Open University

Alternate Realities


by Richard Stern
In his wonderful post about the theme of personal authenticity through acceptance of one's blackness in Radio Golf, the last of the late August Wilson's remarkable ten-play cycle, John McWhorter writes

As much as I have loved so many of Wilson's plays, I do not accept that the life I lead is unreal, inauthentic, or broken. Our vegetable garden is authentic, and I do not water my cucumbers because I wish I was white. My life is authentic. It is authentic to me... the racial identity [Wilson] is suggesting is based on feeling ever conflicted, deeply different, with roots in a far off land in another time. That might float some people's boats, but I am more interested in feeling whole right here and now. History is important--but not so much that, as Faulkner had it, the past isn't even past. August Wilson was, no questions asked, real. I wish that in his parting message to the world, he could have allowed that I and millions of other black people leading lives like mine are real too.

These words alone do much to vouch for McWhorter's reality, authenticity, and wholeness. I'd guess that Wilson himself would have seen and felt this although he might have disagreed with McWhorter's belief that his play was sending a "message," and with his narrowing the import of Faulkner's statement about the presence of the past.

Those elements of the past which form parts of what we call our identity--family, religion, ethnic background, class, biological being including gender, strength, and health, our place in the communities of which we're a part--almost surely lead to internal as well as external conflicts in the course of our life. Perhaps only those who never feel such conflicts can be called inauthentic and unreal. One talent of the dramatist and prose fiction writer is to stage the conflicts, that is, to so isolate or exaggerate one or more of the conflicting elements that it upsets the status quo of the drama's beginning and begins its drive toward another status, tragic, comic, or some rich combination of them. The bliss of the audience or readers is to get swept up in this two- or thirty-hour transfiguration in such a way that our own reality is enriched with what we've seen, heard, or read. The work of very powerful dramatists and novelists will in time alter, indeed, become the culture, that is, the very "reality on the ground."

How wonderful it would be if there were in Iraq today a few dramatists with August Wilson-like gifts whose plays could enchant great numbers of Shia and Sunni with the dramatization of their complex identities in such a way as to get their fingers off gun triggers and their minds into the reflectiveness of Wilson's audiences or, for that matter, McWhorter's fine commentators.

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