TOM PUTNAM: Good afternoon. On behalf of John Shattuck, the CEO of the Kennedy Library Foundation, and all of my library colleagues, I want to welcome you to the special Martin Luther King Day Forum. I’m Tom Putnam, the Director of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. And let me begin by thanking all of you for coming and by acknowledging the sponsors of the Kennedy Library Forum series, including lead sponsor, Bank of America, Boston Capital, the Lowell Institute, and the Corcoran Jennison Companies, and our media sponsors, The Boston Globe, WBUR, and NECN.
Just as Martin Luther King, Jr. forced his contemporaries to face the racial injustice of their times, artists such as the playwright August Wilson has created works that allow us to examine race and its role in our country’s history. I discovered the power of Wilson’s plays while teaching a group of inner city high school students from Hartford, Springfield and Holyoke. These students could relate to Wilson’s personal story, growing up in a two-room apartment in Pittsburgh with his four siblings, raised by his African-American mother who had been abandoned by his German immigrant father.
After reading the play Fences, in class we attended a performance at the Hartford Stage. Set in 1957, the play revolves around Troy Maxim, the former star of the Negro Baseball League, prevented by the color bar from achieving his dreams and now a disillusioned garbage collector, and his son, Cory, who’s been offered an athletic scholarship and hopes to play ball in leagues newly integrated by players like Jackie Robinson.
My students, who were striving to be the first in their families to attend college, identified with the story’s intergenerational tension and understood Cory’s anger at his father’s refusal to sign his recruitment paperwork. In what were the most spirited class discussions during that year, my students, many who lived in single parent households, debated the father Troy’s complex character and his attempts, though often misguided, to provide for his family and to protect his son from the disappointment he had suffered at the hands of a racist world.
For many students, this was their first experience of professional theater and how artists, in John F. Kennedy’s words, “contribute to our spirit, our self-esteem, and our self comprehension.” In that same speech, President Kennedy described art as, “The great democrat, calling forth creative genius from every sector of society, disregarding race or religion or wealth or color, genius can speak at any time and the entire world will hear it and listen.”
During his lifetime, the world recognized the genius of August Wilson. In the early 1990s, he was the most produced American playwright in the nation. His works garnered international accolades, a Tony award for best play and two Pulitzer Prizes. In the preface to Seven Guitars, Wilson wrote, “I’ve tried to extract some measure of truth from my characters’ lives as they struggle to remain whole in the face of so many things that threaten to pull them asunder. I happen to think that the content of my mother’s life, her myths, her superstitions, her prayers, the contents of her pantry, the smell of her kitchen, the song that escaped from her sometime parched lips, her thoughtful repose and pregnant laughter are all worthy of art.”
We're deeply honored this afternoon to have a distinguished panel of speakers to bring the art of August Wilson to life. Before I introduce the whole panel, Charles Dutton has offered to perform two scenes, the first from The Piano Lesson, and the second from Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Mr. Dutton may be best known as the character Roc from the television show of the same name, though he got his start performing in the plays of August Wilson, first at the Yale Drama School, and later on, Broadway.
In the past, Mr. Dutton has joked that he may be one of the only students who went from jail to Yale. [laughter] And he credits prison for saving his life. Once when assigned time in solitary confinement where he was allowed to bring one book to read, he grabbed a collection of plays by African American playwrights that would turn his life around. He subsequently established a theater workshop with fellow prisoners; earned a high school and associates degree while completing his sentence; was awarded parole; finished his college education with a major in theater, and then applied to the Yale Drama School, where he met Lloyd Richards, the longtime dean of the school and the director of many of August Wilson’s first plays on Broadway.
Mr. Dutton made his debut in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, for which he was nominated for a Tony Award. He is the recipient of numerous Emmys and his film credits include Get on the Bus, Cookie’s Fortune, and Gothica. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Charles S. Dutton. [applause]
CHARLES S. DUTTON: This first character is Whining Boy from The Piano Lesson.
“Well, I can see why you all call it the Good Shepherd Church. You dreamin’ about them sheep people, I can see that easy. You know, they had a joker down in Spear walking around, talking about Jesus Christ. He gonna live the life of Christ. Went through the Last Supper and everything. Rented him a mule on Palm Sunday and rode through the town. He did everything, talking about the Christ. He did everything ‘til they got up to that crucifixion part. Got up to that part, and he told everybody to go home and quit pretending. Got up to that crucifixion part and changed his mind. Had a whole bunch of folks come down there to see him get nailed to the cross. I don't know who was the worse fool, him or them. Had all of them folks come down there, even carried the cross up this little hill. He stopped everything, preached a little sermon, told everybody to go home. Had enough nerve to tell them to come to church on Easter Sunday to celebrate his resurrection.
Well, look at Lymon! Ha, ha, look at Lymon! Look at that. Don’t even look good in that suit. I told you you looked good in that suit. Ah yeah, that's a $55 suit there. I did you a favor. I let you have it for seven. Yeah, that's a genuine silk suit. Feel it! Go ahead, feel it. Yeah, that's the kind of suit Stagger Lee wore. You need a pistol and a pocketful of money to wear a suit like that.
Yeah, that's a magic suit you got there, boy, bet you can get a woman real easy with a suit like that. But you got to know the magic words. You know the magic words to get you a woman? All right. You just walk right up to ‘em and you say, “If you got the harbor, I got the ship.” And if that don’t work, you ask them if you can put them in your pocket.
Now, the first thing they're going to say is, “It’s too small.” And that's when you look ‘em dead in the eye and you say, “Baby, ain’t nothing small about me.” And if that don’t work, you move on to the next one. No, am I telling them right, Doaker? Yeah, go on out there, Lymon. You go out there in the street, and the women will fall out their window, they see you with a suit like that.
Oh, that's all Lymon think about is women. You know, his daddy was the same way. I know’d his daddy, I used to run around with him. (long pause) I know’d his mama, too. Two strokes back and I would have been his daddy. His daddy’s dead now, but I got the nigger out of jail one time. They was fixing to name it Daniel and walk him through the lion’s den. He got in a tussle with one of them white fellas and the sheriff lit on him like white on rice. That's how the whole thing come about between me and Lymon’s mama. Now, she knew I used to run around with his daddy, and he got in jail and she went down there and took the sheriff a hundred dollars. Now, don’t get me lyin’ about where she got it from, I don't know.
The sheriff looked at that hundred dollars and turned his nose up, told her that wasn't going to do him no good. She gotta put another hundred on top of that. Now, she come up there and got me to where I was playing at the saloon, told me she had all but $50 and asked if I could help. Now, the way I figure it, without that $50, the sheriff going to turn him over to Parchment Farm. The sheriff turn him over to Parchment Farm, it’ll be three years before anybody ever see him again.
