Apr 20, 2009

Joe Turner Not Going Anywhere

Ignore the few critical quibbles and rush to see it; it's almost unbearably great. It made me grasp, as possibly no other production of an August Wilson play has, the enormity of his achievement as a theatrical poet, with roughly equal weight on both the poetry and the theater.

In Joe Turner as in his entire body of work, Wilson is after nothing less than an embodiment of the African-American experience as its own self-sufficient dramatic system--as he once put it, "I don't believe there's any idea that cannot be contained by black life, or any of the full variety of human experience; I believe that world is capable of sustaining you." To get to this sense of universality--the notion that "any idea" can be found in the African-American universe--Wilson burrowed deep into his own culture in a basically essentialist, almost black-separatist project. That's why, I think, he famously rebuked color-blind casting and came close to sentimentalizing pre-integration black life, and why he never wrote a "civil rights" problem play, or a play explicitly about white vs. black and the American Dream. He was not particularly interested in ameliorative racial politics, or in the ways the black American experience resembled or differed from that of other immigrant groups to the U.S., or in the way black culture relates to the white mainstream. There is much of value to say about these things, particularly in our current historical moment; but that was not Wilson's project.

But that he succeeded so well for so long at his project of staging black life in all its depth and complication is owing not only to this cultural singlemindedness but to his unique qualities as a writer.

While we take for granted that his plays are plot-thin and language-driven and we often hear there's a "music" in his dialogue--a nicer way of saying "his characters talk a lot"--what hit me like a thunderbolt in this this exquisite new Joe Turner is the brilliant way Wilson theatricalized the African-American narrative rather than explicating it. For all that discursive dialogue, Wilson doesn't issue pronouncements; his characters may get some juicy monologues but not so they can tidily "sum up" their experience and its meaning. And while it may be relatively easy to parse the play's walking-bones vision as a metaphor of the Middle Passage (a connection made more explicit by the lesser and later play Gem of the Ocean), the hoodoo magic realism of Joe Turner and its searing, ambivalent conclusion are, blessedly, not so easy to take apart or reduce as symbols or statements. That's because, as with any powerful theatrical gesture, fully articulated in a richly imagined world, the symbols in Joe Turner don't mean something else--they signify and stand for themselves, within the context of the play; and one measure of a play's greatness is how well the play itself can stand for the world, or a world unto itself. That, in short, is what Joe Turner, like the best of Wilson, does.

Ultimately, I think this sense of the theatrical gesture as an end in itself is rooted in Wilson the poet--in the poet's sense of economy, of pith, of language working on us not as rhetoric or narrative but as ritual and rhythm--as, essentially, poetry. That's what gives the final theatrical gestures of Joe Turner their stunning power; Wilson is playing the theater the way the best poets play language, or the best musicians play their instruments, with a sense of cadence, impact, and inevitable surprise. The only other playwrights I can think of who come close to what Wilson does here are Tennessee Williams--another culturally essentialist poet mining his own sub-strata of American experience--and Conor McPherson, the latest and finest in a line of Irish playwrights doing something similar in a different context.

It's true that Wilson didn't always follow his better poetic angels in all his plays or in his pronouncements about them; particularly as his 10-volume century cycle came into focus, I think the plays themselves began to buckle slightly under the weight of their social responsibility, of signifying something other than themselves. But at his best--and Joe Turner's Come and Gone is either his best or as good as he ever was--Wilson made theater as rich and irreducibly theatrical as any that's ever been made.



isaac butler said...

Hey Rob,

i have to admit, I'm a little disappointed that a composer would say "we often hear there's a "music" in his dialogue--a nicer way of saying "his characters talk a lot"-" ... August Wilson's language is called musical because at its best it has a similar impact on the listener to music, and because in order for it to have its full weight, actors must approach i both as music and as text. Also, because Wilson himself said the singing style of the blues was his single greatest influence as a writer.

Other than that (and my quibble with your love of Conor McPhereson, who attempts Wilsonian musicality and just ends up with character who talk too f*ing much) I think this is a great post, and really captures what is so great about Wilson at his best!

Rob Weinert-Kendt said...

Point taken...I meant not to dismiss Wilson's musicality, which is another word for the poetic sensibility I get at later in the post, but more to get past the shallow version of that observation of his dialogue ("oh, it's so musical") and talk about why his musicality/poetic sensibility is actually a key to his plays' substance, rather than a mere vehicle for his arguments.

Which is what I'd also say about the best of McPherson (Port Authority, St. Nicholas).

isaac butler said...

I'll admit, I liek St. Nicholas. But as with all McPhereson, I'd like it better if it were at least 15% shorter.