“Niggers” on Broadway
America’s favorite word echoed throughout the hallowed Ethel Barrymore Theatre this past weekend during the performance of August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson. Or was it Wilson’s? About halfway through the show, directed by LaTanya Richardson Jackson, I asked a fellow attendee and colleague if Wilson had that many “niggers” in his script. I’m not prudish about the word “nigger” and employ it myself, sometimes in published writing. I am even desensitized to the word (almost) when I watch any of 50 Cent’s Power Universe. And I certainly understand an artist’s quest for realism and authenticity. But “nigger” mostly seemed like gratuitous usage to me. It didn’t totally spoil for me the prize-winning storyline or the strong performance by a stellar cast---Danielle Brooks, Trai Byers, Nadia Daniel, Ray Fisher, Samuel L. Jackson, April Matthis, Michael Potts, and John David Washington. But it did have me shaking my head. I remember the television version for which Wilson wrote the sanitized teleplay. Never did I feel that the absence of “nigger” diminished the presentation in the least. I was also aware of several discussions of Wilson’s use of “nigger,” including Pearl Cleage’s great and affirming keynote at a Southeastern Theatre Conference gathering a decade ago. It’s just that the word seemed especially prominent to me this past weekend. I need to get one of the digital folk like Kenton Rambsy to tell me where “nigger” ranks in terms of frequency of noun usage. My daughter, also in attendance, said a few well-chosen ones would have been fine. At any rate, I could hardly wait to get to my Plume edition of The Piano Lesson to answer the question that I posed to my colleague.
Well, “nigger” is definitely all over the script. At least 30 times by my count, not including its use in narratives about people other than the characters:
1. Open the door, nigger!
2. I told the nigger I give him ten dollars to get the brakes fixed.
3. Where you get that hundred and twenty dollars from, nigger?
4. You ought to hear this nigger, Doaker.
5. When you get to be a preacher, nigger?
6. Where you working at, nigger?
7. Aw, nigger, you know I’ll give you a watermelon.
8. You was sleeping in it down home, nigger!
9. I don’t never want to see none of them niggers no more.
10. I told the nigger he left out of here with that sack of money, we thought we might never see him again.
11. If the nigger was here I’d whup his ass for getting me and Lymon shot at.
12. Aw, nigger, give me five dollars.
13. I ain’t dressing up for these city niggers.
14. His daddy’s dead now . . . but I got the nigger out of jail one time.
15. That was one bad-luck nigger.
16. That was one bad-luck nigger.
17. Come on, get up, nigger!
18. Some nigger named Leroy come by but I had a chair up against the door.
19. Nigger---you crazy!
20. This is my house, nigger!
21. Just lift up on that end, nigger!
22. See, a nigger that ain’t afraid to die is the worst kind of nigger for the white man.
23. Some people get scared to hear a nigger’s heart beating.
24. Where you been, nigger?
25. Come on, nigger!
26. Man, these niggers around here!
27. They don’t know I whupped the nigger’s head in one time.
28. Nigger, why don’t you go upstairs and lay down?
29. You gonna help me move this piano first, nigger!
30. Where you going, nigger?
None of this bothered me when I read the book years ago. Moreover, I certainly won’t quarrel with the idea that August Wilson was a genius playwright. But that doesn’t mean that he was a perfect playwright. It’s not reasonable to censor. It is reasonable to question whether Wilson employed “nigger” to best artistic advantage. It didn’t seem so in the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. But then of course that speaks to questions of context as well as comparisons of my book-reading experiences to my reading of live events. I’m sure there are many more questions and observations that readers, theater goers, critics, and scholars could contribute---though I’ve seen no one in print raise the question of language this time around. Perhaps the topic is considered passé. But I still think there are lots of piano lessons to check out.