A hundred years ago white entertainers were performing on stage in black-face getting laughs from stereotypes most people would find repugnant today and staging musical numbers like "He's Just a l.ittle Nigger, but hes Mine, All Mine " Whites were even cast in the title role of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" on the belief that a black man wouldn't be able to learn his lines and show up for the opening curtain.
Today, students of the theater can look back on a rich tradition of African-American drama which reverberates with some of proudest names of black intellectual life: Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Alice Childress, Amiri Baraka and Charles Fuller. Yet the grand lion of black drama in American is still alive and working. Pittsburgh born August Wilson has racked up Pulitzer Prizes, Tony Awards and New York Drama Critics' Awards for a body of work that has examined how the black family and black cultural life have survived in the decades since Emancipation.
The African-American Theater Art Troupe at UC Santa Cruz under the direction of UCSC's Don Williams, is staging one of Wilson's finest works, "Fences," Feb. 19 through 22 before moving on for a three-week run at Monterey Peninsula College. In its seven years, the Troupe has staged several landmarks of African-American theater including James Baldwin's "Amen Corner," Charles Fullers "A Soldier's Play" and Wilson's "Joe Turner Has Come and Gone."
"August Wilson is one of the most significant voices in all of theater not just African-American theater," said Williams, who will direct a student cast in Fences." Wilsons plays - which include, besides "Joe Turner" and "Fences," "Ma Raineys Black Bottom" and "The Piano Lesson" - often explore the conflict at the heart of the black should in America, that space where the African ends and the American begins. Usually set in periods before the civil rights movement. Wilsons plays have been known to directly confront the issue of African-ness that runs through black identity.
"I had the privilege of talking to him once, "said Williams. "and I asked him about his inspirations and where his insights come from and what he said surprised me a bit. He said, Jazz, its all there in the music, the pain, the struggle, everything."
"Fences" is set in the immediate post-war period in Pittsburgh. Troy Maxson is a middle aged family man looking back on a what-might-have-been career as a baseball player. Troy was a gifted ballplayer, but in the pre-Jackie Robinson era, talent could not overcome skin color and his dashes dreams haunt and embitter him. From this vantage point, he counsels his son who is also a gifted athlete on the limitations that bind dreams of glory for the black man in America. But change is in the wind and the son is reluctant to embrace the defeatism of the father, spurring a story that embraces four generations of Troy Maxsons family.
Even considering Troys frustration, his life came closer to fulfillment than other black men of his generation.
"Sports and music," said August Wilson in a televised interview, "were really the only avenues (blacks) had in that period." Beyond the themes of race and opportunity, Williams says that "Fences" evokes a nostalgia appealing to order Americans of all races: the time before television when family and community life was more centered on the rhythms of dialogue and, to use an old-fashioned word, fellowship.
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