Now, I'm going to tell you I’m right. I’d give anybody $50 to keep him out of jail three years. I’d give her the $50. And she asked me to come over to the house. I ain’t ask her. I figured if she was nice enough to invite me, I outta go. I ain’t had to say nothing else, them words just rolled off her tongue just as nice. “Why don’t you come over to the house?” I didn't have to say nothing else. I went down there, sat about three hours, started to leave, changed my mind. She grabbed a hold of me and said, “Baby, it’s all night long.” Ow, that was one of the shortest nights I ever had in this life. I coulda used another eight hours of that.
Lymon’s daddy come home, ain’t say nothing to me. Just looked at me kinda funny. He had a good notion something had happened between me and her. L. D. Jackson, that was one bad luck nigger. Got killed at a dance. Some fella walked in there and shot him thinking he was somebody else.
You know, Cleotha died. Yeah, I was down there in Kansas City. One of her friends wrote and told me that Cleotha had died. Name of Willa Bryant. I got the letter right here. Say she know Cousin Rupert. Say, “Dear Whining Boy: I am writing this letter to let you know that Miss Cleotha Holman passed on Saturday, the 1st of May. She departed this world in the loving arms of her sister, Miss Alberta Samuels. I know you would want to know this and am writing as a friend of Cleotha. There have been many hardships since you last seen her, but she survived them all and to the end was a good woman whom I hope had God’s grace and is in his paradise. Your cousin, Rupert Bates, is my friend also and he gave me your address. And I hope this reaches you about Cleotha. Miss Willa Bryant, a friend.”
Man, that hit me so. Just busted me all up inside. I ain't even know nothing about her. I didn't even know she was sick. They was nailing her coffin shut by the time I heard about it. Oh, she wasn't nothing but 46. I had ten years on her. I met her when she was 16. You remember, I used to run around there. Couldn’t nothing keep me still. Much as I loved Cleotha, couldn’t nothing keep me still. We got married, used to fight about it all the time.
Then one day, she asked me to leave. Told me, say, “Whining Boy, you got a home as long as I got mine.” I believed in my heart, I felt that, and that kept me safe. Yeah, she was something else, wasn’t she? That woman had a nice way about her. I used to thank the Lord. Uh-huh, many a night I sat up and looked out over my life and said, “Well, I had Cleotha. If there's nothing else for me in this world, I said well thank God at least I had that.” If ever I got anywhere in this life, I’d a known a good woman.” And that used to hold me ‘til the next morning.
How Corinne doing, Doaker? Oh man, was she gone on New York? You let her go from your mind, huh? Now, that woman was something else. Now, she wasn't too pretty, but she had a way of looking at you, made you know there was a whole lot of woman there. Now come on, Doaker. I know you got some more of this stuck up in your room. Now, come on, give me a little nip. Come on now, I got a pocketful of money.
MR. DUTTON: This is from the character of Cutler in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom when he’s trying to lay some wisdom onto Levee.
Say what? White folks don’t care nothing about Ma. Colored folks made Ma a store. White folks don’t care nothing about who she is, what kind of music she make. You let her go down to one of them rich white folks hotels and see how big she is. She ain’t gotta do that, she can’t even get a cab up here in the north.
I'm going to tell you something. Reverend Gates, you know Reverend Gates? Slow Drag, you know who I'm talking about. Reverend Gates… Now, I'm going to show you how it is to go where the white folks don't care a thing about who you is. Reverend Gates was coming from Tallahassee on his way to Atlanta to see his sister who was sick at that time with the consumption. The train come up through Thomasville, then past Moultrie and stopped in this little town called Sigsbee. The train had stopped there, and he figured he better check the schedule, make sure he arrive in time for somebody to pick him up.
While he checking the schedule, it come upon him he had to go to the bathroom. And they didn't have no colored restrooms at this station. The only colored restroom was a outhouse they had sitting way back, 200 yards or so from the station. All right. He in the outhouse and the train go off and leave him there. Now, he ain’t know nothing about this town. He ain’t never been there before. In fact, he ain’t never even heard of it before. Now, the man’s standing there, trying to figure out what he’s going to do, when his train done left him in this strange town.
It started getting dark. He could see where the sun was getting low in the sky and he’s trying to figure out what he’s going to do when he noticed a couple of white fellas standing across the street from this station, just standing there, watching him. Then two, three more come up and join the others. He look around, he ain’t seeing no colored folks nowhere. Now, he didn't know what was getting into these here fellas minds, so he commence a-walking. He didn't know where he was going, he just walking down the railroad tracks when he hear them call him. “Hey! Nigger!” See, just like that. “Hey! Nigger!” He just keep walking. They call him some more, he just keep walking, going on down the tracks.
Then he heard a gunshot, crack! Pow! Where somebody done fired a gun in the air. And he stopped then, you know. No, no, no Toledo, no. I'm going to show how this go where the white folks don’t care a thing about who or what he is. They crowded around him. These gang of mens, they made a circle around him. Now, he’s standing there, you understand? Got his cross around his neck like those preachers wear. Had his little Bible, what he carry with him all the time. And they crowded on around him. And one of them asked him who he is. And he told ‘em that he was Reverend Gates, that he was on his way to see his sister who was sick and the train left without him. And they said, “Yeah, nigger. But can you dance?” He looked at ‘em and he commenced to dance.
One of them reached up and tore his cross off his neck, told him he was committing a heresy, dancing with a cross and a Bible. Took his Bible and tore it up and had him there dancing until they got tired of watching him. The only way he got out of there alive was to dance. They didn't even have no respect for a man of God. Want to make him into a clown. Reverend Gates sat right in my house and told me that story out of his own mouth. So the white folks don’t care nothing about Ma Rainey. She just another nigger that they can use to make some money. [applause]
MR. PUTNAM: He’s quite amazing. On behalf of everyone, Mr. Dutton, thank you so much for that incredible performance. We're also honored to have with us today Dr. Dwight Andrews, the music director for six Broadway productions of August Wilson’s plays, including the revival of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, starring Charles Dutton and Whoopi Goldberg. A native of Detroit, Dr. Andrews is a professor of music theory and African American music at Emory University, and a senior minister of the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Atlanta. [applause]
He’s the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships, has many film credits to his name. Performed as the instrumentalist on over 25 jazz and new music albums, and was selected as the first Quincy Jones Visiting Professor of African American Music at Harvard University. And to moderate this afternoon’s conversation is one of the country’s most prominent film and drama critic Elvis Mitchell. Mr. Mitchell is the entertainment critic for NPR’s Weekend Edition with Scott Simon. From 2000 to 2004, he was the film critic for the New York Times, and prior to that for the Fort Worth Star Telegram and The Detroit Free Press. He’s a visiting lecturer in African and African American Studies at Harvard University and has written for Esquire, Rolling Stone, and GQ magazines.
