“You can’t help it. An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.” –Nina Simone
When people hear the words black playwright, I’m sure they instantly think of Tyler Perry. I could be wrong, though, because that’s not who I think of. I think of August Wilson.
Since discovering Wilson in college, I’ve always been discouraged by the fact that Wilson’s genius seems to be so glaringly overlooked. How can such a great artist be just another anonymous face in the literary tide, black writers swimming against the tide trying to share their words with the world?
Ask me who one of my favorite black writers is and I say August Wilson. Unless the person I’m speaking to is well-versed in black literature, they have absolutely no idea who I’m talking about. And that is a shame.
I’ve read all of Wilson’s plays, the Pittsburgh cycle of plays that document the African American experience in the 20th Century, each reflecting a decade in the century: Gem of the Ocean, Fences, The Piano Lesson, Radio Golf, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Seven Guitars, Two Trains Running, Jitney, and King Hedley II. And while I’ve read and re-read all of Wilson’s plays, I’d never willingly read a Tyler Perry script. Tyler Perry and August Wilson represent the difference between art and entertainment.
Art is revolutionary, meant to incite change and self-reflection. When I read August Wilson I see a reflection of my life. I see my struggles depicted on the page. I cannot walk away from one of his plays without spending some time in reflection. (I’ve only seen two of his plays performed on the stage, but one of the items on my bucket list is to see all of Wilson’s plays on the stage.) Tyler Perry’s plays, which I long ago stopped watching because they’ve become redundant, is for pure entertainment. There’s nothing to be gained by watching Madea cut up on the stage like she does. When I look at Madea, I don’t see the whole of my experience staring back at me from the stage. Not to say that what she represents isn’t somebody’s experience, it’s just not my experience. I’m not trying to take anything away from Tyler Perry’s success. I, like so many others, am heartened by his story. How he believed in his work and didn’t give up. How he lived in his car and eventually became a multi-millionaire. Of course, I’m glad to see a black man doing so well. The question, for me, is what type of artist do I want to be? Do I want to be an artist or do I want to be an entertainer?
At the end of the play I was reading this morning, Radio Golf, Harmond the protagonist finds that his wife and business partner have turned their backs on him. When he was faced with doing what was morally right versus what was legally right, he chose the morally right thing to do. But that’s not part of the plan. That’s not how you make it in “their” world. While Harmond chooses to do what’s best for himself as a successful black man and the little man. They don’t understand him, can’t see that he’s finally starting to listen to himself and going after what he wants and needs.
Roosevelt is more interested in setting himself apart from the little man, the one that he has this to say about: “It’s not my fault if your daddy’s in jail, your mama’s on drugs, your little sister’s pregnant and the kids don’t have any food ‘cause the welfare cut off the money. Roosevelt Hicks ain’t holding nobody back. Roosevelt Hicks got money…You niggers kill me blaming somebody else for your troubles.” Like crabs in a barrel. Roosevelt is only concerned with getting out. He’s not concerned with right or wrong or anybody else. His only concern is himself. And he will push you down in order to pull himself up. And Roosevelt also is willing to allow himself to be used so that white millionaire Bernie Smith can have a “black face” to receive minority-based incentives. The deals benefit Smith much more than Roosevelt, but he doesn’t care. He only cares that he’s getting an opportunity to get in the door. When before, black people were only able to open the door for white people as they walked in.
Art is meant to be revolutionary and there’s nothing revolutionary about depicting a black male dressed up in women’s clothes, fake breast flopping all around drawing innocuous laughter. There’s nothing to reflect about after watching a Tyler Perry production. Instead, we go back repeating lines from the play, things that made us laugh. But, to be honest, there’s a market for what Perry offers. He makes people laugh, he has the entire world looking at Madea and laughing at her. She’s harmless even though she carries a gun. And maybe that is the genius that is Tyler Perry.
August Wilson, on the other hand, presents characters who are seen as a threat. Harmond, the one who exposes the back room deals that real estate developers have been involved in, is losing everything at the end of the play. But the one who plays by the rules and “follows the plan” seems to be benefitting. As long as he can look at himself in the mirror, as long as he never longs for anything other than money, the reader knows he will be okay. But what about Harmond? This is a question that will remain with me for a very long time.
And that’s the difference between art and entertainment. So, now, I ask myself which one do I want to be? As I struggle to find an audience for my work, do I stray away from what I’m passionate about so I can may achieve monetary success like those who sell romance and urban fiction stories like penny candy or do I follow my own heart and mind, knowing that I’m not selling a sweet treat to be gobbled up and easily forgotten?
Peace & Love,