August Wilson died this week of liver cancer. One of his titles, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom", led me to read his plays because of my love for the old true music. Until I saw the buzz in the New York papers, I was surprised that anyone besides me knew who Ma Rainey was, outside of a few blues fans-- and here she was on Broadway as she probably deserved to be back when.
It stuck in my mind like "Jelly's Last Jam" by George Wolfe, or singing "Black and Blue" in the midst of all the joy in the Fats Waller musical "Ain't Misbehaving".
For those of you who don't know, Mr. Wilson wrote a cycle of plays that chronicle black cultural history through the 20th century. That description doesn't quite cover it. What he did was harness the rhythms of colliquial black American speech to tell his stories, and it's a beautiful thing. That description is accurate, but still too flat.
Compare Pat Boone's "Tutti Frutti" with Little Richard's, or Big Mama Thorton's "Hound Dog" with Elvis Presley's version, and you'll get what I'm trying to say. Just the way Big Mama Thorton sings the first three words, "You ain't nothin--" will rip all the Elvis Presley out your throat. Elvis Presley, 'dangerous'? Sheee-yit...
Mississippi John Hurt was the first to climb inside my soul-- I opened the album because the cover reminded me of my grandpa-- and by the time I heard Skip James wail "Cypress Grove Blues", I knew there was a poetry here to rival any moment in Sophocles or Aeschylus. Pity and terror, like the man said.
Funny thing is, I've never seen a stage production of any of Wilson's work, only read him-- so the productions in my mind are as perfect as can be, performed with the voices of people I grew up around and long dead blues men and women. I think he'd like them.
"I'm trying to take culture and put it onstage, demonstrate it is capable of sustaining you. There is no idea that can't be contained by life: Asian life, European life, certainly black life. My plays are about love, honor, duty, betrayal - things humans have written about since the beginning of time. "
Rest now. God bless.