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for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes


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     his plays offer excellent talking points and allow me an opportunity

to dismantle some of the myths that many whites have held about blacks



August Wilson Plays and Critical Perspectives

August Wilson Century Cycle  /  Fences  / Piano Lesson  / Gem of the Ocean  / Joe Turner's Come and Gone 

Radio Golf  /  King Hedley II  /  Jitney  /  Two Trains Running  /  August Wilson: Three Plays  /  Seven Guitars  

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom  / The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson / August Wilson and Black Aesthetics

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Professor Sandra Shannon

On the Cutting Edge of Research  in Contemporary Theater

By Tuere Marshall

The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson


Sandra Shannon, Ph.D., is professor of African American Literature, Criticism, and Drama in the Department of English [at Howard University]. . . . Dr. Shannon has established herself as an authority and scholar on [August] Wilson. Her book The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson , published by Howard University Press, 1995, [considers] the social and political themes that Wilson weaves throughout his dramatic works.

Last May, during [its] commencement, Howard University recognized Wilson for his contribution to the historical legacy of the African American tradition, bestowing upon him the honorary degree, Doctor of Letters.

Dr. Shannon's research has established a critical link between Wilson's historical fiction and the African American cultural experience of the twentieth century, and is indicative of the cutting edge research occurring at Howard University, which impacts broader historical and sociological studies.

Dr. Shannon is at the vanguard of cultural research, positioned to keep the discussion of African American culture, Wilson's common theme, in her words, "front and center." The multidisciplinary nature of Wilson's work interfaces with the fields of history and sociology, which provides Shannon an avenue to discuss these themes within the contexts of contemporary social issues.

For example, Professor Shannon asserts that within just one of Wilson's plays, "we can talk about post-reconstruction, the Great Migration, cultural fragmentation, black male/female relationships, Jim Crow, and other historical (themes)."

In her seminal work, The Dramatic Vision, Dr. Shannon  explains and identifies the historical time periods around which Wilson sets his drama, discussing the culturally relevant themes of pain, resignation, healing, renewal, dislocation, unemployment, and alienation.

She asserts, "his plays offer excellent talking points and allow me an opportunity to dismantle some of the myths that many whites have held about blacks. I also talk to bus drivers, church goers, and high school students, all of whom have a desire to know (about such myths)." Dr. Shannon uses these thematic frameworks as grist for her post-production lectures and seminar presentations on the social relevance of these themes in today's society. 

A much sought after lecturer nationally and internationally, she has been the invited lecturer at venues such as Dartmouth College's Department of Drama, the University of Jyvaskyla (Finland), Drake University, Virginia State University, the Philadelphia Theater Company, Arena Stage, Studio Theater, the Smithsonian Institute's National Museum of Arts Series, and the Film and Literature Colloquium at West Virginia State University. She has presented on several occasions at the annual conferences of the Mid-Atlantic Writer's Association and the College Language Association.

Since publishing her latest book, Dr. Shannon has been busy producing two subsequent studies. her most recent book August Wilson and Black Aesthetics (Palgrave MacMillan, 2004) is a compilation of essay responses to "The Ground on Which I Stand," Wilson's controversial speech on the artist's social responsibility.

Prior to August Wilson and Black Aesthetics, Shannon published August Wilson's Fences: A Reference Guide (Greenwood Publishing, 2003). This is a definitive study and companion piece to Wilson's Fences, the play Dr. Shannon considers his signature work.

Shannon explores the historical and cultural framework of the play, illuminates the creative art that went into its production, and includes a discussion of the forces that propelled Wilson beyond his potentially troubled life in Pittsburgh to becoming one of America's greatest playwrights.

Shannon received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities to compete this seminal work. According to E. Ethelbert Miller, director, African American Resources Center, Howard University, it will be impossible to write about Wilson in the future without making reference to the influential research of this Howard professor.

Concerning his emphasis on African American culture, Dr. Shannon explains:

August Wilson believes that documented history of African Americans in the United States was largely written by members of the dominant culture. As such, he contends that the stories of those whose lives were deemed insignificant were largely distorted or completely ignored.

His mission in writing ten plays set in the 20th century is to re-write that history and to tell the stories of the forgotten, misrepresented, silenced masses . . .  he concentrates on bringing the past into the present as a healing measure for African Americans today. In various ways, his plays underscore the psychological benefits of acknowledging ties to Africa as well as confronting the horrors of slavery.

Dr. Shannon, who received her doctorate from the University of Maryland in 1986, wrote her dissertation and several early publications on the plays and politics of Amiri Baraka. She claims, "I taught myself black literature through my dissertation research, but I became aware of the important aspects of African American culture through my research on Wilson."

As a Wilson scholar, Shannon received the Creative Scholarship Award in 1998 at the 58th Annual Conference of the College language Association and the Distinguished Writers Award at the 20th Annual Conference of Mid-Atlantic Writers Association (MAWA) in 1999. [She coordinated] the 25th Annual MAWA conference titled "This August Occasion: Examining Black Achievement in Literature, Performing Arts, and Telecommunications."

Dr. Shannon has received several grants to further her work. She was funded by the Andrew Mellon Fellowship for the American Drama: Text and Performance (Salzburg, Austria). And by the Humanities Council of Washington, D.C. to research "The Ground Together: An Interdisciplinary Conference to assess the Cultural Ground on Which We Stand As We Approach the Millennium."

