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  • Writer's pictureJason Haskins

Playwriting, history, and (possible) unknown connections

Collection of binders, scripts, notebooks on gray carpet

The following contains spoilers for 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' by August Wilson. Scroll ahead at your own risk.

Moving through the stack of books residing next to my bed, the rotation finally brought me to When Broadway was Black by Caseen Gaines. In short, this book is about the Broadway musical Shuffle Along, telling the story of the first all-Black musical to succeed on Broadway.

While a focus is on composers Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, and comedians Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles, the book digs much deeper. Themes include the exploration of the Harlem Renaissance and how Black artists changed American media in the early 20th-century. Plus, there is a focus on Vaudeville, and the challenges they faced and how they were accepted and perceived.

I am devouring the words and history in this book and have worked my way up to early stages of the four men creating what will become Shuffle Along. In building a good story, this book gives plenty of backstory with each man, including Sissle joining one of the all-time great composers and bandleaders, James Reese Europe.

James Reese Europe

Europe was already a legend when Sissle joined Europe's Society Orchestra. The two became rather close during their time together, which included a stint overseas in WWI as part of the 369th Black Infantry Regiment and its "Hellfighters Band". (This section is really a quick overview of what is talked about Europe in the book. Learning more about this musician and his impressive life has been fascinating).

Europe and his band returned home heroes, though still fought racial injustices not seen during their time in France (except by fellow white, American soldiers). The band was sent on a homecoming tour, playing numerous cities across multiple states, with their very specific jazz and ragtime music.

Sadly, Europe met the end of his life in 1919 when a drummer, Herbert Wright, fatally stabbed Europe in a backstage argument. (Wright had felt disrespected by Europe and felt like he unfairly took the brunt of any dissatisfaction Europe had with the drum section.)

When I read this section, crafted with deft hand by Gaines, I was immediately struck with a thought. On the surface, the murder is very similar to the end of the play Ma Rainey's Black Bottom by August Wilson. And this sent me on a journey to find out if Wilson used Europe and this incident as motivation for his play.

August Wilson

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom had its Broadway debut in 1984 and was the first of Wilson's American Century Cycle. Set in 1920s Chicago, the play explores art, race, religion, cultural appropriation, and the exploitation of Black musicians by white producers.

Much of the action is also focused on the band backing Ma Rainey, a mix of grizzled veterans and a young, talented upstart in Levee. The climax of this play involves Levee stabbing Toledo, thanks to the latter stepping on Levee's recent pride and joy, a new pair of shoes. It's an anger misdirected, with Toledo being the most unfortunate recipient of this transgression.

Such a specific event in the play, and reading about Europe's death in real life, had me wondering if Wilson used the Europe murder as a basis for the climax. Surely if that were the case, I could put my vast research skills to use...

... And I found very little to back my hypothesis. Though I did discover I wasn't the only person to have this train of thought.

Since nothing concrete solidified this connection (I hope there is a Wilson expert out there who might point me to inspiration), it had me thinking about playwrights, writers in general, and where thoughts/action are derived.

Playwriting: Using what is needed

Playwrights, and writers in general, pull from a general history of what they know in creating fiction. This is not to generalize everyone does this but, in my experience, stories are crafted and told on the base level with information a writer already knows (or seeks out).

In this regard, the old adage "write what you know" comes into play more often than not.

I do wonder, in the instance referenced in the section above, if the similarities were purposeful, or the knowledge regarding Europe lived subconsciously in Wilson. Maybe it seeped out, unbeknownst to Wilson, in the dramatic action of the play. Not comparing myself to Wilson in any shape or form, but I know in certain scenes in my writing, I have written something and discovered much later a connection to something else.

Perhaps Wilson's choice was purposeful and just never discussed. Or it was purely coincidental. (This journey to find out more may ultimately vex me. In a good way.)

In writing, there is truth in fiction and drama. These are lived experiences translated to page. And it is something we should never lose sight of in continuing to explore the world of plays, literature, and beyond.

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