I’d like to credit Amy Macdonald, our forum coordinator, whose idea it was to organize this tribute to August Wilson. [applause] When doing so, we could only imagine attracting such a distinguished panel of speakers and we thank each of you gentlemen for being with us today to honor one of the greatest playwrights of the 20th century. Mr. Mitchell, to you. [applause]
ELVIS MITCHELL: Thank you, Tom. How do you follow Roc Dutton? Shoot me now, why don't you? [laughter] I’d like to follow by having Dwight talk about a piece of music that was used for The Piano Lesson that he composed, and then we’ll hear it.
DWIGHT ANDREWS: I think we have a clip of the theme from The Piano Lesson. And if some of you will recall, The Piano Lesson, the play, was inspired by a collage of Romare Bearden and it’s called The Piano Lesson. And it’s this powerful collage in which there's a young girl at the piano and a mother over her shoulder. And August, when he was writing the play, said, “The question is, is what is the nature of the lesson? What is the girl going to learn?” And so when we began the project, The Piano Lesson, we decided that we needed to have music that was original to the play. And so I created a theme and a series of variations based on the theme. And so we're going to hear just the opening of The Piano Lesson and so you’ll hear the theme that the little girl is taught. And then we’ll see a little bit of the grand finale of the play.
It’s very short.
MR. MITCHELL: Let’s start with that, Dwight, because music was so key to his work. I mean, blues especially, knows the blues signatures, but almost each one of the plays even deals with a musical instrument as an object in the work.
MR. ANDREWS: Yeah. It’s very interesting; August was not a musician but he had a great passion for music and a great ear, not just for music but also for language. So the wonderful opportunity that I had was to try to figure out what was the right music appropriate to the language of a particular piece. And each piece was different, each play was different. So it was a wonderful opportunity to not only use his insights, but to try to bring a certain musicality to each one of the plays. And each play presented a different problem. With Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, we not only had the classic blues period of the 1920s, but we also had actors who had to learn how to play. Some of you recall Charles Dutton had to play that doggone trumpet, which we spent many weeks and months learning. Years learning. [laughter]
But each play was a tremendous opportunity. For instance, gave me a different opportunity to work with James Earl Jones, who had to sing the lullaby to that baby that he had created that he didn't really want to take responsibility for. The juba dance in Joe Turner. Each play was a wonderful opportunity for me to not be a musicologist, but to try to recreate a real signature moment that was classic to the play and integral to the drama. So blues ran throughout, but each play gave me a way of kind of taking a different slice, a different take on the blues.
MR. MITCHELL: You want to talk about those trumpet lessons over there, Roc?
MR. DUTTON: They weren't that bad. [laughter] As a matter of fact, I’ll tell you a little story about how good I got. The New York Times, when the review was written, they talked about the play and the performances. Then Frank Rich said, “And on top of that, Dutton’s trumpet playing is absolutely magnificent for only having four weeks to learn.” That pissed off every trumpet player that ever lived. [laughter] So they all start coming to the play. I mean, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Donald Byrd, Freddie Hubbard, all the greats started coming to the play and sitting right on the aisle, on the third or fourth row.
And the night that Miles came, he came back stage after the play. Now, remember, I only had to play some little blues stuff, bum, bum, bum, bum, I didn't really have to do a concerto or anything. But anyway, Miles came back stage and Miles was a very—Could be very profane. And I had never been cussed out like this in my life. “He was the worst [mumbling] trumpet player I ever heard in my [mumbling] life and I been playing a trumpet 40 years and I ain't never had no review like that. Don’t you ever tell nobody you know how to play the [mumbling] trumpet.” [laughter] And then after ten minutes of that, then he started laughing and gave me a big hug and said, “Man, you reminded me of me. The play and the music business and all that.”
And then Dizzy Gillespie came several weeks later and the producers took us out for dinner. And in the midst of a conversation when no one else was listening… I had screwed up royally that night because I could see Dizzy in the audience. And I had a part where I said—The band plays and I said, “No, no, no, it goes like this, not like that,” and I'm supposed to play this hot trumpet stuff. And that night, because Dizzy was in the audience, I, like, couldn’t get a sound. I mean, I just—Nothing came up. And Dwight had said if that happens, turn your back to the audience, take a deep breath, act as if you're Miles Davis with your back to the audience, pray as fast as you can, and then turn around and relax and play the note. I did it, it didn't work. But then I finally got so pissed at being embarrassed that I concentrated on hitting the note and it came out the crispest that I ever hit it.
But anyway, at dinner after conversation, everybody left. When no one else was listening, Dizzy Gillespie leaned over and said, “Boy, did you f up that note.” [laughter] Those were—
MR. MITCHELL: That's a touching story, Roc, thank you. [laughter] It's funny you bring up music though, because I think about that great speech that Bynum has in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. He says, “To talk about a man without a song being nothing,” and that song, all those songs, think about the great musical moments in The Piano Lesson. Music is so key as being as expressive as language in his plays, isn’t it?
MR. ANDREWS: Yeah, August really understood that and that's why I think he is so important, not just as a writer, but somehow he was able to capture the essence of the musical imagination of the people in which there's music at every moment, at the kitchen table—
MR. MITCHELL: And he also was communicating, too.
MR. ANDREWS: Yeah, absolutely. And so I think for him, that's why he always listened to the blues. He listened while he was writing. There were many blues artists that I had never heard of until I met August Wilson. I thought I knew a lot about music, but he would listen to the most kind of obscure artists. And if you really study his plays, you will find that there are a lot of characters in different obscure blues songs that become part of the resources for the plays. Even some of the names of the characters, Molly and Mattie and some of the themes, these are things that August mined by listening to these obscure players.
MR. MITCHELL: And they're repetitious in the way the blues were, too.
MR. ANDREWS: Exactly. Well, he understood the language in a way in which I think you could take the sensibilities of the blues, the ironies of the blues, the humor and the wit of the— The danger of the blues—And he could make that a part of the plays because he really had internalized the way in which the blues language, the blues aesthetic, works with the people.
And so I think even as you heard Roc in these wonderful scenes, all of that is in the blues and that's what August is able to—Not adapt, he’s really able to, in the true ecology of African American culture, you kind of take it and make it new. You make it its own thing. And that's what I think is most profound about his musical understanding.
When I met Winton when we first did Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Winton said, “For a guy that doesn’t know anything about music, not being a musician, how does August capture the essence of the people in the music?” And I think that's one of the things that we appreciate. The blues is not just one thing, it’s many things, isn’t it? It’s not just being down all the time. Sometimes it’s being ironically witty or sardonic. It’s when will I be called a man, that's a blues song. But it’s also, baby, come on in my kitchen and we know that the kitchen is not the kitchen. So the—
MR. MITCHELL: Wait, I want to write that down. It’s not the kitchen. [laughter]
MR. ANDREWS: His use of language and his use of turn of phrase is exactly the way the blues works, and he really understood it. And then he had the wonderful good fortune to have actors that could make it real for us on stage.
