Piecing Together the Past and the Present: The Black Experience Through Romare Bearden and August Wilson's Art
By Maddie Gaw
Renowned visual artist Romare Bearden (1911-1988) has influenced many artists, including jazz musician Branford Marsalis and sculptor David Hammons, but he became a muse for the playwright August Wilson.
Wilson first encountered Bearden’s work in the late 1970s and was immediately entranced. He said that Bearden’s work depicted “black life presented on its own terms, on a grand and epic scale, with all its richness and fullness, in a language that was vibrant and which made attendant to everyday life, ennobled it, affirmed its value, and exalted its presence.” Wilson declared that in Bearden, “I found my artistic mentor and sought…to make my plays the equal of his canvasses.”
At least two specific Bearden works provided inspiration for what would become two plays within Wilson’s Century Cycle—Mill Hand's Lunch Bucket (1978) sparked Joe Turner's Come and Gone (1988), and The Piano Lesson
Romare Bearden was born in Charlotte, North Carolina to a middle class black couple and came of age in Harlem during its famous Renaissance (1917-1935), where his family home was often visited by luminaries of that cultural moment. He also spent a good deal of his childhood with relatives in rural North Carolina and in Wilson’s own Pittsburgh, where Bearden’s maternal grandmother ran a boarding house. The people he met, many who were migrants from the South and many who celebrated black cultural and religious rituals, formed the basis for his work in the medium he was best known for—collage.
Bearden bore witness to the disjointed experiences of black Americans, whose culture had been constantly fragmented and reshaped as a consequence of enslavement, segregation and mass migration. Bearden used collage as a way to visualize this experience and, as Ralph Ellison wrote, to “possess the meaning of his southern childhood and northern upbringing.” Bearden pieced together his memories like improvisational jazz. “Sometimes something just seems to fall into place,” he said, “like piano keys that every now and again just seem to be right where your fingers come down.”
These key elements of black art and aesthetics—collage and improvisation—can also be found in August Wilson’s writing. “In creating plays,” Wilson said, “I often use the image of a stewing pot in which I toss various things that I’m going to make use of.” He was also known to write freely and frequently on cocktail napkins; piecing the ideas on these napkins together at home was what Wilson called rewriting.
Another key similarity between Wilson and Bearden was their focus on finding continuity between the past and the present of the black experience. Black rituals that connected to slavery and African culture fascinated Bearden. Sometimes he tapped into those rituals directly—in works like Conjur Woman and Baptism—and sometimes figuratively, using African masks juxtaposed against a scene of modern urban living.
“In a world dominated by white culture,” Wilson said, “the black must be strong enough not only to survive but to reestablish his own identity and heritage which flows unbroken from an African fountainhead.” In Gem of the Ocean, Wilson brings to the stage his own conjure woman—Aunt Ester—to help Citizen Barlow do just that.
Romare Bearden and August Wilson both use their art to tell stories that for so long have been marginalized or ignored in American culture, and tell these stories by utilizing a specific aesthetic—collage of words and images, which conjure history and memory—that fully captures the complexity and richness of those stories.