August Wilson (1945-2005)

August Wilson was born and raised in Pittsburgh. If you don't know that, you've never seen one of his plays, virtually all of which take place there. If you've never seen one of his plays, you've missed the chance to be in contact with one of the great cultural achievements of our time. Almost alone in the American theater of the past three decades, August Wilson was an artist who thought on a grand scale, who set himself an epic ambition and achieved it. Even with the tragic news of his untimely death this week, of liver cancer, at the harrowingly young age of 60, his is a success story. That destiny gave him only a few bare months in which to look back and relish his success raises his story to the level of myth.

Soft-spoken, easygoing, and modest, August was the least grandiose and least arrogant artist imaginable to achieve something so big. You might expect the man who could envision and create a 10-play cycle illustrating African American life in the 10 decades of the 20th century to be haughty, self-demonstrating, full of pronouncements about the high meanings of his work. That was not August's way. I served as his dramaturg twice, on the O'Neill Playwrights Conference staged readings of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and The Piano Lesson. In between the two experiences, he had become a world-famous writer, a Broadway success, a Pulitzer Prize, Tony , and Drama Critics Circle award winner. It did not change August. Like all dedicated artists, he was a worker and a learner, anxious to see things come right, anxious to test out any way he could help them do so. And like all the best artists, under his amiability he was a deep believer in his own sense of what was right. You could suggest any amount of revisions to him, and he would listen and reflect on them deeply. But in the end it was always vision, not revision, that counted for August. He would cut and he would reshape, but if he felt that even the smallest word was essential to a play, that word could not be moved.

This mixture of modesty and absolute self-confidence was the key to August's success: His is an epic of people, in which the grand historical movements of the larger world are not preached upon but reflected through the lives of distinct, graspable individuals, usually in an enclosed space: a boardinghouse parlor, a recording studio, a modest front yard, a corner diner. The world is vast and beyond our control, but the humans in it live for individual needs, within a constantly evolving cultural pattern. This dynamic tension between history and the individual is reflected in the plays' aesthetic tension, for though each of them has the superficial look of a traditional well-made play, each of them is really a free-flowing river of poetic impressions and musings, a point often lost on those who mistake August for (or would have liked him to be) a conventional Broadway realist. What he was really about was what all great tragic poets are about: the transfiguration of reality. This explains the mythic power of his plays to grip. Everything in a Wilson play is both recognizably real and yet larger than life, the quintessence of the paradox being the figure of Aunt Ester, whom we meet in the cycle's first play and whose death casts a shadow over its ninth. A healer whose practices belong to pre-Christian African religions, Aunt Ester is literally older than America: In Gem of the Ocean, she produces, as if displaying her credentials, a colonial bill of sale for herself.

The devastating quiet dignity with which Phylicia Rashad played that unforgettable moment on Broadway last year underscores another important aspect of August's work: Though rarely about artists (Ma Rainey, as in other ways, is the significant exception), his plays are a medium for African American art, a source of opportunity and a celebration of creativity. The speeches that distend his "well-made play" structures, jazzing them the way a great trumpet or sax player jazzes a popular tune, are unexampled occasions for great acting to cast a spell on the theater. To think of the great characters and scenes in August's plays is to think of an epic parade of great African American actors who have seized their moment to make theater history: James Earl Jones and Mary Alice in Fences, Charles S. Dutton in Ma Rainey and The Piano Lesson, S. Epatha Merkerson confronting him in the latter, Roscoe Lee Browne sagely ironic in Two Trains Running, Stephen McKinley Henderson oozing malice in Jitney, Ruben Santiago-Hudson and Lisa Gay Hamilton glaring a skyful of weaponry at each other in Gem of the Ocean. The list is long, and will get longer. There may be no new August Wilson plays (though New York has yet to see the cycle's final play, Radio Golf), but the ones we have will be back time and again.

August's faith in black America, welded at the heart to his faith in himself, put him at the flashpoint of the paradoxical position that all African Americans find themselves in: They cannot be only "African" or only "American." All of us, except the Native American tribes, know that we came here from somewhere else, but Africans came by different means, and (until the recent influx of economic and political immigrants) not of their own will. As conscious of this history as he was of his own divided parentage (his father was not only white but a German immigrant), August was driven by two partially conflicting goals: that black American artists occupy a recognized place in the mainstream, and that black America celebrate the culture it had evolved in its own communities. He wanted there to be black theaters, with all-black administrative and artistic staffs, and disdained the idea of black actors appearing in Shakespeare and other "white" European classics; at the same time (as black cultural nationalists often pointed out derisively), he saw his plays produced in the mainstream "white" theaters of the resident-theater movement and Broadway. This dilemma drew him into controversies, such as the one that led to his famous "debate" with Robert Brustein, in which, to my mind, neither side made very convincing arguments (a fact that, as a friend to both men, I found deeply dismaying). I still remember Bob Brustein declaring that every resident theater had black artists on its roster, and August replying, with well-earned rue, "generally in February"—Black History Month being when most nonprofits schedule their "token" African American play.

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