MR. MITCHELL: That great thing that you do, Roc, that I associate so much to the blues is that storytelling tradition. And that's more a part of August’s work than—we talked about this before—than plot and structure, is that sort of sense of storytelling that's kind of key to those plays, isn’t it?
MR. DUTTON: Yeah. You know, he challenges you in ways that sometimes you might think his stuff is easy to do. And black actors fall into this trap all the time. I’m black, August is black, we black, playwright black, director black, let’s be black and do it. And it’s bigger than that, it’s more profound than that, it’s more complicated than that, it’s more intellectual in just those remnants. This goes for any actor or any material, but unless you leave an ounce of your internal essence on the stage when you perform in August Wilson plays, then you've done the playwright a disservice if you haven’t. It takes that kind of commitment, it takes that kind of an approach, and it’s a physical theater. You know, it’s an extremely physical theater, August’s characters.
And then they still have to be imbued and infused with a sense of rhythm, but yet at the same time you're in comedy one second and you have to stop on a dime and be in tragedy. So it’s really a challenging material factor.
MR. MITCHELL: In terms of that size of it, it really is kind of epic and intimate simultaneously. But you talked before, you said something great to me about this before, that it walks that fine line between drama and farce because of the size and because of that, a lot of actors aren’t equipped to play, just as you were saying before.
MR. DUTTON: This goes to August’s legacy, and it’s only my opinion. Some of you will probably disagree, or particularly if theater historians and so-called theater critics will disagree. [laughter] Excluding one. And this goes to August’s legacy, and I'm a little fearful of it, not in the sense of the plays, the plays are there, the canon is there, alive and well. But the doing of the canon, now that August is gone, is something that I have a little trepidation about simply because I don’t really think a lot of actors and a lot of directors really understand August’s material. August, his genius as a writer, is that he writes a fine line between reality and farce. And if a director and an actor, if you step over that line into farce, interesting enough, August Wilson’s plays can become the most derogatory plays about black people ever written because his plays are full of racial stereotypes. He still says “nigger” so liberally that it’s amazing. And you have to be able to understand that fine line. There's a style in his work. You can’t do a Chekhov play fast paced. Chekhov’s plays are languid and introspective. You can’t do a Eugene O’Neill play slow paced. His plays are full of energy, the characters step on each other’s lines almost.
And August Wilson’s play has a fine line in it. For instance, something simple as this, the character of Levee in Ma Rainey. If you've all seen the play, you know it ends in a tragedy, in a murder. I’ve seen productions where the character of Levee has a switchblade instead of a pocket knife. That changes the entire temperature of the play. If he has a switchblade, he’s looking to cut somebody. A pocket knife is a tool. If he has a switchblade at the end of the play, it becomes a murder and not an act of passion.
In The Piano Lesson, for instance, three major racial stereotypes, niggers with watermelons, niggers with tight shoes, and lo and behold, oh Lord, it’s a ghost upstairs. Now, you can really screw that up big time. [laughter] And so it’s easy—August was a comic genius as well. You don’t need to add anything funny on his plays, they're already funny. There was a production where Boy Willie and Lymon actually came into the play holding watermelons. Now, if August wanted to see a watermelon on stage, I'm sure he would have wrote, “Boy Willie carries watermelon into the play.” He didn't write that. And so some directors, and particularly some— Well, I’ll say actually African Americans directors and actors, really don’t understand it. They think it’s easy, and it’s not. You have to approach it the same intellectual way you would approach Shakespeare and don’t cash in on the easy route because you're black and the playwright’s black. Treat the material on the classical level that it needs to be treated on. But understanding that fine line, because if you don’t then the characters can easily become something offensive.
MR. MITCHELL: I'm glad you brought that up because I’ve often thought—I’d like you both to respond to this—that for Wilson, race for him was what alcoholism was for O’Neill. It was that thing that was the core of the material. It’s what motivated and the thing that tore those people apart. Would you agree?
MR. ANDREWS: You want to go first?
MR. DUTTON: You can go first.
MR. ANDREWS: The issue of race for August is really a very complicated and dense reality. And if you read the plays carefully, you’ll see his own conflicts about race. And it’s something I'm still coming to grips with because in some ways, I think his struggle around these issues of race is almost mythic in a way. The value of the land in The Piano Lesson, the way in which he sees black privilege and black opportunity and the struggles around materialism are really deep. But at the very, very same time, they're… Part of what I think drove August was a powerful anger around some of these racial issues that were not yet resolved. I mean, I think that's why he was able to write those plays, because in many ways August was a very angry man.
MR. MITCHELL: Is that why he set those plays, you think, in eras where race really wasn't resolved? It gave him a way to play that rage out?
MR. ANDREWS: I think what he wrote about is his own struggle around issues of rage, race and religion because God in August’s work figures very prominently, which is why we have such an interesting relationship because he was not a very religious man. But if you look at all of the plays, God and kind of destiny and kind of predestination, these are some of the themes. And where is God when those white men raped my mother is a profound theological problem. Where is God in the midst of evil?
So August plays this out. What is race? Racism is evil, it’s sin and his plays kind of work that out, work out his struggle. I don't think it resolves it, it really works it out. And I think that's why his writing will come back to it again and again to see just how dense that text is around this issue. Because I think he was frustrated that God was absent in some ways in this world around issues of race and violence and justice. And so those things really loomed very large in his plays that seemed like they were about something quite different.
MR. DUTTON: Also, I think in understanding that, you had to be at his funeral. And to be in the Hill District of Pittsburgh where he grew up and the isolationist aspect of the Hill District compared to the rest of Pittsburgh where the blacks were. And you can kind of see this kind of demarcation line between the Hill District and the rest of Pittsburgh. And that informed his thoughts in the ‘60s and ‘70s. You know, it was like, “Okay, we're on this little hill and the rest of the world is out there, and we're not allowed in the rest of the world.” And those dynamics.
And so it was really interesting because at the funeral service, on the way to the cemetery, the procession rode through the Hill District. And it was one of the most joyous funeral services I’ve ever attended and the saddest, because the community turned out just in—It was just awesome. I mean, with placards and little kids and old people and it was just wonderful. But then you got a chance to see all of those geographical things and places that he mentions in his plays, Eddie’s Restaurant and the Brady Street Bridge—
MR. MITCHELL: West Funeral Home.
