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The Blues in "Fences"

The blues in " Fences"

Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson has spent more than 20 years writing a cycle of plays that chronicle black life in 20th-century America, decade by decade. In works such as Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Fences and The Piano Lesson, Wilson writes about segregation and race relations; the daily struggle to find and hold a decent paying job; love, death and spirituality.

Wilson likes to say his work is inspired by the four Bs: Writers Amiri Baraka and Jorge Luis Borges, painter Romare Bearden, and the blues. But if you press him, you'll find the blues get top billing. As part of Intersections, a Morning Edition series on artists and their inspirations, Marcie Sillman of member station KUOW spoke with the playwright. (Vecsey, 1987)

As a young man, Wilson haunted Pittsburgh's thrift stores, buying stacks of old albums for a nickel each. One day, he came across a recording by Bessie Smith, one of the great blues singers of the 1920s and '30s. (Napierkowski, 2006)

The first song on the record was "Nobody in Town Can Bake a Sweet Jelly Roll Like Mine." Listening to the song, over and over, Wilson realized he could write in the language he heard around him — black street vernacular — rather than the English he admired in the works of such writers as Dylan Thomas. It was, he recalls, a defining moment: "The universe stuttered, and everything fell into place." (Wilson, 1986)

Like a musician playing the blues, Wilson crafted plays that chronicle something specific but reach something essential, with stirring riffs, pitch-perfect dialogue and the occasional wail.

“Fences” may be Wilson's most accessible play, free from the supernatural elements and extended monologues of some of his other work. This relatively straightforward 1950s family drama won the Pulitzer prize and a handful of Tony awards when it premiered on Broadway in 1987. Its first Broadway revival, a production directed by Kenny Leon, opened just in time to earn ten Tony-award nominations last week, the most granted to any single play of the last season.

In dialogue that married the complexity of jazz to the emotional power of the blues, he also argued eloquently for the importance of black Americans' honoring the pain and passion in their history, not burying it to smooth the road to assimilation. For Mr. Wilson, it was imperative for black Americans to draw upon the moral and spiritual ...
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