FEATURE: The Greene Space’s August Wilson’s American Century Cycle-Religion, Spirituality, & Africa

Hollis King/Photo Credit: Leslie Jean-Bart

Hollis King/Photo Credit: Leslie Jean-Bart

When I arrived at The Greene Space, African drummer Kojo Johnson was on stage playing the jdembe drum before Terrence McKnight introduced himself as our host. They were soon joined by the panel: Dwight Andrews, Hollis King, and Josef Sorett. All of these men have deep connections to both the subject matter and August Wilson’s legacy. Dwight Andrews was one of Wilson’s dearest friends and he served as musical director for 5 of Wilson’s plays on Broadway. Later on in the evening, Dwight would tell us how Wilson asked him to officiate his funeral, at which point, Ruben Santiago-Hudson and Stephen McKinley Henderson called out from the audience to say that he did an expert job at the funeral. (A touching moment between these 3 giants!) Needless to say, Dwight Andrews is more than adept at the topic of Wilson and his take on religion. Many may be unaware that August Wilson was not a religious man. And yet, religion is heavily prevalent in nearly all of his works. Wilson may have invested in something higher than himself but he was not religious. As his friend Dwight puts it, “Wilson would come to me for religious references because, I was supposed to be the preacher.”

Though Dwight Andrews was the musician and minister in the room, it was Hollis King who said, “The church and the music

Dwight Andrews/Photo Credit: music.emory.edu

Dwight Andrews/Photo Credit: music.emory.edu

is in you all the time. It’s how we live our lives every day.” King is a visual artist of Trinidadian descent. He told us that African art and literature changed his life at a very early age. While it was hard being a minority in art school, knowing about his African past helped him in his art. It is true that as artists, we use our experience to express our understanding. Of course this understanding is ever evolving, and therefore so is our art. August knew this, which is why he never presumed to know answers to questions or criticisms he posed about religion. He let his work evolve as he evolved as a person, never allowing his plays to become preachy.

Terrence McKnight posed the question, “How is Christianity so prevalent amongst African-Americans (88% of blacks are Christian), even though it was first introduced to them by Europeans, specifically by their white slave masters, and as a means of justification for slavery?” The answer, Josef Sorett suggests, is that African-American Christianity is not the same as other people’s Christianity. “We think of Christianity as the white man’s religion… but within African traditional religions there’s often an

Josef Sorett/Photo Credit: JosefSorett.com

Josef Sorett/Photo Credit: JosefSorett.com

openness. So it’s not conversion from/to but rather both/and. One can embrace a new tradition without fully erasing what was in the past.” They may have used the same Christian doctrines, but African-Americans brought with them their African rituals (i.e. Conjuring the spirits and Juba dancing developed into the work songs and spirituals sung out in the field with no musical instruments). African-Americans made church their entertainment hall, in addition to a place of deep worship.

“Artists and preachers have no monopoly on each other’s art forms,” Sorett says. Wilson was concerned with being inclusive; with embracing all the traditions throughout African-American history. He believed in exploring ourselves indefinitely as a way of healing the bruises caused by the hypocrisy of our story. This was the way, he felt, to grow as a people. Dwight Andrews told us that, “August wrestled with the notion of finding self-actualization that is not dependent on God.” His way of doing this, was through writing plays. Finally, he added, “We are a complicated people.”
The discussion capped off at one hour, though we could have gone on all night. Thank you once again to The Greene Space for proving the arena to host such wonderful events!

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