MR. DUTTON: West Funeral Home and all of the streets and places that he named. I was in the car, I said, “Ah, man, there's Eddie’s Restaurant, there's so and so, there's so and so.” So, you know, I think—I mean, it’s easy to understand race in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. I mean, it’s the music industry, you can understand that now. But in those days, it was easy to understand. People think Ma Rainey’s a tyrant, but she’s not a tyrant. It’s the only place she's been given to be a human being, and the only thing that they respect out of her is hell raising. If she was to say, “Please, could my nephew play this?” “No, Ma.” “God damn it, my nephew going to sing that song.” “Okay, Ma.” [laughter] You know, that's the only thing she’s been left, the only response she’s been left, you know? Reminds me of Hollywood. But that's where I think it comes from.
MR. MITCHELL: You're both kind of talking about these contradictions, these complications in him. How did that play itself out, like in the big debate between Wilson and Brustein, these complications? Roc, how’d that work its way out?
MR. DUTTON: Well, I attended that debate. I think there was some hypocrisy on both sides of that coin. I mean, on the one side, it was about nontraditional casting and the settings are— August felt that black actors shouldn’t do white plays. What I think August didn't realize is that there's only probably a handful of actors on planet Earth that can really do King Lear. I mean, really do King Lear, that can really do Willie Lowman. You know, that can really do Macbeth or any great piece of literature. There's only a handful of actors on the planet Earth that can do them. Some of them, probably two of them are black. So to say that Willie Lowman, the dynamics of Willie Lowman, or that play, couldn't work with a black salesman is just wrong, in my opinion. But I understand where August was coming from, relating back to his own upbringing in Pittsburgh where you couldn’t—That's all you had, was a black perspective of the theater, nothing else. That's all you were allowed to have.
So that shaped his—I guess that shaped his outlook about it. You know, we should do our own theater. Of course we should do our own theater. But to say that I can’t do King Lear because culturally it doesn’t work, I think he was wrong. On the other hand, with Bob the hypocrisy I thought was greater, because when did Brustein ever do anything in recognition of African American theater, period? You know? Particularly his ten years at Yale, everybody I knew was an actor always played porters, butlers and maids. So it just bordered on—I think everybody in those debates left there disappointed on both parts. I mean, August says that, but August never opened a play in Harlem. He always opened it on the great white way. So you know, it was an interesting debate, but I think both of those fellows had it wrong on that issue.
MR. ANDREWS: I think it’s interesting, if you look at the arc of the plays, one of the interesting things is how race plays out. In Ma Rainey, you literally have the white villains, the record producers, who are bad guys. You know, they just want to take advantage. But it’s interesting, as the plays evolve, the problem of racism, you don’t need a villain, a presence, you don’t need an actor to show what race and oppression has done to create something. It’s not about a person, it’s about something—
MR. MITCHELL: Sure, look at The Piano Lesson.
MR. ANDREWS: Look at The Piano Lesson. And so there's a moment at the end of The Piano Lesson that Roc does that I used to both laugh and cry at at the end of the play. At the very end of the play, August kind of encapsulizes (sic) one of the issues. He says, “I have these big old hands.” Can you do that? I don't know if you remember, but the character says—
MR. DUTTON: “I've got these big old hands capable of doing anything. I can take and build something with these hands, but where's the tools? All I got is these hands. Unless I go out here and kill me somebody and take what they got, it’ll be a long row for me to hoe to get something on my own. So what I'm going to do with these big old hands? What would you do?”
MR. ANDREWS: Yeah. So if you think about the world we're living in in which young black men are killing one another, if they don’t go out and kill somebody, they think that that's their only sense of possibility. So it's almost prophetic, the way in which August puts these plays in context of how much violence we mete out on each other because of the oppressor who’s no longer even present. The oppression is present.
MR. MITCHELL: Sure, Ma Rainey gets to be about all that anger and oppression and that sort of the mark of Cain of racism in these houses, people fighting over a piano or whatever. I mean, that becomes a big part of it, just the shadow of racism it throws over everything.
MR. DUTTON: But they weren't—But there's not all—But he doesn't write necessarily victims, either. Because I'm always asked what's the difference between Levee and Ma Rainey and Boy Willie in The Piano Lesson, and are there any differences? Was August writing the same character in both plays? And although they both have similarities in that their fathers were murdered in white mob violence, their mothers suffered tremendously from that violence. But they are so very, very different. And the difference is one’s a man and the other’s a man child. One can handle life’s tragedies, the other can’t. One is looking for someone else to sanction his life, and the other is going to make it his own. One is dangerous and the other isn’t.
Back to that point about that fine line, you cannot play Levee Green in Ma Rainey as a man, you have to play him as a man child. The minute you play him as the big, strong man, then he knows what he’s doing. He knows when he pulls that knife out what his intentions are. He is a man child, as August wrote. He is a man child bordering on buffoonery, but not an offensive one, a buffoonery projected to understand the circumstances of his world. He says, “I seen my daddy go up and grin in this cracker’s face.” The same man who raped his wife, who raped his mother and his father’s wife, the same man. “I seen my daddy go up and grin in this cracker’s face, smile in his face and sell him his land. And all the while, he was planning on how he was going to get him and what he was going to do to him. And that taught me how to handle him.”
So that's the buffoonery that Levee has and when the other band members get on him. He’s pained, he’s anguished, and when that explodes—The wonderful thing is when it explodes, it's like Greek drama. It’s epic, it’s powerful, but it’s settled in there until that time. So that's what I mean about his plays, his characters are complicated, extremely complicated and not easy. But they're not necessarily victims because Levee is a dangerous, dangerous character.
MR. MITCHELL: I wouldn't say victims, but I would say the one thing that's pretty much integral to all the plays, just dealing with rage, which is the difference between being an adult and being a child. But that fuse is always lit and fairly early on.
MR. DUTTON: I agree.
MR. ANDREWS: Yes, I would agree. If you think about Loomis in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, the way in which that slow burn can go for a whole play. Yeah, August has a way of kind of distilling it that is always very moving and always kind of discreet to its own play. But one of the things I loved about August that we rarely get a chance to talk about is that, you know, August was not a very religious guy and so he didn't pay a lot of attention to the Bible, but he uses the Bible a lot in his plays. And so oftentimes late at night, we’d be with a drink and a cigarette and he’d say, “Tell me about that part in the Bible where there's dry bones.” And then I would, of course, become the great theologian and say, “Of course, that's Ezekiel and it’s the great vision of the people of Israel,” etc., etc. And I would give him a long, evolved discussion of the problem of a devastated Israel and what God will do, etc., etc.
