Serendipity is the mother of insight. Saturday night, my son took me to see the new Pulitzer Prize playwright August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at St. Paul’s Penumbra Theater in the Martin Luther King Cultural Center. I had already planned to view, the next night, Charles Fuller’s TV version of Ernest Gaines’ A Gathering of Old Men on CBS-TV.
(Fuller lives across the street from me in Philadelphia, and I’ve been an eager student of his work ever since he taught his PBS video of Gaines’ story The Sky Is Gray, in my college class.)
To see Wilson on Saturday and Fuller on Sunday provided me with a tremendous surge of insight into the greatest “secret” of the blacks in America: The terrible repressed burden of hatred blacks have for whites because of the strategic yet gratuitous violence inflicted by a ruling class still obtuse about the continuing damage they do American blacks.
There are two set pieces in Wilson’s Ma Rainey that are meant to terrify the largely white audience—seven blacks in and audience of almost 200; there were more blacks on the stage than there were on the other side of the footlights. The first is by Levee, the young, liberated black who aspires to compose and arrange music as an artist—to be more than a “jug band” backup performer.
His hatred of the white man’s God stems from his experience as an eight-year-old in a Mississippi cracker-dominated town, defending his mother form a white rapist by slashing himself with a knife as his mother is being assaulted. His honor is prematurely intact, and he despises a divine authority who would permit such abominations with impunity.
Levee screams at God, with foul-mouthed invective, to strike him head if he is wrong to refuse to kowtow to a deity who lets white racism not only endure but prevail, to twist Faulkner’s famous Nobel formulation.
Cutler, the typical “good” colored man who’s obsessively passive Christianity has enabled him to survive the pre Civil Rights era, is moved to violence against Levee for his confrontational desecration of his God. As in Fuller’s A Soldier’s Play, the ultimate black tragedy in America is that endemic plague of black-on-black violence.
Sergeant Waters harasses the guitar-picking Southern nigger, because his easygoing ways tend to confirm the white establishment’s putdown of Waters’ own career ploy of being whiter than a white man. The pathos is more than painful: Colored folks pick on each other because it is so dangerous to threaten their real enemy together.
And the most harrowing point in Wilson’s play is when Levee’s courageous anger aimed at the white God liberates Cutler’s long-suppressed nightmare: His preacher, having missed a train connection to a funeral, is trapped in town where the local toughs harass him without provocation—simply for kicks. Cutler has been unwilling, probably unable, to face their terrorizing of a black man of God—until Levee’s anger frees him, too. He then screams as well at the audience about the perfidy of a dominant majority that abuses even a black preacher.
All of this goes on as the side-play of a recording session where Ma continuously asserts her dignity by demanding that the white producer, who is interested in her sales curves, and her white agent, who is wholly insensitive to her creative needs, do it her way—by going out and getting her the coke she dotes on during sessions; by insisting that her stuttering nephew introduce her, no matter how many takes are involved.
Ma doesn’t hassle the Almighty like Levee. As an autonomous artist, she is already liberated. Ma’s integrity is literally an inspiration to all who come under her field of force. Charlie doesn’t master her. She goes her own way, the grace of the blues being for her a crucial religious (if not theological) experience.
It is thrilling to realize, in the afterglow of the luminous performance, that Wilson sees himself in the same light. His bluesy drama engenders the same epiphanies in the white audience that Ma triggered among the blacks who bought her race records from Birmingham to Brooklyn in the 1920s.
Art at its best exorcized evil. There has been a long and painful—but ultimately positive—journey from 1927, when the Chicago recording session took place, to 1987 in St. Paul, when the ofays filed into the black leather to be educated out of their sins of omission and commission.
Fuller’s teleplay of Gaines’ novel, on the other hand, takes place in the post-Civil Rights era—only yesterday so to speak. And it’s set on the kind of southwestern Louisiana sugar plantation that the 54-year-old novelist left as a 15-year-old outmigrant to Oakland, California, in the early 1950s—before things really heated up North or South.
A young, liberated black has killed the notorious racist bully Beau Bouton with a shotgun after being harassed. Mathu, a 70-year-old black man who has been passed over by the Civil Rights revolution, decides to justify his uncommitted life by pretending he killed Bouton.
The plantation heiress, Candy Marshall, is horrified that “her charge” will be arrested. She rounds up all the other old men who have never made a stand against the white barbarians and has them gather en masse with freshly discharged 12-gauge shotguns. It’s a kind of parody of a civil rights jail-filling tactic. Sheriff Mapes is understandably puzzled by this unorthodox “stand-in” for justice. The longer he delays incarcerating Mathu, the angrier Beau’s friends become in threatening to take the law into their own hands.
First the old men dismiss the presumptuous Candy and take their fate into their own hands. As Gaines told a St. Paul Pioneer Press Dispatch interviewer, he was going to call his novel A Dream of Old Men. “They feel, ‘I failed one day in my life. I didn’t do something right, and I would just hope that I could redo it’.” All these old men didn’t do right, submitting to the power of the white man. “Maybe God won’t give them another chance,” Gaines concludes, “but I will.”
Like Ma Rainey and August Wilson, Gaines and Fuller are using the secular church of the theater to bestow amazing graces. Art will heal what man has put asunder. To see two such plays in quick succession is to be doubly aware of how blessed we are to have black writers explain our common malaise so clearly and eloquently.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large.