August Wilson's Influences
The Four B's
In a 1999 interview with The Paris Review, playwright August Wilson stated that his work was most heavily influenced by “my four Bs”: poet Jorge Luis Borges, playwright Amiri Baraka, painter Romare Bearden, and most importantly, the blues.
The Blues is a musical form that can be traced back to African rhythms, African-American slave songs, spirituals, and dance tunes known as “jump-ups.” Blues performers such as Bessie Smith and Gertrude “Ma” Rainey helped popularize this musical continuation of the oral tradition. The blues remain a strong influence in many other popular forms, including jazz, country, rock, and soul music. For Wilson, each character’s ideas and attitudes are rooted in the blues; the philosophies in the music teach the characters how to live their lives.
Romare Bearden (1911–1988) grew up at the height of New York City’s Harlem Renaissance and was influenced by such family friends as Langston Hughes, W. E. B. DuBois, and Duke Ellington. Although he was a successful painter and dedicated civil rights activist, Bearden is best known for his vibrant collages fusing depictions of Harlem life with images and impressions of the American South. This sense of a cultural narrative spanning generations and expressing the African-American experience is also a hallmark of Wilson’s plays.
Amiri Baraka (1934–2014) was born Everett LeRoi Jones in Newark, New Jersey, but changed his name in 1968 to reflect his African heritage. A passionate advocate of black culture, he achieved wide acclaim for his play The Dutchman, which presented a racially-charged confrontation between a beautiful but cruel white woman and a naïve black man in a New York City subway car. Wilson was drawn to Baraka’s political poetry and plays and helped found a theatre where he mounted several works by Baraka. A retired professor, Baraka continued to write prolifically up until his death in 2014.
Jorge Luis Borges
Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986) is one of the most prominent writers and intellects of the 20th Century. Although he became an influential Spanish language writer, Borges’ first language was English. In his early life in Buenos Aires, Argentina, he nurtured a deep knowledge and love of American and European literature that would later influence his own work. His short stories, poems, and translations are considered world classics. Among other things, Borges’ fiction is characterized by fantastical elements; his influence is felt in Wilson’s stories with the presence of ghosts, trips to the past, and other magical moments.
Originally written for Radio Golf at the Mark Taper Forum (2004) by Hilly Hicks.
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