So I'm expecting at the next rehearsal to see a wonderful kind of distillation of my theological viewpoint. When you read Joe Turner—
MR. MITCHELL: Yeah, I didn't see that in—
MR. ANDREWS: It didn't quite make it into Joe Turner. But about two days later, when we were in rehearsal and I hear the bones coming up out of the water, bones coming out, bone upon bone, when I read this powerful thing that August had done and I said, “August, that's not what I told you. I told you—” And I brought the Bible and August said, “Well, you gave me enough, I didn't need all the rest of that.” [laughter] But it was fascinating to see the way in which he would take bits and pieces in much the way in which Bearden would take the bits and pieces that he needed to create the story that he wanted to tell.
But that wonderful part in Joe Turner where he describes his vision of the bones coming up out of the water at the very end of the first act, it’s wonderful to see what August does with his own imagination and a bit of my theological insight.
MR. DUTTON: I have a confession to make where that play’s concerned. I’ve never said this publicly, ever. But I’ll say it now. That was the only play where I actually, in street terms, punked out on.
MR. MITCHELL: Tell them why; it’s a great story.
MR. DUTTON: When we were doing the play at Yale Repertory Theater, and you know, the character Loomis goes in and out of the play. And I would be back stage in the green room, sipping the tea, listening to my cues, waiting to go on. The first time that happened, when I went on, my concentration was totally shot for the rest of the play. And I said, “Oh man, this is one of them plays where you got to sit in the corner in the dark, you know, brooding before you go on.” And it really kicked my butt, that role. And after it was over, it was such a difficult part that I told August and Lloyd, I said, “Listen gentlemen, I'm going to have to bow out on this one. I can’t take this on tour. I can’t be in regional theater with this play for two years because if I do, for two years of regional theater, by the time we open on Broadway, I'm going to be just like this character, out of my mind.”
And I remember when I told Delroy Lindo, who took over for me and did two years in regional theater before going to Broadway, I said, “I don't know how to tell you to let it go, but you have to find a way that when the play is over that evening, to drop it and pick it up the next morning.” I saw him seven months later on a break between productions in New York, and I looked across the street and I said, “There's a man who has lost his damn mind.” And Delroy walked around staring at people, just like the character in the play. It was the most interesting opening night of any of August Wilson's play because the crowd stayed away from Delroy Lindo at the opening night party because he was so saturated with the role. The role reminded me of something that an actor would play in the 19th century where you spend your entire life and career playing one role around the country. That's all you did, is play Loomis.
And I remember—And I said, “You know what? I'm going to admit, Lloyd, August,” I said, “I can’t handle it. It’s too difficult.”
MR. MITCHELL: It's that rage we're talking about, I mean that's—
MR. DUTTON: Well, it was not just the rage, it was the degree of the ultimate commitment you needed. There was no—You couldn’t be back stage and read a newspaper or drink some tea. You had to sit in the corner 45 minutes, a half an hour and brood and wear this big coat. And I used to take the little kid with me, the little girl who played my daughter. I would stick her in the corner, that little kid was petrified. She told her mama, “Mama, I can’t wait for this play to be over.” Because I would hold her in the corner with me in the dark. And then we would come on because that was the weight of it.
And then I started thinking, and maybe it was because I was a younger actor and I was putting too much into it. I guess if I approached it now, I would approach it a little differently. But everything then was a physical kind of approach to the theater. You muscle it, you know? But it was—I started understanding it later. I thought, “Well, why does he stare at people so hard?
What is he looking for?” And then I thought, “Well, okay, if you saw this vision, if you made the wrong turn in the road in the forest one day and all of a sudden you in the forest and you make a wrong turn and now you in front of the ocean where there was no ocean before, and these things come out of the ocean, all of these skeletons, all of these bones representing all of the millions of slaves dropped into the Atlantic Ocean during the slave—”
MR. MITCHELL: The middle passage.
MR. DUTTON: The middle passage, that representation of all these bones coming back alive and now they're walking around and they have skin and clothes and you don’t know the difference. So when I meet you in the street, I don't know if you're one of them or if you're a regular person. And that was his internal struggle, and how do you act that? You know what I mean? You know, it’s not like, well, the guy’s got a mask on. He really believes that. And that's internally as an actor, it’s a physical, physical strain. It’s like as if you're lifting weights inside yourself and you're totally exhausted.
MR. MITCHELL: But that's also like you're lifting weights getting ready for a fight, basically, because you don’t—
MR. DUTTON: Well, you got a rumble—You got a rumble every night with any of his plays, but that one was—Man, I jumped off that wagon and wished Delroy well.
MR. MITCHELL: I’m sure he has many kind words for you now after you stuck him with that. Let me ask both of you guys, I’ll start with you, Dwight. When do you think he was aware that these plays were—That he was creating a canon, as you mentioned, Roc. There was going to be this completion or this attempt to depict African American life in every decade of the 20th century. When do you think that started for him?
MR. ANDREWS: I don't know exactly when it started, but it was very clear even after the success of the first play that August was very conscious about a legacy and about where he might be situated in arts and letters. And I think he was very conscious of the big idea that would provide the context for his work. So it seemed to me very early on in the process that he started talking about having a play, you know, kind of for each decade to chronicle the African American experience. I'm not sure when the idea was kind of set, but I think August had very early on—Because he read so voraciously and thought about legacies and what do we leave after we're gone, and what does our work mean? I think he sought very early on to find a way in which he could fit his playwriting into a bigger picture, into a body of work.
So I think it was a pretty conscious idea early on. I don't know exactly between which play, but I can remember—I can remember being in another bar late one night with—
MR. MITCHELL: And you're a reverend, right? Okay.
MR. ANDREWS: Well, but I have to minister to my brothers and sisters in the theater. And like Jesus, you know, you have to go where the people are. [laughter] Amen, pastor. I somehow thought that was a part of my calling, to minister to my brothers and sisters in the thespian life.
MR. MITCHELL: You are pretty slippery for ... (inaudible) okay.
MR. ANDREWS: But I can remember late one night, August—Because remember now,
August never spoke in very, very long sentences. It was always very small ideas. August would say, “I'm writing a new play.” And then I’d go—And he’d say, “Yeah, it’s about a piano and a ghost.” And I go, “August, do you want to say a little bit more?” So that's the way our conversations always unfolded. But I do remember late one night August saying, “We need a play for every decade of the experience. We need a play to just say what's been going on each decade.” And he just said it in passing. And I didn't really see that idea full blown until much later when critics were saying, “Yes, he has set out to do a canonical body of work.”
But he thought about how he would situate his work very, very early on in that process. I don't know if there was a moment that he felt—
MR. DUTTON: No, he definitely didn't set out—That wasn’t something that he said he’s going to do until midway probably around the sixth play, that he even was surprised that he had placed them in different decades and that they were starting to form to be this thing. Because I guess if he set out to do it, he would have written them in chronological order, but he didn't. He wrote them sort of haphazardly decade-wise.
