"I was left wondering how August Wilson might have reacted to this inspiring, enlightening symposium that showed the promise of renewed interest in his work coming from a fierce new generation of cultural warriors"
A Flash of the Spirit:
A Report on Mikell Pinkney’s Symposium,An Incessant Journey:
Investigating Spirituality in
August Wilson’s Twentieth Century
African American Play Cycle
University of Florida-Gainesville, FL
By Dr. Sandra Shannon
|Troy McCray as Citizen Barlow. Photo: TF Guntrup.|
Friday, September 17
Greetings from Gainesville, Florida, where I just saw a rivetting performance of Gem of the Oceanlast evening, directed by our own Mikell Pinkney! The entire cast is phenomenal, receiving a 5 minute standing ovation. BTN President Luther Wells, Lundeana Thomas, Woodie King, Hely Perez, and Ebony Jo-Ann, are here also. Unfortunately, Lou [Bellamy] could not join us. Today is the first day of the symposium, "An Incessant Journey," which will examine the prevalence of spirituality in Wilson's work. There is lots of excitement in the air! Mikell is at his best
Saturday, September 18
Dr. Mikell Pinkney pulled it off in grand fashion! We just ended the daylong symposium,: An Incessant Journey: Investigating Spirituality in August Wilson's Twentieth Century African American Play Cycle. In many respects, we had "Church!" The day's event brought mini sermons and a few "come to Jesus" moments; inspiring personal testimonials; challenging questions, comments, and words of praise from UFL administrators, teachers, and theatre students for Mikell's work; and advice on how to survive personally as well as professionally in this highly competitive field.
The day began with Mikell providing introductory remarks that explained the occasion, provided his take on the symposium theme, and gave a sense of his personal and professional "struggle" in the work he does at UFL. This was followed by thought-provoking comments from a panel of individuals who have intimate knowledge of staging August Wilson's work and its impact upon various audiences. Panelists included Dr. Lundeana Thomas, BTN President Luther Wells, and Producer/Director Carol Valasques Jackson. Students (as well as some panelists) came "searching" and "hungry"--not just for information about spirituality in AW's work, but also for advice on making good, potentially life-altering choices but, alas, without the accustomed parental input.
Right from the outset, panelists in the first session were met with questions about differences between the theatre of Tyler Perry and that of August Wilson, prompting passionate responses and ultimately a call for a broader sense of cultural consciousness that would allow room for the work of both playwrights. What followed were equally interesting discussions on measuring the impact of Wilson's plays on so-called "non-intellectual," lower income audiences; finding and staying in touch with one's own spirituality; and embracing one's own culture while in the midst of a multicultural student body.
Cast members take questions for the audience in the first afternoon session. Photo: Stan Kaye
Panelists Dr. Lundeana Thomas and actress Ebony Jo-Ann were only too happy to impart lots of maternal like wisdom mixed with large doses of reality checks for the audience of fledgling theatre professionals. The incredibly ubiquitous and well connected Woodie King schooled students about the benefits of beginning the process of networking now and stressed the importance of being in the right place and the right time. He also imparted some tough love to the group as he leveled with them on potential pitfalls that young women may face trying to make it, especially in New York's theatre and film industry. According to King, it is not unusual that some women may be asked outright to get breastwork done or approached to pose nude in order to find work.
Teasing out spirituality in August Wilson plays opened up many new venues for understanding and appreciating the complexities of his work and prompted an even greater appreciation for his brilliance, his love for his people, and his own struggles. Over the course of the day, topics of conversation ranged from the recurring theme of "making something out of nothing," influence of Yoruba religious deities, magical realism and spiritual realism, spiritual resonance in Citizen Barlow's journey to and from the City of Bones, biblical references in various characters' names: Solly Two Kings, Aunt (pronounced "Ant" Ester, and Eli, the relevance of knowing the playwright's own religious identity, and the influence of the Bible as text.
Dr. Thomas spoke/preached about how Wilson uplifts her spirits and allows her to "emote" and to say "Hallelujah, amen" from time to time. One cast member spoke about how Mikell's spiritual ritual of cleansing the rehearsal space creates such calm and focus within him to the extent that he has grown dependent upon it. Others spoke about how he was convinced that the pre-rehearsal warm-up ritual among the cast was spirit driven when it involuntarily transformed into a foot stomping, handclapping, and very animated Juba dance.
Parallel and equally passionate conversations took place over the course of the day on the business side of professional theatre. Many of the students in attendance were spellbound by words of wisdom from veteran Producer Woodie King, from acclaimed actress and blues singer, Ebony Jo-Ann, and from BTNers Deana Thomas and Luther Wells. Put bluntly, students wanted to know how to break into the industry and how to negotiate the current landscape not only to get work, but also to thrive in their careers. In particular, the straight-talking Woodie King gave advice about many of the lesser known truths within the highly competitive profession. This came in the form of strategies for cutting business deals, smart ways of thriving in a shrewd business environment, and getting fair and competitive pay for their work. Among many other helpful tips, Ebony Jo-Ann shared with the audience how she has been able to harness the beast of social networking to "put butts into seats" for her New York performances and make money in the process.
The day ended with a second and equally stellar performance of Gem of the Ocean, another standing ovation from the audience, and continued conversations inspired by the symposium spilling out into the halls of Constans Theatre. I was left wondering how August Wilson might have reacted to this inspiring, enlightening symposium that showed the promise of renewed interest in his work coming from a fierce new generation of cultural warriors. While reading over the program booklet, I found what may best capture the spirit of August Wilson in this moment. In a handwritten caption scribbled beneath an intense photo of the prophetic and brilliant playwright are the words, "The struggle continues."
Reginald Wilson, Troy McCray and Ryan Travis. Photo: TF Guntrup
Ryan Travis, Teniece Johnson and Douglas Milliron. Photo: TF Guntrup.
Teniece Johnson and Anedra Johnson. Photo: Stan Kaye
Carlos Alejandro, Reginald Wilson, Troy McCray and Teniece Johnson. Photo: TF Guntrup
DR. SANDRA SHANNON is professor of African American Literature, Criticism, and Drama in the Department of English at Howard University. Dr. Shannon has established herself as an authority and scholar on [August] Wilson.