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                            Mollie Wilson O’Reilly
                            Fertile	Ground
                            AuGust Wilson’s ‘fenCes’

                                      ugust Wilson touched off a vigor-   as a set from TCG, The August Wilson          is one example of how Wilson’s charac-
                                      ous debate in the theater world     Century Cycle.)                               ters make sense of Christianity as both a
                                      when he declared, in 1996, that        Such an ambitious goal might have          source of inspiration and an inheritance
                            “colorblind casting is an aberrant idea”      yielded drearily didactic historical drama,   from slavery. The plays are filled with
                            and a tool of “cultural imperialism.”         but Wilson’s plays are immensely enter-       religious language, sometimes apocalyp-
                            Wilson, one of postwar America’s most         taining, with a compelling cast of charac-    tic and urgent, at other times bitter and
                            significant playwrights, was addressing       ters and lyrical, expressive dialogue. All    despairing. “God is in his heaven and he
                            the national conference of the nonprofit      but one of the plays are set in the Hill      staying there,” Floyd Barton says in Seven
                            organization Theatre Communications           Section of Pittsburgh, where Wilson was       Guitars. “He must be up there ’cause a lot
                            Group (where I once worked). His force-       raised. Some names and characters recur       of things down here he don’t know.” A
                            ful speech (later published as The Ground     across the decades. Most of the action un-    character in Jitney complains, “I’m tired
                            on Which I Stand) got people arguing          folds in spaces where families and neigh-     of waiting for God to decide whether
                            about race in the theater, and especially     bors gather to talk: a backyard, a coffee     he want to hold my hand.” Aunt Ester’s
                            the practice of casting black actors in       shop, a dining room. The plot’s progress      faith is firm: “God don’t know nothing
                            roles written for whites.                     is generally disguised in a free-flowing      but the truth,” she counsels. “God got
                               “Colorblind” is an unhelpfully re-         stream of conversation, punctuated by         beautiful splendors.”
                            ductive term for a complicated reality.       masterfully crafted speeches, hilarious          The closest Wilson came to answering
                            There are valid distinctions to be made       and profound. And woven through it all        Death of a Salesman was Fences, a grip-
                            between, say, a mixed-race Shakespeare        are the “truth-sayers”—characters whose       ping domestic tragedy set in 1957. Fences
                            company and—to cite Wilson’s main             grasp on reality seems tenuous, but whose     won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for drama
                            example—“an all-black production of           spiritual vision is intense. They are a       (Wilson’s first; he also won in 1990 for
                            Death of a Salesman.” For Wilson, the         link to the “spirit world,” which Wilson      The Piano Lesson), and it is currently on
                            issue was about more than actors; the         once explained is “the world that the         Broadway in a splendid revival directed
                            critical question was whose stories are       characters turn to when they are most         by Kenny Leon. It is the story of Troy
                            deemed worthy. He bristled at the sugges-     in need.”                                     Maxson, a garbage collector, former
                            tion that African-American artists like          The cycle’s mysticism is centered on a     baseball player, and ex-convict who has
                            himself should aspire to the standards        character called Aunt Ester, a “conjure       built a solid living from nothing, and
                            of white European culture, as though          woman” who claims to be centuries old         who winds up destroying what he ought
                            acknowledging the full humanity of            and who represents the collective history     to value most in his attempt to assert
                            black Americans required erasing their        and memory of African Americans. Her          his identity. Troy’s life has been shaped
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