You know, I remember I read in the papers, he made a quote about he was kind of tickled over the fact that, you know, the critics are saying that he’s doing this because he said, “Wow, yeah, okay.”
MR. MITCHELL: So critics can be right every once in a while.
MR. DUTTON: There's a couple of them that know what they're saying. But as Dwight said, he was—When he told me about The Piano Lesson—He was a chain smoker back then, and, “I'm writing this play for you, man.” I said, “What's it about?” “About this guy selling watermelon.” Now, he didn't mention a piano to me, he told me about a guy selling watermelon. And I remember very vividly, I said, “August, a guy selling watermelon? You going to put a black man on the stage selling watermelons?” And he said, “Yeah, he trying to buy some land.” And then I left it alone, I said, “Man, watermelons, I don't know about that one.” But then I didn't hear from him for six, seven months. And then when I got a copy of it, lo and behold, it encompassed the entire African American experience just on that premise. About a guy selling watermelons, trying to buy the same land that his ancestors were slaves on.
And I remember we would have discussions about The Piano Lesson with the audiences, the argument never once deviated from the gender gap. All of the women were on Berniece’s side, and all of the men were on Boy Willie’s side. Never once in all those discussions was there any cross agreement. The women wanted to agree with Berniece, and the men agreed with Boy Willie.
MR. MITCHELL: Speaking of sides, we have microphones here. If people have a question in the audience, just line up to ask questions. But you actually reminded me of this great story you told me, I guess just before the funeral, you said you read the plays in chronological order, which you had never done before. Talk about that.
MR. DUTTON: Well, finally, I sort of—I got all the plays and went back and read them from the 1900 play, and then saw a production of Radio Golf. And it just hit me at that point, of reading them chronologically, the sheer genius and the distinct nature of every character. That is such a mammoth task. I mean, writers out there in the audience know how difficult it is to make two different characters, to make them different. I mean, every band member in Ma Rainey is so distinctly different from the other. Every character in The Piano Lesson, every character in Joe Turner. So that was—It gave me a newfound respect for what he had achieved and what he did so—I hate to say it—what he did so effortlessly, you know?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Yes, I would like to ask you a little bit about the Lloyd Richards connection. Obviously, without Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, neither you or August Wilson would be where you are today. That was really the pivotal play that made your career, that made you a lead on Broadway. And here we have Lloyd Richards who’s known for Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun. He takes over the Yale Drama School after Brustein leaves, and he takes over the O’Neill Theater, a Playwright’s Workshop where you actually workshopped Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. And he sees something in August Wilson. Obviously, this isn’t his first play. I think he submitted Jitney first and it was rejected.
He workshops this play at the O’Neill Festival in the summer. It’s published in the Yale Theater Review, and then he stays with it. He sees something here, perhaps, that he has not seen since Lorraine Hansberry. And as a result of that, as, you know, you became just a sensational star, and it put his name on the map.
MR. DUTTON: Well, I can answer that. Without Lloyd Richards, you’d have never heard of August Wilson. Without Lloyd Richards, August would have been still in Pittsburgh doing community theater, and maybe he’d have had this great canon anyway, but they would have been done in the Pittsburgh playhouse. August, as great as August was, as a divine writer as he was, he was extremely lucky to fall into the hands of Lloyd Richards. And in Lloyd Richards, he had a man who actually lived nearly every decade of his plays. Lloyd was born in 1919, so those other two decades, he still was connected to because of his parents. He could ask his parents, what was it like, his grandparents, what was it like?
So whether it was a happy accident, destiny, fate, and I include myself in that fortune, as well. But look, Lloyd’s involvement has been downplayed because of August’s passing, but I can remember, you know, The Piano Lesson being 4 ½, 4 hours and 45 minutes long. I can remember Fences being four hours long. I can remember—The only play that came in on time was Ma Rainey, and that was because when he submitted those, they were submitted as two one acts. So they were an hour each. So put those together, two hours, don’t write any more.
But Lloyd shaped—Lloyd wasn’t just a great director, but he was a great dramaturg. You know? And Lloyd shaped a lot of August’s works, particularly the early plays. I happen to believe that August wrote six masterpieces and four very, very, very good plays.
MR. MITCHELL: Can you talk about the split between his time with Lloyd and Marion and what happened? Because ….(inaudible)
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Thank you.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Which four were very, very, very good?
MR. DUTTON: Which four were good plays?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Yes.
MR. DUTTON: Well, I’d say the first six, Ma Rainey, Fences, Piano Lesson, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Seven Guitars and King Hedley, I think, are masterpieces. And I think the other four, Gem of the Ocean, Two Trains Running, Jitney, and Radio Golf, are very, very good plays. But the interesting thing about August’s legacy, because Radio Golf will actually go down as the unfinished play. So it’ll be interesting to see what the critics ultimately write when it ends up on Broadway because it is unfinished. You can see where he was wanting to go with it, but unlike all the other plays, that didn't get the 2 ½ years in regional theater. That was August’s process, 2 ½ years of around the country, and him constantly working on it, which was not August’s process, it was actually Lloyd Richards’ process that was bestowed on August to how and work and fix a play before bringing it into these guys. [laughter] But that play only had one production, at the Mark Taper, and August passed away.
MR. ANDREWS: I just want to, if I could, before we get to the question, I just want to add something. Lloyd is really key to the process of developing these plays. And so I had worked as a musician under Bob Brustein at the Yale Drama School, and at the Rep. But it was when
Lloyd Richards came that he made me the resident musical director of the Yale Repertory Theater. So as an African American musical director of a professional stage, it really opened up some possibilities that really hadn't been possible before. And so Lloyd brought many of us to the table at the beginning of our careers in which we could really participate in this creative process.
And that made all of the difference in the world, because while August was writing and Lloyd was protecting August to write, he assembled a set of designers, some of the finest set designers, lighting designers, allowing me to do those musical pieces. He set that in motion and then trusted us to do our work. And that, I think, really accounts for some things that I'm very proud of and that had a lot to do with Lloyd’s quiet way of working and trusting the artists that he assembled. That cannot be underestimated.
MR. DUTTON: And also, every era has its differences when people have ran the drama school over the course of 70, 80 years. But when Lloyd was there, needless to say, more black students were accepted to school than any other time in the school history, needless to say. But that aside, Lloyd received a lot of criticism from past artistic directors and deans of the school, particularly one. The way Lloyd ran the school, that Lloyd was using the Yale Repertory Theater as a conduit for his own personal agenda, to take plays into Broadway. I mean, the ridiculousness of that argument was that who was it that brought Athol Fugard over to the United States? Lloyd Richards and the Yale Rep. Who developed Lee Blessing and Wendy Wasserstein? And on and on and on and on. You know, so then, to say, “Well, you got this playwright and you're using the drama school and the Yale money to go on Broadway.” As a matter of fact, none of those plays ever lost any money, Yale was always reimbursed, for your own personal thing.
