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(photo credit: T. Charles Erickson)
In the spring of 1986, when August Wilson was preparing for the premiere of his third major play, a friend invited him to a Seder.
The play was called Joe Turner's Come and Gone, and it told the story of a black freedman named Herald Loomis, who was pressed into illegal bondage by a Southern bounty hunter decades after the Emancipation Proclamation. Finally unshackled after seven years, Loomis makes his way to Pittsburgh, searching for the wife who had fled north during his enslavement, a brooding and haunted figure, subject to strange visions and sudden collapses. "You forgot," another character tells Loomis by way of diagnosis, "how to sing your song."
Against such a backdrop, Wilson experienced the Pessah ritual as more then a mere observer or guest. He understood it was an example of the kind of communal memory his dramas were seeking to provide for African-Americans, the lost song that could restore Herald Loomis. And, in the wake of Wilson's death in early October, having just completed an epic cycle of plays about black life in the 20th century, that experience attests to an uncanny Jewish effect on not only the greatest black playwright in American history but the greatest of any color since Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams peaked more than a half-century ago.
In saying this, I am not claiming any Jewish influence on Wilson. As he amply demonstrated in his work and eloquently explained in countless interviews, he was the proud product of African-American culture - the blues songs of Bessie Smith, the collages of Romare Bearden, the nationalist politics of Amiri Baraka, the vernacular speech of all the obscure men and women he grew up among in Pittsburgh's Hill district. Yet a Jewish thread of sorts did run through Wilson, if only because he saw in Jewish identity and perseverance traits to emulate.
"The first words of the ceremony were, 'We were slaves in Egypt,'" Wilson recalled of the Seder, when I spoke with him a year afterward for a profile in The New York Times. "And these were Yale students, Yale professors, in 1986, in New Haven, talking about something that happened thousands of years ago. Then it struck me that Passover is not just happening in New Haven, it's happening in Jewish houses all over the world. And the concluding line - 'Next year in Jerusalem' - they've been saying that for thousands of years. And that is the source of Jewish pride and Jewish power.
"I thought this is something we should do," he continued. "Blacks in America want to forget about slavery - the stigma, the shame. That's the wrong move. If you can't be who you are, who can you be?
"How can you know what to do? We have our history. We have our books, which is the blues. And we forget it all."
WILSON'S WORDS came out of a wellspring of philo-Semitism among American blacks. I heard similar expressions often in the early 1990s when I was researching a book about a black church. "We got to learn our history like the Jews know theirs," someone would say, and the murmurs of assent would follow. This admiration for Jews is the little-recognized flip side of the black anti-Semitism (with Amiri Baraka as a serial offender) that obsesses American Jews.
In church and with August Wilson, I sometimes wondered whether we even deserved the status of role models, if only they knew how little many of us know of Jewish history, how few of us observe any Jewish rites other than the Seder or Hanukka. Whether his high regard was well-founded or not, Wilson aspired to create a body of what might be called imaginative history, dramatic fiction inspired by the tragedy and endurance of African-American reality. And, to an astonishing degree, he met his goal.
WILSON DEVOTED each of his 10 major plays to black life during one decade of the 20th century, a trajectory that went from the northward exodus of former slaves through the creation of tough, vibrant urban neighborhoods to the ravages of crack and gangs to the emergence of black yuppies. He won the Pulitzer Prize for two of the plays - Fences and The Piano Lesson - and those were not even the masterpieces of his canon, a designation I would give to Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and Joe Turner's Come and Gone.
Across that range of work, very interestingly, Wilson expressed a caustic view of Christianity. He had grown up Catholic, even serving as an altar boy in his parish church, but he told me he was alienated for life when poor black families like his own donated money for that church to erect a statue of St. Benedict, only to have it face downtown Pittsburgh and turn its back on the Hill.
When black ministers appeared or were spoken about on Wilson's stage, they were objects of pity, ridicule or condescension. Never were they heroic.
In one of the most shattering soliloquies in Wilson's oeuvre, the jazz trumpeter named Levee in Ma Rainey describes his mother crying futilely for God and Jesus while she is raped by a gang of whites. Later in the play, Levee waves his knife skyward, taunting the God he knows to be either absent or malevolent. His words are the African-American equivalent of the crisis of faith for Jews in the wake of the Holocaust. "Why didn't God strike some of those crackers down?" he howls. "Tell me that! That's the question!... I'll tell you the truth! It's sitting out there as plain as day. 'Cause he's a white man's God. That's why! God ain't never listened to no nigger's prayers. God take a nigger's prayers and throw them in the garbage."
When Wilson sought an image of black suffering and survival, he reached on occasion into the Hebrew Bible. In both Joe Turner and Gem of the Ocean, characters relate visions of "bone people," a reference to the famous passage in Ezekiel. While the prophet saw those bones in an arid valley, Wilson placed them on the ocean floor, the victims of the Middle Passage. They walked again, imperfectly redeemed, on American ground.
Fittingly for someone with a heightened sense of affinity with Jews, Wilson also had a heightened view of Jewish fellowship with blacks. The title character in Ma Rainey, frustrated that her manager (Mr. Irvin) takes the side of a recording executive against her, says something like, "You always talking about blacks and Jews sticking together. Well, start sticking." I cannot quote the line exactly, because Wilson removed it from the script after the initial production of Ma Rainey, evidently sympathetic to some complaints from Jewish theatergoers. But the replacement phrase, something more general about sticking together, was one of the rare false notes in the show. Blacks expect a solidarity from Jews they don't expect from other whites, and we as Jews are both flattered and exasperated by the attention. And, as I saw in relation to Wilson himself, we are hardly the blameless victims of black anger we like to see ourselves as being.
AS PART of my reporting about theater for The New York Times in the 1980s, I covered the competition among various producers to bring Ma Rainey, Wilson's breakthrough show, to Broadway. I was interviewing one of the contenders, a fellow named Arthur Cantor, and he was explaining the financial risk of playing in a theater with too many balcony seats, which have the lowest ticket prices.
He referred to the section as "nigger heaven."
"What did you say?" I asked him.
He repeated the phrase, then tried to explain it away as mere slang.
I thought for the next few hours about what to do about the prospect such a man would enjoy the prestige of presenting the great new black playwright. I decided not to write about Cantor in the Times and not to tell Wilson directly. But I phoned Lloyd Richards, Wilson's director and mentor, and recounted Cantor's words. The show, it was announced a few days later, went to a different producer.
August Wilson went on to form a long and fruitful collaboration with the producer Benjamin Mordecai, a different sort of Jew than Cantor. They may well have been together at that Seder in 1986. Mordecai preceded Wilson into death earlier this year.
Now, perhaps, they both occupy a heaven without epithets.
The writer, a regular columnist for The Jerusalem Post, is a professor of journalism at Columbia University and the author most recently of Who She Was: My Search for My Mother's Life.