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Playing the Blues

Playwright August Wilson talks about the birth of Ma Rainey

Playwright August Wilson's declared ambition is to write a play set in each decade of the twentieth century, exploring some major aspect of African-American culture and history. Since the 1984 production of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (currently on the Alley's Large Stage), his plays have enjoyed both popular success and critical acclaim. Two -- Fences (1987) and The Piano Lesson (1990) -- have won the Pulitzer Prize, and there are those (including this writer) who believe his best play, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, was overlooked. HisTwo Trains Running recently closed a successful Broadway run.

Wilson admits, "You certainly can't say all about, oh, let's say "black life in the '30s," with just one play. I have to focus on what I feel may be the strongest ideas of the decade, or my idea of what it was. I've learned one thing -- that once I got through with all those decades, I'd probably go back and start all over. Because there's so much more work to be done."

By phone from his home in Seattle, August Wilson recently spoke to the Press about his work, and about the upcoming Alley production of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, to be directed by his longtime friend Claude Purdy.

Michael King: I so associate you with Pittsburgh, I was surprised to find you in Seattle.

August Wilson: I've been working my way west. Actually, I spent 16 years in St. Paul. I don't know if that's progress or not.

How did you come from listening to the blues, to writing Ma Rainey?
[As a young man in Pittsburgh] I was living in this rooming house ... I was listening to these old records, and when I put on [Bessie Smith] and Ma Rainey, it suddenly became apparent to me -- it was really obvious, but it had suddenly come to me -- that this was different than all the other music I had been listening to. Music that the people in the house in which I had been living, might have made, and might have had a connection with, and by virtue of that, myself. So what happened, is that I begin to look at those people differently, from one day to the next.... For lack of a better term, I discovered, if you will, some nobility, or that their lives could be noble. That's not to say they were pure, or the greatest people in the world, but there was something more there than I was willing to admit before, or to even see.

Were you consciously trying to structure Ma Rainey as a "blues play"?
Oh, I think so, yeah, because I was writing about the blues.... I actually started the play in 1976, writing Ma in the studio recording. And [the characters] kept saying "Ma, the band's in the band room." And it never occurred to me to bring them on stage, because I didn't know how to make those guys talk at the time. As I became confident, or comfortable with the idea that I could make them talk ... I said, let me go down in the band room and see who's down there. And I opened the door and went in, and these guys were sitting around talking, and I thought, this is great, and I just started writing down what they were saying.

And I even toyed with the idea of making the play just about the four guys in the band room. And actually Claude Purdy, who's directing the play in Houston, is a friend of mine of some 20 years. And I told him what I was considering and he talked me out of doing that, he said it's important to leave Ma in there -- and so that's what I did.

You began as a poet, and came to the idea of playwriting almost by accident, by a friend's suggestion...

It was Claude Purdy's suggestion.... One of the important things I had to do, is to value and respect the way blacks spoke. And it wasn't until I went back home from St. Paul to Pittsburgh, and in describing to my wife the way these gypsy cabs, or jitney stations, operated ... and then the idea occurred to me to write a play set in a jitney station. And that [an unpublished work prior to Ma Rainey] was the first play that I wrote that trusted the dialogue of the people, and the way that they spoke. I realized, as Sekou Toure said, "language describes the idea of the one who speaks it." The dialogue is really describing to you the thought process of the people, and by virtue of that, [is] an inroad into the culture. And then having found that, then I think I had all the tools I needed to go on to further explorations.

Your use of the blues suggests the music is a language and culture sustaining itself, even when the blues itself isn't as popular as it once was.

The music itself isn't popular -- because it's changed -- but there is something in black culture which carries the ideas and attitudes of the people and ... is at the forefront of the culture, the way blues was when we didn't have these different expressions. Jazz is one of them, which has been developed; rap may be considered a very vital part of the culture. It contains the ideas and attitudes of the people, and the cultural response of black Americans to the world. And that's what the blues are. So in essence, all of it is blues....

Romare Bearden the artist, says, "I tried to explore in terms of the life I know best, those things which are common to all culture." That's what art should do. That's what I try to do.

 
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