1.1 Statement of Context
I was introduced to the work of August Wilson in my first year of teaching professionally at the Choir Academy of Harlem in New York City in the 2005-2006 academic year which coincidentally was the year of Wilson’s death. Although Wilson had become a prominent American playwright by the mid-nineteen eighties, winning the Pulitzer for Drama in both 1987 and 1990, he was a virtual unknown in parts of the South, specifically southwest Virginia, where I attended high school. And even though as an undergraduate English major at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) I studied creative writing with the luminary poet Nikki Giovanni my Introduction to Theatre course and other elective courses failed to give cursory attention to or even mention Wilson, of whom
AUGUST WILSON was not only the finest black dramatist America has yet produced but a dramatist whom posterity may well rate alongside Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller as one of his nation’s most important. The cycle of plays for which he will be remembered each set in a different decade of the 20th century, each chronicling a particular aspect of Afro-American history combines subtlety and weight, humour, pathos and a profound sympathy for small, seemingly insignificant people trapped by forces they seldom understand and usually are powerless to resist, let alone overcome (
, October 4, 2005).
My students’ successes in the classroom while studying Wilson’s
this first year in Harlem led me to seek out as many class sets of Wilson’s works as I could get my hands on. My students were able to identify with the characters in Wilson’s plays and as a result they discussed and wrote with greater enthusiasm and passion than before. His works took on even greater significance when I relocated to New Haven, Connecticut.
I began teaching at Wilbur Cross Annex High School (WCAHS) in the fall of 2006. WCAHS was a credit retrieval program whose student body consisted mainly of individuals who had suffered from chronic absenteeism or behavioral issues. One of my greatest classroom management tools became the study of drama and the drama of Wilson specifically. The reason that Wilson’s works took on greater significance upon my relocation is that many of them were first produced at the Yale Repertory Theatre located at the corner of Chapel and York Streets. Additionally, many of these works were first directed by Lloyd Richards, dean of the Yale School of Drama. Wilson’s body of work referred to as his Century Cycle is set in Pittsburgh, which has more in common with New Haven than New York.
1.2 Descriptive Overview and Long Term Plan
What do we mean by the term democracy? Once the question is raised it may be extended to what is democratic literature? Tocqueville asserted, “Drama brings out most of the good qualities, and almost all of the defects inherent in democratic literature….” He also made the claim, “There are no dramatic subjects in a country [the US] which has witnessed no great political catastrophes, and in which love leads by a straight and easy road to matrimony” (Tocqueville 2000).
Of course he made his observations more than thirty years prior to the Civil War, and one may argue that we have put many miles of road between our Puritanical roots and our current state in the past century and a half. And so, if we have grown as a nation and as a democracy, does it not stand to reason that we have cultivated a democratic literature?
This unit was initially conceived as an in-depth comparison of seminal works by the American playwrights August Wilson and Arthur Miller. Early research has proven this to be too narrow a frame, as it has been convincingly argued that while there are “simplistic comparisons of basic plot lines and character schematics” Wilson was not consciously emulating Miller’s
Death of A Salesman
when writing his play
, but rather “has been drawn, nevertheless, to the same view of those American problems of morality identity and freedom” (Abbotson 1997). As a result this unit will more thoroughly examine the role the dramatic arts have played historically and continue to play in our society. Working from collaboratively constructed definitions of democracy and democratic literature students will pay some brief attention to the role theatre going played in Elizabethan England. Although students will later read and critically view works of modern and contemporary American drama, a basic understanding of the theatre’s role in Aristocratic England will aid in their determination as to whether or not America’s playwrights have been able to create democratic literature.
Before reading and viewing the plays students will continue their examination of the history of theatre by concentrating on the nineteenth century, as described by Luc Sante, and the later Federal Theatre Project (FTP) which ran from 1935 until 1939. Sante pays particularly close attention to the evolution of theatre in New York, observing,
The duality of Broadway and anti-Broadway [the Bowery] began in the mists of
New York’s theatrical history, around the end of the eighteenth century…
Broadway was the theatre of the bourgeoisie, the standard, the temple, while the
Bowery was the circus of the masses (Sante 1991).
Further exploration of this phenomenon coupled with the FTP will lead students to ask the following types of questions: What if any, is the relationship between democracy and capitalism? Can democracy be better achieved or more thoroughly realized in a socialist society?
Once students have begun arriving at such questions they will view
The Piano Lesson
. Students will read
King Hedley II
August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama nominee of 2000.
is set in the Hill section of Pittsburgh during the era of Reagan led democracy. The setting of this play may be of particular interest to students in New Haven as we have a similar neighborhood also referred to as the Hill. The titular character is not completely dissimilar to that of Walter Lee Younger in Hansberry’s
A Raisin in the Sun
, a work with which many of my students have prior knowledge.
is an American tragedy, the story of a man whose attempts at attaining the American dream are thwarted time and time again often due to circumstances of class and race. This will lead students to ask whether or not a society or nation that either allows or forces individuals to live in substandard conditions based on such criteria may be considered democratic. This in turn begs the question: can individuals hold and promote democratic ideals in societies that are not necessarily democratic?
Extending the theme of democracy to democracy in the classroom there will be a limited number of choices for students regarding their culminating activity. Each final project will include a written component, either an essay or a one-act play. The culminating project will also include at least one other medium to be presented in class. Other media include visual art, performance, oral presentation/public speaking etc.