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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 sufficient 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.

Posted on Monday, January 17th, 2011 at 11:14 am
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7 Responses to “August Wilson, Mark Twain and “The N-Word””

  1. Tweets that mention August Wilson, Mark Twain and “The N-Word” -- Topsy.com Says:
    January 17th, 2011 at 2:09 pm

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by AmericanTheatre Wing, Howard Sherman. Howard Sherman said: 25 years after CT debut, August Wilson’s JOE TURNER may be derailed in high school production over “the n-word.” Blog: http://ow.ly/3Fb9V [...]

  2. Lacey Says:
    January 17th, 2011 at 4:22 pm

    When I was in my Introduction to Theatre class last semester, we read Fences by August Wilson and had a very touchy discussion about the “n word” and it’s use in the theatre. If I remember correctly, I don’t think our professor ever said whether he was for it or against it. But half of the class said that they would be offended if they heard the use of that particular word, even if it was onstage and in a play. Which surprised me. I’m a theatre kid, and maybe I’m used to material that can be a bit rough and controversial. Most of the people in my community college class were only taking it because they had to, and the majority of them had never even been to a live theatrical production. So I didn’t know how to really judge their response.
    But I felt like that if that’s the way the author wrote the show, that’s the way it should be performed. Without the use of “the n-word”, I feel like it takes away the mood from some shows. Without it, a scene might not be nearly as intense, or tug at your heart or your very soul like it was intended to. Real people lived through events such as the ones in Wilson’s plays, and I feel like if August Wilson put a particular word or scene in a show, it was put there for a reason to bring the audience an even more emotional response. Even if it does make them uncomfortable.

  3. August Wilson, Mark Twain and “The N-Word” | The Content Beast Says:
    January 17th, 2011 at 5:43 pm

    [...] Via: American Theatre Wing [...]

  4. Sophie Says:
    January 17th, 2011 at 8:57 pm

    I completely understand what the school is doing and I agree with it. I think schools should foster a caring environment free of hate. However, I think literature is very different, especially when specific words are intrinsic to the text. August Wilson and Mark Twain both had reasons for putting the n-word in theirs plays. It brought something to the text and makes a point. I think as long as the students understand what the authors are doing and they don’t think that because the word is in a play or book, they can go around saying it, it’s fine.

  5. Bruce Post Says:
    January 18th, 2011 at 6:55 pm

    I am a member of the theatre faculty at the Waterbury Arts Magnet School and I very much appreciate Mr. Sherman’s support and his eloquent defense of August Wilson. In light of this controversy, my colleagues and I have had to ask ourselves, what play, by what African American playwright can we do, if not August Wilson? We look at the brilliant work by playwrights such as Ed Bullins, Suzan Lori Parks, Anna Deavere Smith and others and we are stumped. If the script does not contain the controversial word, it does contain portrayal of the black experience in America, and it’s very hard to find anything there that would not be controversial by Dr. Snead’s standard. Yes, we could (hopefully) do Lorraine Hansberry, and hers is work we respect, but we have a substantial minority population at our school, and we would hope to produce something more contemporary. Especially something by August Wilson.

  6. Marianna Says:
    January 18th, 2011 at 8:56 pm

    I just have one question that lI think most of us know the answer to….in an age where many teenagers and young people use that word almost as a term of endearment, laughing and joking as they say it, singing rap and hip hop songs with it, isn’t it essential to use the power of theatre to recreate history, so that the true monstrous meaning of that word is shown for what it is?

  7. Fate of Connecticut High School's 'Joe Turner' May Be Decided Wednesday Night - NYTimes.com Says:
    January 19th, 2011 at 4:46 pm

    [...] American Theater Wing, a nonprofit that promotes theater education and co-presents the Tony Awards, sent a letter to the board on Wednesday urging members to allow the production. Mr. Sherman, who was born in New Haven and [...]

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