In this paper, I am going to explore two of his plays, Fences and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. I am also going to discuss how blues music influenced Wilson in his life and in his work as well as how blues music influences the characters within these plays. I am also going to explore how these characters use blues music to escape their blues as well as how blues music relates to their lives. I would also like to discuss how August Wilson uses great African-American historical figures as influences in writing his plays as well as the struggle the characters experience because of segregation through de-segregation.
August Wilson is one of America’s most prolific writers, whose plays are produced throughout the country on a regular basis. He has won two Pulitzer Prizes, seven New York Drama Critics Circle Awards, and has earned twenty three honorary degrees for his works. He has said that he has no particular method of writing his plays.
He wrote ten plays in his lifetime as well as other books on the African-America culture. Wilson’s writing was influenced by two events, Blues music and the Black Arts Movement. None of the African-American writers had been acknowledged as quickly as August Wilson. His style of writing and his use of the “black street vernacular” language help pave the way for a very successful future. In interviews, Wilson was asked where he got his inspiration and he always responded with “the four B’s: Writers Amiri Baraka and Jorge Luis Borgers, painter Romare Bearden, and the blues” Regarding Bearden, Wilson claimed, "When I saw his work, it was the first time that I had seen black life presented in all its richness, and I said, 'I want to do that—I want my plays to be the equal of his canvases.'" (Mehling). As a young man, bought stacks of old record albums for a nickel each and came across Bessie Smith. It was her song “Nobody in Town Can Bake a Sweet Jelly Roll Like Mine” that helped Wilson realize that he could write in the “black street vernacular”. He would go on to write several works in the “black street vernacular”. In an interview, Wilson recalls “I put that [song] on and it was unlike anything I’d ever heard before. Somehow, all that other music was different from that. And I go, ‘Wait a minute. This is mine… there’s a history here.’ (Mehling). It has been explained that Wilson listened to that song over and over. He realized that he could write the language around him rather than the English he admired in the works of Dylan Thomas and others. Wilson has called this moment his defining moment where “The universe stuttered, and everything fell into place” (Mehling).
Wilson was once called one of the most important voices in the American theatre today, by Mervyn Rothstein in the New York Times. His authentic sounding characters have brought a new understanding of the black experience to audiences in a series of plays, each one addressing people of color in each decade of the twentieth century. The key theme in Wilson’s dramas is the sense of disconnection suffered by blacks uprooted from their original homeland. By not developing their own tradition, a more Africa response to the world, African-Americans lost their sense of identity during these times. Wilson has been believed to say that his plays were a way of demonstrating the struggle of blacks to gain an understanding of their root or to gain an escape from it. “If you didn’t know anything about African people and nothing about black people in America, and someone gave you blues records, you could listen and find out what kind of people these were… their symmetry, this grace… you’d be able to construct their daily lives” (Ross).
Most of the ideas for Wilson’s plays seem to have come from images or lyrics from a blues song captured by his writer’s eye and blues ear. Virtually all of his characters end up singing the blues to show their feelings at key moments during his plays....