It’s like I'm a student at the Yale School of Drama. When I got out of school, I want a damn job. I don't want to be waiting tables, I want a job. That's what Lloyd's style afforded, not just for the actors, but for all the designers. And the majority of the designers happened to be white, whether they were in costume, makeup or lighting. When you were a third year student involved in an August Wilson play that was bound for Broadway, you went with the play. And so people left the drama school missing that struggling actor period, struggling artist period, because they left the drama school with a job. And you can’t get better than that. Yeah, and at the same time, you got great training, the same way the other decades and eras were.
MR. MITCHELL: Yeah, black man being criticized for being successful, that almost never happens. [laughter] Question here?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: The discussion is so interesting, I’ve practically forgotten my question. My question actually has two parts. In response to a question posed at Roxbury Community College, August Wilson said that he is not a religious person, but a spiritual person. I’d like you to explain what he meant, if you can. And given that issue as background, how do you explain the cutting of the chest in Ma Rainey’s, by Loomis in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, and the seeing of ghosts by a series of people in The Piano Lesson?
MR. ANDREWS: With regard to the final part of your question, the cutting that Loomis does at the very end of the play, when he says to Martha, “You want somebody to bleed? I can bleed, I can bleed for myself,” and he cuts himself. That has been, for me, one of the most difficult parts of his body of work to fully understand and we've talked about it. And I don't know that I have an explanation that I’m satisfied with. He was not a religious person, but that's because, I think, of his problems and his disappointment in some ways with the institutional black church. I think he had respect for religion and for spirituality, but I think for whatever his own reasons, I think he had great cynicism around the black church. He had great respect for religious people, as you can see in some of the characters, and the characters respect for religious people.
But he himself I think was not comfortable with church and I'm not quite sure what the background of that is. We had a very complicated relationship around religion because I think he wanted to support one’s spirituality, but he didn't want to support too much of a particular denominational take around religion. It might have been a part of his past.
But interestingly enough, when we did his funeral, August said, “Dwight—” and I was hardly his pastor, but I was his friend—he said, “Dwight, I’d like you to do my service because I think you understand me enough to be able to do the right service.” And so when we put him in the ground, I read the words from the play, from Seven Guitars where he said, “You know, I wish I could hear my mother pray again. She’s out at Greenwood.” And that's where we buried August, at Greenwood. So it’s very powerful that he had almost prepared for me the words that we would inter him with.
The Loomis end of the play, maybe you can—
MR. DUTTON: Well, that's just why I left the play. I didn't understand a lot of it, either. I mean, it was that heavy. And I guess that question will be up for you guys and this guy to wrestle with, you know, for the decades. But I think—and this may be just totally elementary and simplifying it—but Loomis says something interesting before he slashes himself. He says, “I've been walking all over the River Jordan.” He says, “I’ve been baptized with the blood of the lamb and the fire of the Holy Ghost. But what did it ever get me, huh? Salvation?” And so that whole image of the blood of the lamb, bleeding, for cleansing, drinking Christ’s blood. And he says, “Does blood make you clean? Is that how you get better, you clean with blood?”
And then there's the slash. And then when he does bleed, he actually says, you know… I’m very good with lines, and I can’t remember that. That's how scared I was of the play. [laughter] But it has something to do with about I see it now. You know what I mean? I understand it now and I see it now. And maybe all through Loomis’s tragedy, of being confined for seven years on a work farm, praying to Jesus and the only Jesus he sees is a man with a whip and a tote board and that's transferred into Jesus Christ, niggers praying to Jesus Christ and wallowing at his feet and they swimming in the sea of cotton and Jesus standing there counting up the cotton, tallying the cotton. Well, you ain't picked but 200 pounds of cotton a day, I got to put you on half rations. And you go, “Thank you Jesus for my half rations, I really appreciate that.” You know, and thank you for giving me salvation after I die. And you can live great while you're here, but I’ll die and get mine later.
And all of those things, so it’s blood that cleans you. And maybe he hasn’t bled. He was a deacon in the church and maybe finally his wife gets him to understand that, that's one thing. But the ending of the play says that—Bynum says, “You're shining, Loomis,” after he bleeds. “You're shining like new money.” Now, what the hell that means, I don't know yet, either. So it's one of them plays.
But on the way—As far as The Piano Lesson is concerned, spirits are very real to a certain percentage of black folks in the South. They're very real. And it ain’t nothing new about that, you know what I mean? Most of the blues people August adored, from Blind Jefferson to all the great, from Ma Rainey, they believed in haints. That's what they called them, you know what I mean? And they believed that. And so it was very natural for a spirit to be up in that house. Interesting enough, the only person who doesn’t believe it is Boy Willie, the youngest of the family, so it’s a new outlook on life. Boy Willie comes in, “Well, if I see Sutter, I’ll throw him back down the well.” You know? But that's a very real thing with Southern blacks, even today I think.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Just one sentence on that. But the audience sees that also. That's the thing that complicates it. If the audience sees that light shining, there would be some suggestion that the ghosts are real.
MR. DUTTON: If the audience doesn’t see it.
AUDIENCE: The audience does see it, sees the light. And that would suggest that the play and August and everyone believes that there are ghosts.
MR. DUTTON: But I don’t understand where you're—
AUDIENCE: Well, if the audience sees the light shining, that's from the ghost. And if the audience sees it, too, then the ghost is a real situation, namely the presence or at least the lights coming from the ghost. And that's what makes it so strange, it seems to me.
MR. ANDREWS: Well, I think one of the things you see in two of the plays, The Piano Lesson and also in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, is really August really trying to bring some different religious traditions together. In Joe Turner, as well as in Piano Lesson, the idea of the presence of spirits is not foreign to many African American religious and African religious experiences. And so I think the presence of the ghost of the yellow dog is just like the sacrifice in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, the killing of the chickens that Bynum would do out in the yard.
August was trying to bring together the synchrotism (sic) of African religions and African American religions, that he was really experimenting with how those different values came together. And admittedly, I don't think it was—It was a complicated, wonderful journey to put the two things on the same table.
MR. DUTTON: And also Lloyd and August wrestled for many, many months—
MR. ANDREWS: With the ghosts.
MR. DUTTON: Oh that aspect of the play. I mean, we did productions where you thought it was a poltergeist on the stage. You know, windows are flying, stuff—We had to watch out and duck as actors, you know what I mean? But it got a little hokey and stuff, and they were trying to pare it down. So it was one of those things that they wrestled with for a long time, the ending of the play.
MR. MITCHELL: And I guess we should end it here. Let’s thank Dwight Andrews and Mr. Charles Dutton. [applause]