The Breakfast Table

John Lahr and August Wilson

Dear August,

Hello from London, where you’ll be coming in a few weeks for the Royal National’s production of Jitney. When you arrive, you’ll find the right wing as clapped out and devoid of ideas as Bush and Co., the food better than you probably remember, the gap between the white culture and people of color even greater than it is at home. Today, reading an article about the fight promoter Don King, I thought of you and riding around the Hill in Pittsburgh with your mate “Chawley” Williams, who ran numbers and was a civic leader–then and now–on the Hill in Pittsburgh. King, who did time as I’m sure you know for killing a guy in a fistfight, was trying to explain to the British reporter about being a “digitarian,” as Chawley called himself at the time. “From the very beginning when I started to hustle,” King is reported saying in the Sunday Telegraph, “… I was always a man of community.” The article goes on: “Then, spotting my incredulous expression, he adds: ‘I’m telling you, man! I would feed the community, feed the poor, give them things. That’s the way of life.’ ” Having spent five months writing about you and walking the Hill, I know that King is telling it absolutely true–the number runners did/do take the role of civic leaders in the ghetto community; they are the ones with the surplus and the entrepreneurial skills. I also know that the reporter’s incredulity, like my own until recently, was due to the fact that he had not spent one waking minute inside the ghetto. The distance between cultures is so much wider than we fondly think; language gives us the illusion that we understand something which as a nation we have almost no visceral, meaningful experience of. By the way–and this is why I like reading the sports pages, because the language is vivid and unlettered and poetic–King told the writer, “I understand exactly what the system is and what I’m up against. I have a Ph.D. in Caucasianism.”

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You told me you wrote Jitney over 10 days sitting at Arthur Treacher’s Fish and Chips in Minneapolis. According to what feels like a trend emerging in the arts over here, I might suggest that you hit on the franchise for some sponsorship for the production–a kind of product placement.  As I write, the English National Ballet has signed a sponsorship deal with Barbie dolls to stage a six week run of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, which begins in December and will carry Barbie’s name in the billing. And one of England’s best novelists, Fay Weldon, has signed a contract with the Italian jewelers for a sizeable check for mentions in her forthcoming novel, The Bulgari Connection. There are all sorts of economic rationalizations for the trend, but I think it’s lamentable. The artist–who has to please to live–must always, in some sense, pick the pocket of the public. It’s another thing to join forces with the corporations; instead of speaking your mind, you’re speaking, albeit obliquely, capitalism’s agenda. How can you think against society and be owned by it at the same time? To me, it’s hilariously corrupt and a reflection of our increasingly winded, timid times.

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Finally, I read that some English galleon that sunk centuries ago off the coast of Gibraltar and was carrying £500m in gold is being excavated. That led me to think of your mythic Aunt Esther and the play I assume you’re mulling over in the basement right now about her transportation from Africa to the New World and the millions of Africans who were lost in the Middle Passage … Has Aunt Esther spoken to you about the trip? She came to mind while I was reading about exiled poet and novelist Syl Cheney-Coker, a Sierra Leonean who is the first guest of Las Vegas’ City of Asylum scheme to support writers in exile. I remember you said, when she finally spoke to you, how strange Aunt Esther found the flora and fauna of the New World to which she was exiled. Here is Cheney-Coker: “I miss my house. I miss watching kingfishers diving for fish. I miss waking up and listening to little birds in the coconut trees. When I wake here, I can hear birds, but I don’t know what they are.”

Speak soon. Warm best regards,
John

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