 60.
Wilson wasn’t interested in dramatised historical events. You won’t find the Scotsboro Boys or Martin Luther King in there. Instead he gives us history as lived experience, snapshots of life at a certain moment in time. Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1986) takes us into a boarding house for wayfarers in 1911; Fences (1985) to a backyard surrounded by bulldozers in 1957; Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1984) to a recording studio session in 1927, where the blues singer is setting down a new record. The plays are standalone dramas but they sometimes weave in and out of each other. Characters reference one another. Aunt Ester, a 300-year-old woman who embodies the African presence in America, recurs in a few, finally dying of grief.
History seeps into these plays indirectly, in stories and offstage events. Wilson would immerse himself in the music of that particular decade as a way of absorbing the sensibilities of the time. But each play is emblematic — perhaps even symptomatic — of its historical moment. In Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, for example, Wilson zooms in on a cultural tension: what Cooke calls “the faultline between the blues age and the jazz age”. Ma Rainey insists on retaining her distinctive blues sound, with its roots in slavery and black culture. Her young trumpet player Levee wants to push on into jazz, a more marketable — and so more white and mainstream — musical register.
You could say that was the crux of the whole cycle: how to move forward without forgetting the past? How to assimilate into the mainstream culture without giving up one’s own? Or, to use Wilson’s own formulation, “If you want to participate in life, you have to deny your identity.” It’s perhaps starkest in The Piano Lesson (1990), set in 1936, in which two siblings argue over an heirloom, a piano hand-carved by their ancestors. One wants to keep hold and preserve the memory; the other to sell.
They are mostly exceptional plays — “up there with Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller,” says Cooke — and yet Wilson isn’t particularly well known in Britain. He’s canonical in the US; the first African-American to have a Broadway theatre named in his honour. But in Britain, his plays have largely been confined to smaller theatres — London’s 235-seat Tricycle in particular — and one of the cycle, Seven Guitars, still hasn’t been staged in the UK, 20 years after its US premiere.
Yet beneath it all, these are universal plays about families and friends, about power and struggle. “I write the black experience in America, and contained within that experience, because it is a human experience, are all the universalities,” Wilson said.
Both Cooke and Randall feel it’s time Britain saw more of these plays, and on bigger stages. “There’s a whole new generation of black British actors,” says Cooke. “There are things that are shockingly relevant to London now, and an audience can connect with this work in a very new way.”
‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’, National Theatre, London, from January 26, nationaltheatre.org.uk
Photographs: Michelle McLoughlin/AP; Sara Krulwich/New York Times/Redux; Johan Persson