August Wilson’s Literary Criticism

The Pittsburgh Cycle

The issue of race was especially problematic for the U.S. in the early 20th century due to the legacy of the rampant racism that plagued the previous era of U.S. sociocultural development. The challenges faced by African American people in fighting against oppression and promoting equality were reflected by numerous authors, August Wilson being among the most influential ones. Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle” captured the absurdity of racism and the hardships that African American people suffered because of it, providing a vivid description of the efforts that African American people put into introducing the principles of equal rights into American society. Incorporating ten plays that seemingly have little to do with each other plot- and character-wise, the “Pittsburg Cycle” recreates the experience of the African American community at the beginning of the 20th century, thus mapping the progress that African American people made in their endeavor at gaining liberty and fair treatment.

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The Use of Music in Wilson’s Literature

Literature is typically seen as a purely descriptive medium; however, in Wilson’s works, the art of storytelling is miraculously intertwined with the art of music-making. The influence of blues and the blues culture is persistently present in the “Pittsburg Cycle.” Music is often placed in the foreground, whereas the rest of the elements in Wilson’s play seem minor in comparison. As aa explains, “Wilson also foregrounds the historical linkages of music, ritual, ceremony, and oral culture as critical dramaturgical elements” (Cherry 211). In other words, the author considers music not simply as the additional element that contributes to building the setting but as an individual item that constitutes a crucial part of African American people’s legacy.

In Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle,” music is interwoven into the narrative becoming an elusive yet constant part of the story. However, unlike in the remaining 11 plays, “The Piano Lesson” focuses on music explicitly, giving the reader the necessary perspective on the role that music played in the development of African American culture at the time when freedom from prejudice and oppression seemed unattainable for African American citizens. In “The Piano Lesson,” it becomes not only a central theme but also the main character of the narrative, helping the reader to embrace the legacy of African American music. Transcending cultures and helping the reader to build a rapport with the leading characters by relating to their emotional experiences, the introduction of the element of music helps Wilson to make his argument all the more poignant.

Relationships between Family Members in Wilson’s Literature

The focus on the relationship between family members is another important characteristic of Wilson’s writing, which helps to build the historical continuum of the narrative and show the richness of the African American cultural traditions. By emphasizing the importance of family relationships, Wilson outlines the principal values of the African American culture (Shannon 23). Moreover, the emphasis on the emotional connection between family members and the support that they show for each other allows creating the sense of unity in the face of adversity that African American people experienced in the specified time slot due to rampant racism and discrimination.

As a result, the conflict between one of the leading characters and his family becomes an especially powerful plot point in one of Wilson’s plays. The rift occurring between Charles and his family in the “Piano Lesson” serves not only a dramatic purpose but also the goal of marking a crucial stage in the character’s personal growth. Namely, as the conflict occurs, Charles starts feeling lonelier yet also realizes the urgency and importance of self-sufficiency: “Whichever way you decide to go, they got a railroad that will take you there” (Wilson). Therefore, the relationships between family members in Wilson’s plays may be complicated, yet the challenges that the lead characters experience in communicating with each other become the pivotal points of their self-discovery.

The 4 B’s”

Approaching Wilson’s works from the perspective of the theory of drama, one will need to focus on what laid the foundation for his works, namely, the “4B’s” that he mentioned quite often (Harrison 29). According to Wilson, these were his attachment to blues and its culture, as well as the influence of Baraka, Bearden, and Borges, that turned him into the world-renowned writer (Harrison 30). The impact that the three influencers left on Wilson’s writing style, as well as the presence of the blues culture, becomes apparent once considering the “Pittsburgh Cycle” and other works of his a bit closer.

The combination of the four influences produced a unique impact on Wilson’s writing, allowing the writer to create his inimitable and easily distinguishable style, simultaneously enriching Wilson’s prose. The homage that Wilson plays to some of the works created by Baraka, Bearden, and Borges allows layering the cultural influences and establishing the setting, the characters, and the plot effectively. Wilson’s plays have left a massive cultural impact, and they remain an essential part of African American literature both as independent artworks and the homage to the legacy of African American culture.

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Works Cited

Cherry, James M. “August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle.” The Journal of American Drama and Theatre (JADT), vol. 29, no. 1, 2019, pp. 211-212.

Harrison, Paul Carter. “Derek Walcott/August Wilson: Homage to 20th Century Masters of Word.” Black Renaissance/Renaissance Noire, vol. 17, no. 2, 2017, pp. 30-42.

Shannon, Sandra G., ed. August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle: Critical Perspectives on the Plays. McFarland, 2015.

Wilson, August. “The Piano Lesson.”, Web.

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