She's A Brick House: August Wilson and the Stereotypes of Black Womanhood

Amelia Tatum Grabowski '13, Gettysburg College

English Honors Thesis


In his Century Cycle of plays, August Wilson tells ten distinct stories of families in or linked to the Hill District, an African American community in Pittsburgh; one play taking place in each decade of the twentieth century. Through these plays, Wilson's audience sees the Hill District and America evolve, while prejudice, oppression, and poverty remain constant. Many scholars argue that sexism provides a fourth common factor, asserting that Wilson portrays the female characters in the male-fantasized, stereotypical roles of the Mammy or the Jezebel figure, rather as realistic, empowered, and complex women. However, close examination of the women with in each of Wilson's plays reveals that Wilson does not embrace these stereotypes, but subverts them, allowing sexuality and maternity to serve a source of empowerment, not subordination and subservience. This paper will examine Wilson's subversion of the Mammy stereotype, which is particularly evident in the centrality of the maternal characters to the play's action and character development, and is underscored by metonymic relations to the ever present set. The Piano Lesson, Gem of the Ocean, and Fences best illustrate Wilson's empowering mechanisms and will be principally discussed, although the effects can be seen in each of Wilson's ten plays.