Haunted heritage: History, memory, and violence in the drama of August Wilson and Suzan-Lori Parks
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Ghosts, specters, and spirits visit frequently the pages of African American literature. In Haunted Heritage: History, Memory, and Violence in the Drama of August Wilson and Suzan-Lori Parks I examine the question of haunting in contemporary African American drama. I argue that despite their differences in style and form, the plays of both Wilson and Parks are characterized by haunting and that this haunting is a manifestation of the gaps that violent events in the past have left in African American cultural memory and imagination. In the introductory chapter, I discuss how haunting is linked with trauma and demonstrate the impact that the traumas of the Middle Passage and slavery had have on African American cultural imagination. I show further how haunting is linked to an ethics of responsibility. The following chapter analyzes how the legacy of the Middle Passage and slavery haunt the characters of August Wilson's plays Joe Turner's Come and Gone and The Piano Lesson; only after they learn to contend with the past can they build themselves a future. Chapter Three offers a psychoanalytic reading of Wison's Fences, demonstrating that the protagonist's narcissistic fixations are a manifestation of trans-generational haunting. The focus of the next chapter shifts in that it focuses on haunting not only in the content of the play, but as integral to the form of Parks' The America Play. Haunted by the violence that the exclusion of African Americans from the creation of American myths entails, the play presents a powerful critique of the American nationalist mythology. The final chapter reads the specter of Hawthorne's Hester Prynne in Parks' The Red Letter Plays both as an exploration of the myth of motherhood and as Parks' effort to come to terms with the paradoxical legacy of Hawthorne as a literary ancestor. I conclude by suggesting that, responding to the call of the ghosts from the past, Wilson and Parks re-invent history, give voice to their silenced ancestors, and incorporate the heretofore unheard voices into cultural memory.