Diversity In Theatre Essays Examples
Before the 1960s, theatre was dominated by a white middle-class society. These cultural standards have however been altered since then. One of the ways through which this change occurred is that major theatres became open to plays concerning previously marginalized groups. Another way through which this change occurred is that theatres which allowed these groups to have their own voices were established. Some groups opposed marginalization and others argued that valuing and embracing diversity is better than struggling to achieve homogenization. This promoted diversity in theatre whereby formally marginalized groups were allowed and supported to make their contribution in theatre. The transformation of theatre is evident in modern times where “artists of a diverse background” are making their impact. In this discussion, the playwright August Wilson, from the formerly theatre marginalized African-American group will be discussed with regard to his historical, social, and cultural importance to today’s “diverse contemporary theatre.”
Wilson was born in 1945 as Frederick August Kittle to a black mother and white father. He describes Pittsburgh’s Hill District where he was raised as a “mixed neighborhood” where most people were black (McCollum). He began as a poet and was a co-founder of Black Horizon’s theatre in Pittsburgh before moving to St. Paul during the late 1970s when he devoutly began his career in theatre (McCollum). All his plays have the hidden theme of black identity and advocates for people to establish their own identity. In his series of plays targeting people of color in every decade of the 20th century, characters bring out in a novel way how the black experience is understood. Even though his “for each decade” plays are not chronological, they all express a theme of the suffering caused by the disconnection of blacks with their original homeland (Biography.jrank.org).
The first of his plays, Gem of the Ocean, is set in the 20th century’s first decade. The play narrates how former slaves were still living an oppressive life in Pittsburg after the Civil War. The characters in this play are seeking their identities and trying to reconstruct it. The play is presided over by Aunt Esther, a conjure woman, who allegorically signifies slavery, a link to the history of slavery, and the culmination of American black history (Kiffer). She is the concrete representation of the tradition, folklore, and wisdom of African-Americans. In this tale, Aunt Esther takes Citizen Barlow, who is claiming for the freedom that Abraham Lincoln afforded him in 1865, on a spiritual journey to the City of Bones. At the City of Bones, he must let go of his past if he is to see his future and make a self-discovery (Kiffer). Through this play, Wilson presents the history of African-Americans with regard to slavery hence he contributes to the historical importance of “diverse contemporary theatre” through this play.
In his play, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Wilson gives the story of a newly freed black man (Herald Loomis) who moves north to find his wife, Martha who disappeared while he was still a slave. His journey on the road to look for his wife is Wilson’s metaphorical way of bringing the theme of newly freed blacks searching for their identity. This play also has the theme of blacks leaving the Agricultural South for the Industrial north, where they face new challenges, during the early 20th century (Biography.jrank.org). Wilson through Loomis expresses his belief that African-Americans, having come from agricultural roots in Africa, would have been stronger had they not moved from the countryside to cities (Biography.jrank.org). Loomis also has to choose between the white culture which he was raised with and his African ancestry. Through Joe Turner, Wilson also makes his first attempt to compare Christianity with African spirituality. Characters perform an African spiritual dance in which Loomis experiences his middle passage again and rejects God, after which he becomes paralyzed for lacking an identity. He later breaks the bonds that held him, turns his back on Christianity, on Martha, and finds his “song” as he accepts and takes responsibility for his existence. It is apparent through this play that Wilson presents cultural aspects of newly freed African-Americans, hence his importance to contemporary diverse theatre.
Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, has social standings as the main focus. The social standing is both against the fellow African-American and the white man. Subservience and equality is the most apparent racial aspect in this play. There is a power shift between Ma Rainey, a black vocalist, and Sturdyvant and Irvin who are white producers (Kiffer). The black musicians who are Ma Rainey’s companions lack anything to give the white producers and are therefore denied an equal standing. The characters in this play represent how the white world should be dealt with. Levee, one of the characters, is impulsive and aims to win favor from the white man and hence become affiliated with their power and influence. Toledo is however reasonable and acceptive. These two characters believe that they have a higher status compared to the other musicians, which they take advantage of to manipulate the rest of the musicians. Levee believes he has a superior status since he has a musical writing ability and has “street smarts” while Toledo believes he also has a higher status because he is well educated (Kiffer). Due to his readiness to endorse the choices of white men, Levee gets into conflict with his fellow black men, particularly Toledo. The end of the play shows the consequence of a power struggle whereby Levee takes out his frustration on Toledo, killing his fellow black man, after his plan of trying to comply with the interests of the white producers fail (Kiffer). This is in spite of Toledo having told him earlier what to anticipate from white people such as Sturdyvant. It is evident from this work as an example that Wilson’s work touches on racism, social status, and personal conflicts which are all social issues. Therefore, his work is of social importance to the present diverse contemporary theatre.
Lastly, Fences, also tackles the black man’s social standings in history. The social standings refer to his status in society, for instance, where he cannot be allowed to participate in professional sports for having a skin that is too dark (Kiffer). Social standing in this play can also mean the place of the black man in friendship or family relations, for instance, as a father who is too protective. The character Troy Mason lives at a time when African-Americans are promised freedoms, but they exist only on paper, which is frustrating. The American dream for blacks would only be a reality more than a decade from Troy’s present time. Troy succeeds in persuading his employer to make him the driver of his garbage truck, a position specially held for white workers. He however denies his son Cory permission to follow his passion of becoming a college football player. Troy does this to protect his son from disappointment of not succeeding due to his black race. He is probably right to think that he protecting his son since he also learns that being a garbage truck driver is not the great job the thought it was (Kiffer). In addition to the power struggles with his son, Troy also has marital problems with his wife. This play represents Wilson’s efforts to address racial discrimination, and the social standing of blacks at the time of its writing hence he contributes themes of social and historical importance to contemporary theatre through this play.
In summary, August Wilson as an African-American playwright (artist of a diverse background) contributes to the diversity of contemporary theatre in multiple ways. His plays Gem of the Ocean, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and Fence have themes that show his importance to the diverse contemporary theatre with regard to historical, social, and cultural aspects. These plays are just a portion of his works hence his importance and contribution to the modern diverse theatre cannot be overstated.
Biography.jrank.org,. 'August Wilson Biography - Plays Explored African-American Identity, Pursued Writing From A Young Age'. N.p., 2015. Web. 28 Mar. 2015.
Kiffer, Meredith. 'August Wilson: The Search For Black Identity And Social Standing In 20 Century America'. Webcache.googleusercontent.com. N.p., 2015. Web. 28 Mar. 2015.
McCollum, Marlis. 'August Wilson | National Endowment For The Humanities'. Neh.gov. N.p., 2015. Web. 28 Mar. 2015.
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