August Wilson, Mark Twain and “The N-Word”

January 17th, 2011 Comments Off on August Wilson, Mark Twain and “The N-Word”

I found myself particularly upset last week when I first read that David Snead, superintendant of schools in Waterbury CT, was planning to shut down an Arts Magnet School’s production of August Wilson’s play Joe Turner’s Come and Gone because it contained a hateful racial epithet, one sufficiently incendiary that all reportage on the matter substituted the phrase “the n-word” in its place.

I was certainly not thinking about defending the word itself. Nor can I, a Caucasian-American, begin to know the full effect of the word on students, on any African-American, or indeed upon anyone hearing it. Scholars of all racial heritages have argued for and against the word in common usage, in music, in literature of any period. I can only say that several years ago, when a job applicant inexplicably told me an anecdote in which he used the word, placing it in the mouth of someone he spoke about, I became so enraged that I immediately stopped the speaker, ended the interview and told him that anyone stupid enough to tell a story containing that word had no place working for me, and, furious, I asked him to leave.

Mr. Snead is on record saying that use of the word in any context should not be allowed in the Waterbury school system and indeed, in everyday discourse, I would agree with him. The Wilson estate has rightly refused to allow any alteration to the text. But I think context is the central issue here, and Mr. Snead’s solution may sacrifice context in the interest of an absolute, though I do not envy nor demonize him for his concern.

Although I know nothing of the Waterbury Arts Magnet School, I must assume that its teachers and principal are individuals who seek to foster the creativity and talents of their students; I applaud them for that without knowing them or the specifics at all. In a city school, I also imagine that they must have difficulty finding material for their students to perform which is meaningful both artistically and personally to the students, especially if the number of African-American and Latino students mirrors that of most city schools. Consequently, the decision to stage a work by August Wilson, whose plays featured almost exclusively African-American characters, is not just pedagogically logical, it is logistically necessary so that students aren’t forced into playing “white” roles, which account for the preponderance of characters in great American dramatic literature.

That this confrontation comes just as debate was boiling over the removal of the same word from a new edition of Huckleberry Finn is coincidence on many levels, but insightful. Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, was a white man whose famous book used the epithet repeatedly, yet he supposedly used it to show the ignorance of those who would use it – a tricky balancing act. In The New York Times, author Lorrie Moore suggested that epithet or no, Twain’s racial portrayal of the slave named Jim was sufficiently ambiguous that despite the book’s literary value, it did not belong in high schools. That may well be.

But August Wilson is not Mark Twain. Wilson was black, Twain white. Both are dead, but Twain for many years, while Wilson died, too young, less than a decade ago. Twain, while a uniquely American voice, was part of a long tradition of literature for his race, while August was, and remains, the most acclaimed and most produced African-American playwright in history. That they both spent creatively fecund years in Connecticut is one point of commonality, perhaps coincidental.

I suppose what upset me so as the Joe Turner debate hit the papers was how sad I was that in Connecticut, where I grew up and spent much of my career, where Wilson’s earliest plays, including Turner, were developed (at The Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center) and premiered (at the Yale Repertory Theatre), African-American students may well be denied the right to perform his words. Though I knew him only casually, August was dedicated to building a body of literature about the African-American experience, and indeed to creating rich and varied roles for black actors to play. He was also one of the stage’s great poets, and he chose each and every word with exquisite care and wrote arias for actors borne of his experience and the experience of his ancestors, experiences in which, unfortunately, “the n-word” was part of the conversation, whether we like it or not. If he chose to deploy it, he knew exactly what he was doing, and it was not to sustain the word’s usage but to place it in its historical context.

Is Joe Turner an appropriate play for a high school to perform? It’s certainly a difficult piece, but to use a sports metaphor, you improve your game by playing someone stronger than you are. So the Waterbury teachers, and their supportive principal, chose well. Can 16 and 17 year olds understand everything Wilson hoped to say, be they in the audience or on the stage? Perhaps not, but at 17 did I fully understand the racism on display in 12 Angry Men? Again, probably not. Should schools sanitize drama programs of all “difficult” content? While in Waterbury they now talk of a new approvals process before productions are underway, I hope that teachers and principals, especially at schools where there is already special sensitivity to and understanding of artistic work, will be given the freedom to select work that is both educationally and socially appropriate.

So as I write in the early hours of the celebration of Dr Martin Luther King’s birthday, and 36 hours or so before the Waterbury School Board meets, I must say that it is my deepest hope that August Wilson’s words will be allowed to be heard within the Waterbury school system and that students, on stage and off, will have the opportunity and indeed the necessity of struggling with all of his words, those that hurt as well as those that heal. Great art is not always pretty, or easy, or even correct. But if students are denied the work of August Wilson, it is not just bowdlerizing the words of a work in the public domain, available in countless other editions (like Twain). They may be denied an opportunity to embody the history, literature and artistry that August Wilson brought to the stage, and cordoning off the world of one of America’s greatest theatrical voices from those most eager to explore it and those who would undoubtedly benefit from it. That this could happen only a few miles from where Wilson’s work was first heard by theatergoers before going on to national and international fame would be an added insult.


This post originally appeared on the American Theatre Wing website.

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