Viola Davis’s beautiful Oscar acceptance speech last night started out confusing. She said, “There is one place where all the people with the greatest potential are gathered. One place. And that is the graveyard.” She then continued, “People ask me all the time, what kind of stories do you want to tell, Viola? And I say, exhume those bodies, exhume those stories, the stories of the people who dreamed.”
Last Thursday I was sitting in the afternoon sun in the courtyard at Facebook with my treasured friend, Damien Baines. I wish I could record my conversations with Damien, for they are dense and I have a horrible memory. What I remember Damien saying is, “we cannot go forward until we understand our histories.”
I have spent my life trying to live in the moment. Not holding onto the past too much and not looking too far ahead. Knowing that underneath it all, we are standing on the shoulders of our ancestors and shared histories. With African American history, way too much has been lost. Yet, when I think about trying to understand that past, there is the deepest well of inspiration. The cultural gifts – music, theater, choreography, dance, literature – that have been handed down to all of us from African American artists and authors is more than I can even absorb in one lifetime.
When I squinted into the audience at the Oscars it looked like a sea of white faces. Then the camera zoomed in and as the awards were announced, there were the beautiful African American artists, proud and full of grace in their success and tears. Even if I could never fully comprehend the journey that delivered those artists to that moment, I could still embrace that moment of appreciation and recognition.
Viola Davis continued, ““I became an artist, and thank god I did, because we are the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life. So here’s to August Wilson, who exhumed and exalted the ordinary people.”
There is no greater American playwright than August Wilson. I have seen most of his plays– and never a production that did not change my life. Wilson’s plays demand a level of performance that is beyond anything I could ever imagine, yet cast after cast has risen to the level that is demanded and rewarded. I cannot comprehend how challenging it must be to learn –let alone communicate–his astonishing dialogue. He digs deep into the soul of his characters and finds that place that is both normal and extraordinary. The humanity he “exhumes and exalts” is at the heart of all of us.
If we could all see just one August Wilson play our country would be a much better place. “Jitney” is playing in NY right now. “Fences” is on screens big and small. See them. Revel in them. Be grateful we are living in a time of August Wilson and Moonlight and Viola Davis and Mahershala Ali.
We are living in the time of the new James Baldwin documentary, “I Am Not Your Negro.” –which Damien insisted I see. You need to see it in a theater while it is still there. For the sound of Samuel Jackson’s voice reading Baldwin’s words–so deep on a great sound system. For the brilliant construction that Raoul Peck built – blending the power of Baldwin’s words and showing how relevant they are today.
Somewhere James Baldwin is exhaling his own perfect circle of smoke.