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Those who’ve seen Fences or Joe Turner’s Come and Gone at Arena Stage, attended Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at Studio Theater, or caught The Piano Lesson or Two Trains Running at the Kennedy Center may be tempted to concentrate on the playwright’s first-person testimony in The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson (Howard University Press). Not that Sandra Shannon’s analysis doesn’t add to one’s appreciation of the plays; the Howard U. prof is as thorough as she is sensitive in exploring the first six installments in Wilson’s planned 10-part chronicle of African-American cultural history. But her straightforward Q&A with Wilson—recorded when Wilson was shepherding Two Trains Running through its 1991 pre-Broadway tryout at the KenCen—is a remarkable document filled with production anecdotes, confessions about paths not taken, and biographical data. One softball—“How did it feel to have a play on Broadway?”—elicits a dissertation on crowd psychology, marquee billing, and the theatrical ghettoization of black plays, as well as two stories about plot-paralleling discriminatory incidents that occurred during the mounting of Ma Rainey.
Shannon’s scholarly approach to Wilson’s texts explains that his writing follows similarly indirect patterns, allowing him to structure his work around issues without sacrificing the veneer of humanity that makes it so appealing to audiences. And if her emphasis on the building blocks of his arguments sometimes seems overstated, it ultimately proves persuasive. By the time Shannon calls Wilson a “cultural architect” in her final chapter, the sobriquet seems entirely appropriate. Shannon discusses her book at 6 p.m. Friday, July 28, at Vertigo Books.