She was also awarded Howard University Faculty Research grants for "An Annotated Bibliography" on August Wilson, the "Reclaiming Broadway for the African American Community," and for "Fences: A Critical Study." 

Professor Shannon's proposal for funding the two-day interdisciplinary symposium, Situating August Wilson in the Canon and in the Curriculum, was recently approved by Howard University's Fun for Academic Excellence.

Dr. Shannon has already started laying the foundation in her new area of research the contemporary African-American female playwright. She hopes to attract and develop critical scholarship for this trend that is now gaining dominance on American stages and with Pulitzer Prize committees.

A favorite among her English graduate students, Dr. Shannon "keeps her 'finger on the pulse,' and is at the vanguard of research on these contemporary playwrights who have, heretofore, been marginalized or misunderstood," a student stated.

During her graduate seminar, Dr. Shannon incorporated primary research projects with local theater practitioners and playwrights, in order to foster the critical thinking and writing skills necessary for this next generation of scholars. Her students attribute "Shannon's in-class, critical questions about contemporary playwrights as the basis for dissertations" and other analytical research on today's scholars.

She is also pivotal in the development of new scholarship on the contemporary African American female playwright. Dr. Shannon's research was published in the African American Review, Callaloo, Obsidian II; she has contributed essays to May All Your Fences Have Gates: Essays on the Drama of August Wilson; Memory and Cultural Politics: New Approaches to American Ethnic Literatures; August Wilson: A Casebook; Assaig de Teatre, a note Spanish journal, and literary publications.

Source: Quest: Research at Howard University (Winter 2004/2005, 8-10). Tuere Marshall is a teaching assistant and Ph.D. student in the Department of English.

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Gem of the World

By August Wilson

Set in 1904, 285 year-old Aunt Esther welcomes two strangers into her home. Solly Two Kings, a former Union Army-man who was born into slavery; and Citizen Barlow, a young man in search for redemption. Aunt Esther guides Citizen through a spiritual journey to the mythical City of Bones aboard the legendary slave ship, Gem of the Ocean. Meanwhile, chaos ensues in the real world where Solly is wrongfully accused of a crime and gets shot as a result. Come to our performance to find out how this magnificent story unravels.

No one except perhaps Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams has aimed so high and achieved so much in the American theater.—John Lahr, The New Yorker

A swelling battle hymn of transporting beauty. Theatergoers who have followed August Wilson’s career will find in Gem a touchstone for everything else he has written.”—Ben Brantley, The New York Times

Wilson’s juiciest material. The play holds the stage and its characters hammer home, strongly, the notion of newfound freedom.—Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune

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1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

By Charles C. Mann

I’m a big fan of Charles Mann’s previous book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, in which he provides a sweeping and provocative examination of North and South America prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus. It’s exhaustively researched but so wonderfully written that it’s anything but exhausting to read. With his follow-up, 1493, Mann has taken it to a new, truly global level. Building on the groundbreaking work of Alfred Crosby (author of The Columbian Exchange and, I’m proud to say, a fellow Nantucketer), Mann has written nothing less than the story of our world: how a planet of what were once several autonomous continents is quickly becoming a single, “globalized” entity.

Mann not only talked to countless scientists and researchers; he visited the places he writes about, and as a consequence, the book has a marvelously wide-ranging yet personal feel as we follow Mann from one far-flung corner of the world to the next. And always, the prose is masterful. In telling the improbable story of how Spanish and Chinese cultures collided in the Philippines in the sixteenth century, he takes us to the island of Mindoro whose “southern coast consists of a number of small bays, one next to another like tooth marks in an apple.” We learn how the spread of malaria, the potato, tobacco, guano, rubber plants, and sugar cane have disrupted and convulsed the planet and will continue to do so until we are finally living on one integrated or at least close-to-integrated Earth. Whether or not the human instigators of all this remarkable change will survive the process they helped to initiate more than five hundred years ago remains, Mann suggests in this monumental and revelatory book, an open question.

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The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788

By Pauline Maier

A notable historian of the early republic, Maier devoted a decade to studying the immense documentation of the ratification of the Constitution. Scholars might approach her book’s footnotes first, but history fans who delve into her narrative will meet delegates to the state conventions whom most history books, absorbed with the Founders, have relegated to obscurity. Yet, prominent in their local counties and towns, they influenced a convention’s decision to accept or reject the Constitution. Their biographies and democratic credentials emerge in Maier’s accounts of their elections to a convention, the political attitudes they carried to the conclave, and their declamations from the floor. The latter expressed opponents’ objections to provisions of the Constitution, some of which seem anachronistic (election regulation raised hackles) and some of which are thoroughly contemporary (the power to tax individuals directly). Ripostes from proponents, the Federalists, animate the great detail Maier provides, as does her recounting how one state convention’s verdict affected another’s. Displaying the grudging grassroots blessing the Constitution originally received, Maier eruditely yet accessibly revives a neglected but critical passage in American history.—Booklist

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery / George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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update 12 March 2012




Home  Marvin X Table   Black Arts and Black Power Figures   The Claude McKay--Romare Bearden    Literature & Arts

Related Files: The Ground on Which I Stand   Professor Sandra Shannon   Situating August Wilson   The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson    Writing on Napkins

Ayodele Nzinga Directs Gem of the Ocean   Duet for The Godfather   Writing on Napkins   Blessings Are Due  Leonard Peltier  Beyond Religion toward Spirituality