The Pen Is Mightier

Two plays from outspoken African-American playwright August Wilson

Though some people are more comfortable pretending that racial tensions don't exist, outspoken African-American playwright August Wilson refuses to let us forget it. The prolific dramatist and self-described "race man" has made it his life's work to confront parts of our history regularly swept under the rug. His ambitious cycle of 10 plays about the African-American experience -- one for each decade of the 20th century -- is an unparalleled endeavor, one that has paid off for Wilson: All of his eight plays so far have enjoyed runs on Broadway, and two have won the Pulitzer Prize. In Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Fences, Seven Guitars, and King Hedley II, theater-goers got a glimpse into the evolving culture of black Americans. Now local audiences can see two of the series' decades back-to-back, when the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Piano Lessonopens this week at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre and Wilson's first full-length play, Jitney, opens in March at the Curran Theatre.

Wilson has a knack for dialogue, on the page and off, stirring up controversy through both his writing and his public appearances. In 1997, he delivered a rabble-rousing speech, "The Ground on Which I Stand," at the Theater Communications Group's annual convention; it reverberated well outside the theater community. In it he called for increased government funding for black-run theaters and took white companies to task for producing what he considered "black" plays. The debate culminated in a public showdown between Wilson and The New Republic's theater critic, Robert Brustein, moderated by playwright Anna Deavere Smith. Though his stance has alienated some audience members and critics, Wilson's not one to back down. For the self-educated author and activist, it's crucial that his plays be directed by African-Americans.

The Hansberry, which first produced Jitney in 1998, now stages The Piano Lesson, a drama set in the '30s about a black family that remains linked to its past by an ornate, 137-year-old piano engraved with figures of the family's slave ancestors. In the drama, Wilson revisits familiar territory: his childhood neighborhood of Pittsburgh's Hill District, where he has set all of his plays except Ma Rainey. The specter of slavery haunts the Charles household, via the family heirloom as well as an actual ghost. When the chance arises to buy the plantation on which his ancestors worked, Boy Willie hatches a plan that entails selling the piano, much to his sister Berniece's dismay. Wilson's lyric, musical writing and his characters' operatic monologues are vital to this spiritual, memorable tale about letting go and moving on.

Controversial playwright August Wilson hard at work on one of his 10 plays about black culture in America.
Controversial playwright August Wilson hard at work on one of his 10 plays about black culture in America.

Details

Opens at 8 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 21, and runs through March 17

Tickets are $22-30

474-8800

www.LorraineHansberry Theatre.com

Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, 620 Sutter (at Mason), S.F.

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While his vocal opinions reveal a staunch vision, Wilson contends that he's still a "struggling playwright." In an April 2000 New York Timesarticle titled "Sailing the Stream of Black Culture," Wilson writes, "I'm struggling to get the next play on the page. Eight down and counting. The struggle continues."

 
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