The purpose of this assignment is to help you further compare Western and non-Western theatre and to further assess the value of live theatre and performance as a site for reflecting, challenging, and forming our cultural values and identity.
Assignment: August Wilson was a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright who wrote about the African-American experience in the 20th century. Read his playFences (one of ten plays in his Pittsburg Cycle).
On pages 147-8 in Healing Myths from the Ethnic Community, or Why I Don’t Teach August Wilson by Jackie M. Roberts from Theatre Topics, Volume 20, Number 2, September 2010, pp. 147-156, Roberts says:
“In my Acting I classroom at the University at Albany, SUNY, I help young actors shift from perceiving the art of acting as putting on an artificial accent or physicality, to perceiving it as an approach to investigating the correspondence between the character’s experience and their daily lives. For many, it may be the only experience with the theatre and acting that some students will have throughout their college career. Many young actors do feel triumphant when they realize how similar the desires of Sophocles’ Electra or Eugene O’Neill’s Christine are to their own. However, when teaching, for example, scene study through August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean, Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel, and Carlyle Brown’s Pure Confidence with the assumption that these texts would offer a way for people of color to claim a culture from which they are often excluded, I have found that students of color often view these plays as a limited map of the potential of our contemporary black theatre’s engagement with history. My ‘action-objective’–based method that begins with the physical movement of the character and shifts to a study primarily based on the actor’s emotional relationship with the text nevertheless does not always result in the students having a stronger cultural connection to the characters. One example that points to the shortcomings of this method is that of my students’ relationships with the work of August Wilson. Although Wilson does attempt to create a black cultural supremacy by dignifying black ‘signifying,’ the generational gap between his lived experience and that of my students works against his ideology of empowerment. In Gem of the Ocean, for example, he has created a historically recognizable character in the form of Aunt Ester Tyler. Aunt Ester has an iconic conjure-woman status through her amalgam of biblical morality and nature-based magic. Yet for this current generation, she harkens back to Oprah. They are both heavyset black women who listen sympathetically to other people’s problems. My students do not respond to Aunt Ester with the immediate, or signified, meaning sought by Wilson. Through both Aunt Ester and Gem’s protagonist Solly Two Kings, Wilson is critiquing Western individualism and the commercial success evolving from one’s personal focus, to the exclusion of community. But for my students, Aunt Ester, because of her modern analogue, calls forth the essence of the Western values being critiqued. These modern black historical plays—plays in which the plots are woven from actual historic events in an effort to leave an audience of color with a greater sense of cultural ownership—are not spurring a desire in my students to form a new insurgent black theatre. . . . experiencing these works does not spark in my students a realization that theatre can be as energizing a political tool as the Internet or their cell phones. More particularly, the revelation of being a black American is framed so triumphantly in these modern black historical dramas that they leave students with the feeling that the quest for black equality in America has been fully accomplished. Consequently, the urgency of the political project of the expansion of black freedom in these texts eludes them. In a recent general-education 148 Jackie M. Roberts survey of the students involved, for example, in my Acting I class exploring these works, 38 percent disagreed that the class ‘provides opportunities for me to bring up relevant issues’ (Institute for Teaching). Although these works spring from political problems and entertain political ideas, and the class involves regular discussions of the political perspectives of the playwrights, both white students and students of color do not consider these concerns as reflective of their own. In short, in continuing to use these black historical dramas with such frequency, teachers also peel away at the perception of theatre as a tool for inspiring revolution and transformative social change in general, and for inspiring revolution and transformative personal change in particular.”
In his September 25, 2014 Dayton Most Metro.com review of Wright State University’s production of Fences, Russell Florence, Jr. says,” Wilson, who passed away in 2005, mastered language, tone and relationships. His insightful depiction of blacks attempting to thrive in an uncertain, unjust America will be felt for generations to come because his plays simply contain a universality that actually transcends race.”
After reading Wilson’s play Fences, reflecting on the article/review excerpts above, and viewing the videos below, submit your answers to ALL of the following questions to Extra Credit (see link below):
In your own words, give a plot summary of Fences.
If it is true that theatre reflects the society in which it is produced, what do you think August Wilson was saying to his audience when he wrote this play? What does this play say to an audience in 2015? What does this play say to you personally?
Do you agree/disagree with the authors of the article and review above? Why?
Compare/contrast each actor’s portrayal of the characters in the video clips from Fences. How do they differ? How are they alike? How does the audience differ for each performance?
Do modern historical plays help or hinder social attitudes about the issues they address? Why/why not?
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