It feels almost offensive to reduce great American playwright August Wilson's biography to just a paragraph, but here goes: The mixed-race (African American and white) playwright, born in Pittsburgh in 1945, was faced with racial threats that caused him to drop out of school at age 15. He educated himself, became the director of Pittsburgh's Black Horizons Theater and, skipping forward a few years, racked up some Tony Awards and eventually won two Pulitzers. He is particularly well known for his Century Cycle, a series of 10 plays, each of which explores one decade of the 20th century in an encompassing look at the African American experience. Wilson died in 2005.
Whew. Okay. You got all that?
Unfortunately for Santa Fe, it's unlikely we'll ever see a Wilson play staged here. The playwright was a huge opponent of so-called "colorblind" casting, and rightfully so; his plays are very specifically about Black America, and to throw a white person in any role would entirely change every plot. New Mexico has some incredible African American actors, but scheduling and geography would likely make getting them all in one cast impossible.
So, we must be content to study these works. Thank goodness for St. John's College, then.
When SJC tutor Claudia Hauer was asked for a recommendation for a guest for a Dean's Lecture, which happen for free most Friday nights of the school year, she brought up Nicole Jerr, an assistant professor at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Jerr, whose scholarship focuses on sovereignty in modern drama, chose to look closely at Wilson's King Hedley II, and Hauer accordingly planned a community seminar, free and open to the public, for Santa Feans in the weeks leading up to the lecture to create an unofficial August Wilson intensive.
On Tuesday Oct. 23, Hauer and her "students" discuss Wilson's Seven Guitars, the 1940s installment of the Century Cycle; on Sunday Oct. 28, there's a screening of Fences, set in the 1950s and brought to Hollywood in 2016; then, on Tuesday Oct. 30, they look at King Hedley II, which takes place in the 1980s. Jerr's lecture is then held on Friday Nov. 2. You don't have to commit to all four events—Hauer's happy to have you for any part of the conversation.
The SJC model is based firmly in questions and discussion, not "professing" (hence the title "tutor," not "professor"). "People will have read the text, I'll ask a question, and people will take it from there," Hauer says. "We'll discuss some of the issues that come up with race and memory and community. We'll just see what people want to talk about."
If it sounds intimidating, it's not. Even during our phone conversation, after I made what I guess was an interesting point, Hauer thoughtfully cooed, "Oh, that's great…" then thought for a moment, then added her own thoughts.
"Everybody's welcome. We're really friendly," she promises.
And while this is great for readers, she welcomes actors and directors, too. "I'd love a group that would talk about how this would be performed and what it would be like to take on one of the roles in the text. It's a really interdisciplinary seminar; it's not just 'here's the words on the page.' We're also trying to imagine our way to a performance."
Jerr's lecture closes the mini-intensive, and she'll take a look at how King Hedley II draws comparisons to the Greek tragedy Oedipus (circa 429 BC) with each piece's focus on the identity of their titular characters' fathers. Presenting this topic at a school that focuses on the "Great Books" feels a little on-the-nose, and I asked whether she makes this point specifically for the SJC audience, or if she came to it unrelated.
"I suppose the answer is a little bit of both," she replies. "I work primarily on modern and contemporary drama, but I have a strong investment in the history of theater in general. … When I think about King Hedley II, I think that there's what I'll call a 'family resemblance' to Oedipus. In no way do I think August Wilson sat down and thought, 'How can I adapt Oedipus?'—I'm not implying that at all. However, we've got two characters who are unclear about who their father is, and that this motivates in large part the tragedy that ensues."
She also cautions against putting too much weight on the comparison; when drawing lines to Oedipus, "for some people, that means, 'Oh, good, Wilson has done something good because it's fitting this recognizable form.' And I'd want to challenge that. I think it's important to recognize some of what he's using that is part of that tradition, but also ways in which we might be doing damage to the play if we simply write it off as having value because of its relationship to this ancient model."
We reference academic America's impulse to call Frederick Douglass "important" in large part because he was called a friend by Abraham Lincoln; no, actually, Douglass was important on his own, as a formidable scholar and activist. His greatness had nothing to do with his relationship to a white man. Similarly, Wilson plays, while they have a firm place within and relating to the Western canon, also stand out as important pieces of literature and drama in their own right.
And, when I point out that the SJC reading list is notoriously quite pale in the face, Jerr is quick to remind me that it is an issue that all of academia needs to consider. Reading authors of color is a "conversation that any educational institution should be having. 'What are we reading? What are we asking people to read, and how, and why?' … These are huge questions that almost every instructor probably asks themselves when they design a syllabus. Am I only introducing them to the standards? Is there some way to challenge that?"
So when it comes to this lecture, she says, "If this is a way for St. John's students to pick up a couple of August Wilson plays, I'm all for it. … If they don't buy my argument, that's fine. If it just gets them talking about some things, I'm happy about that."
August Wilson Seminars, Screening and Lecture
Community Seminars: 4:30-6 pm Tuesdays Oct. 23 and 30.
Fences screening: 3 pm Sunday Oct. 28.
Nicole Jerr: August Wilson's King Hedley II: An American Oedipus?: 7:30 pm Friday Nov. 2.
All events free. St. John's College, 1160 Camino Cruz Blanca, 984-6118. Sign up in advance for seminars and screening at tinyurl.com/sjc-wilson; no registration for lecture.