Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, based in part, or at the least, influenced heavily by Romare Bearden’s Mill Hand’s Lunch Bucket, presents us an excellent opportunity to introduce and talk about August Wilson’s four biggest influences – Bearden, Borges, Baraka and the Blues.
We’ll save Bearden for last.
Wilson says of Borges (in a conversation with Mark William Rocha),
“It’s the way Borges tells a story. In Borges, it’s not what happens, but how. A lot of times, he’ll tell you what’s going to happen up front, as in [“The Dead Man”] in which we’re told at the beginning that a nobody from the slums will be shot in the head as a leader of his people. All of the interest is in how the story is going to be told.”
He further elaborates on Borges with Professor Shannon,
“One of his techniques is that he tells you exactly what is going to happen.He’ll say gaucho so-and-so would end up with a bullet in his head on night of such and such. At the outset the leader of an outlaw gang with a bullet in his head would seem improbable. When you meet the guy, he’s washing dishes, and you go, “This guy is going to be the leader of an outlaw gang?” You know he’s going to get killed, but how is this going to happen? And he proceeds to tell the story, and it seems like it ’s never going to happen. And you look up, without even knowing it, there he is. He’s the leader of an outlaw gang.
The experts call this Borgesian technique magical realism, a story of fantasy within a story of realism. Borges himself referred to it as “the contamination of reality by dream.” In Wilson, we have seen it so far in both Gem of the Ocean, in the voyage to the City of Bones, and in Joe Turner, in both Bynum’s vision of his meeting with his father and the Shiny Man, and in Loomis’ dreamlike state describing the bones emerging from the ocean and taking on flesh, and life. As an aside, Borges credits Edgar Allan Poe as one of his top influencers and one of Poe’s more obscure poems in his “A Dream Within a Dream.
I’m rushing a bit. We can discuss later in greater depth.
While Wilson includes Amiri Baraka as one of his top four influences, his actual description of that influence is slightly muted. In several conversation and interviews, Wilson makes passing reference to Baraka’s espousal of black nationalism as something he “found value in.”
Baraka speaks in similarly muted terms about Wilson. In a conversation with Pittsburgh actor Sala Udin, Baraka says,
“August was a poet when we first talked. He didn’t write plays yet; he was a young poet talking to me about poetry and I thought that [his movement into the theater] was a miraculous kind of development. When I first met him, he wanted to know why I wasn’t a Beatnik anymore.
He continues, Next thing I know he had become a Muslim and joined the Nation of Islam which he stayed with for about that long [snaps fingers]. I think he and Sonia Sanchez got in the Nation of Islam about the same time and stayed about the same time. Thirty minutes. Then they were doing something else.
What neither Baraka nor Wilson mentions is the personal and professional “catharsis” both experienced in the year 1965, the year Malcolm X was assassinated. Wilson was 20 and Baraka was 31. Both had undergone conversion-to-Islam experiences within the organization that “produced” Malcolm X, and both decided, independently, shortly after his death to devote themselves to writing and the arts (Rocha/Elkins). That convergence is hardly insignificant.
Both began as poets. While it can be argued that Wilson’s dramatic work was somewhat less in-your-face about racial problems than was Baraka’s, Wilson was both a fan of Baraka’s Four Black Revolutionary Plays and a disciple of the Baraka manifesto, the Black Revolutionary Theater, as evidenced in his work in Pittsburgh in the early 70’s. See also Afrosurrealism.
A lot more to be said there.
It’s not an overstatement to say that all Wilson’s plays are infused with blues music. And Wilson makes it clear that the blues are his top influence. Where do we see the blues in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone? The title itself is a W.C Handy blues song title. And everything Bynum says about finding one’s song, is, in effect, about the blues, singing it and living it
We will spend more times with the blues as a music genre in week 3 when we study Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. But every play (and every playlist) is chocked full of blues music.
This is getting a bit long for a blog post, but we are almost done.
August Wilson attributes Bearden’s collages as the primary inspiration of two of his plays, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and The Piano Lesson. Here is a link to Bearden’s Mill Hand’s Lunch Bucket, a collage from Bearden’s Pittsburgh Memories collection, and the inspiration for Joe Turner: https://www.pbslearningmedia.org/asset/aug15_img_bearden/. Look closely and you can see Seth and Bertha’s boarding house and four of its tenants.
As a young poet in the early 70’s, Wilson found inspiration in another Bearden collage collection, The Prevalence of Ritual, pieces of which Wilson saw featured in a National Geographic magazine follow the opening of the exhibit at MoMA.
There is a lot more to be said about Bearden, his connections to Pittsburgh, his involvement in the Black Arts Movement that spawned the Black Revolutionary Theater, his ties to the New Negro Movement and its extension, the Harlem Renaissance.
Tomorrow I will post pre-class notes on Joe Turner.
Campbell, Mary. 2018. An American Odyssey: The Life and Work of Romare Bearden.
Elkins, Marilyn, ed. 1994. August Wilson: A Casebook.
Shannon, Sandra. 1995. The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson.
Bryer, Jackson and Mary Hartig, eds. 2006. Conversations with August Wilson.
Fine, Ruth and Jacqueline Francis, eds. 2011. Romare Bearden, American Modernist.