Aunt Ester's Children Redeemed

Journeys to Freedom in August Wilson's Ten Plays of Twentieth-Century Black America

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Riley Keene Temple
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Cascade Books
    , February
     2017.
     150 pages.
     $16.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781498237802.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Riley Keene Temple’s Aunt Ester’s Children Redeemed: Journeys to Freedom in August Wilson’s Ten Plays of Twentieth-Century Black America is a smart, thoughtful book marked by the author’s passion for his subject. It is a warm read with a conversational tone that underscores the unfussy rigor of its analysis. Lacking extensive engagement with other critics, the book shapes itself in the mold of commentary rather than scholarship. It succeeds nicely in that endeavor: instead of offering detached academic critique, the book invites readers into a world constituted by Temple’s thoughts and insights. He establishes himself as a longtime and unabashed fan of Wilson’s work, a unique and welcome subject position. But the book also proves Temple to be a sharp and discerning critic. This perceptiveness coupled with a comfortable, relaxed tone makes Aunt Ester’s Children Redeemed at once intellectually stimulating and aesthetically pleasing.

Temple’s central thesis is that God exists for Wilson’s characters in the elusive space of self-actualization achieved only by uniting past with present: the blood-memory of Africa with the material reality of America. Crucial, though, is for characters to take an active, agential role in finding that balance. As Jacob must wrestle God, so too must Wilson’s characters wrestle with the challenging spiritual realities of themselves and their histories. Temple argues that Wilson “paints a world in which the black American has had to craft a spiritual existence wholly unique and separate from what was to make living possible” (xviii). According to Temple, this quest is deeply theological but not bound up with any specific religious tradition or prescribed practice. Instead, Wilson’s characters’ journeys toward selfhood shape a radically personal experience with God. Temple suggests that “these plays are not at all about coming to terms with the God of religion. They are indeed about finding that place of redemption—of wholeness—of reconstitution. To August Wilson, the most important lesson in this cycle is to rememberto reclaim the past” (xviii, original emphasis). This valuable insight stresses that Wilson’s world is always in flux, alive in ways that cannot be confined by static selfhood or religion.

For Temple, this reclamation of the past is a redemption from a fallen state imposed upon black Americans who are always already stripped of a clear sense of selfhood. Temple’s Christian lens shapes the condition of Wilson’s characters in ways similar to the doctrine of original sin. Through no fault of their own, these characters find themselves bereft of full senses of identity, community, family, and history that were violently stripped from their originary American ancestors and systematically denied to subsequent generations. Temple finds that the process at the heart of Wilson’s plays is therefore an active quest for recovery and reclamation of those concepts in ways that would constitute redemption. “When characters in the Cycle find their songs,” says Temple, expanding the metaphor of finding one’s song from Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, “when they are redeemed, they are ‘born again.’ They have come home to the blues. They have found their identity” (30). So, for example, Temple characterizes the climax of The Piano Lesson—the moment when Berneice saves Boy Willie from his battle with a ghost by finally embracing the legacy of the family piano—as a moment when the Charles family “has been redeemed. Identity found. They know who they are. They know how they arrived. They will celebrate how it all happened, from this day forward. Alleluia” (47). Here and throughout the book, Temple argues that the spiritual fulfillment of God comes only after and as a direct result of Wilson’s characters actively seeking identity in the complex nexus of history and contemporary experience.

Temple’s methodology throughout the book mirrors this approach to his subject. The author identifies and excavates theology out of the plays rather than imposing a religious framework onto them. He has no qualms about identifying himself as Christian, but this is not a book that simply applies Christian doctrine to the plays (in fact, in his introduction, Temple discusses abandoning a strained effort to read the Cycle as Trinitarian). This strategy allows for evocative readings of the central conflict in each play. Particular tensions and character types certainly repeat throughout Wilson’s Cycle, but no single lens would effectively capture the dynamic structure of the plays. Temple wisely avoids trying to construct such a lens by assuming a position of commentary: observing the unique journeys of Wilson’s characters and assessing each on its own terms.

This approach in the form of commentary may have led to Temple’s decision to eschew extended engagement with existing scholarship, a decision that leaves a reader familiar with Wilson scholarship with a few open questions. The book’s central thesis, for example, recalls that of Harry J. Elam’s book The Past as Present in the Drama of August Wilson (University of Michigan Press, 2004), and while Temple is certainly carving out his own unique space, it would be illuminating to see him more directly thinking through the challenges of work by Elam and others. 

Ultimately, though, this is not a University Press book and does not seem interested in fitting into that mold. Rather, Aunt Ester’s Children Redeemed aims to share its author’s passion and keen intellect. And so there is much to be gained here for scholars and general audiences of Wilson enthusiasts (although there are times when the book’s structure of moving through the Cycle based on the plays’ setting rather than their date of composition may allow some confusion to fester).

The same is true for readers interested in religious themes in Wilson’s work or in literature more broadly. For rather than importing a predetermined set of doctrines, Temple paints a unique religious landscape throughout the Cycle. The book is informed by a complex conception of Christianity and biblical literature, offering a provocative challenge that asks readers to move beyond a doctrinaire lens toward a more dynamic and capacious theology. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Patrick Maley is Associate Professor of English at Centenary University.

Date of Review: 
December 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Riley Keene Temple is an avid American arts advocate and supporter, and has been honored for his leadership of arts organizations. He is a telecommunications attorney in Washington DC, where his Board memberships include the National Archives Foundation and the Trust for the National Endowment for the Humanities. He holds a Masters degree, cum laude, of Theological Studies from the Virginia Theological Seminary. He has written frequently on theology and the creative arts.

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