August Wilson (1945-2005)

As with other controversies that marked August's later years, his need to confront the problem of racism, and his ability to command a large public forum for the confrontation, were the significant elements. Nobody expected him, or Brustein, to offer an instant solution to an affliction that, like Aunt Ester, predates America's existence. But without August's willingness to take a contentious stand—the controversy began with a speech he gave at a Theatre Communications Group conference—the question would never have been raised. Something similar happened, with even grimmer results, when he aborted the production of Fences as a feature film, because the producers declined to hire an African American director. This was not a matter of Wilson's being a racist—he worked willingly and congenially with white artists in every capacity, and was invariably gracious in acknowledging their contribution—but of his affirming, once again, African Americans' right to a place in the mainstream, and particularly in interpreting works that were products of African American culture. My single greatest regret, apart from the personal ache I feel at his loss, is that we will never see the plays he would have written after the completion of the cycle; I had always expected—hoped?—that they would take place in the world he had experienced in his theater work, a world where black and white mingled and collaborated freely.

It was not for August to imagine a world he had not experienced. His epic is one grounded in reality; his was not the way of the fantasist. That is why he was able to laugh off the accusation that, in focusing on African Americans, his plays were "narrow" in their subject matter. People are people everywhere, but the world you know is the one you write. His models were African American artists: He revered Langston Hughes and Amiri Baraka; a major stimulus to his playwriting was his reading, in the 1960s, about the work of Ed Bullins (also the author of an ambitious play cycle) at the New Lafayette Theatre; the images of Romare Bearden wielded great influence. August's original plan for the cycle was to name each play after a Bearden painting (Joe Turner's Come and Gone was initially titled Mill Hand's Lunch Bucket). But the closed-off spirit that is the source of racism was nowhere to be found in him: Whatever he felt about black actors playing Shakespeare, he delighted in discovering works by writers, artists, and composers new to him. I once took him to a Kurt Weill concert; he was thrilled by the music, and doubly so when he discovered that the song which had moved him most, "Lonely House," had words by his beloved Langston Hughes. A big, expansive, life-loving man, August delighted in the variety and surprise of human experience, and his delight is visible in every nuanced turn of his extraordinary speeches.

Not many years ago, I had the honor of interviewing him onstage at the 92nd Street Y. When he retold the now-familiar story of his dropping out of school at 15 and spending his days in the public library, I asked him what he had read there, expecting to hear a familiar litany of African American writers. To my astonishment—the 92nd Street Y's archive videotape must show me nearly falling off mychair—he answered, "Ruth Benedict," and after I had caught my breath, we found ourselves discussing the whole panoply of his plays in the context of cultural anthropology. The scientific and systematic aspects of August's approach became abruptly visible to me: Look at the use of social-science parameters in the opening scene of Fences, or the constant playing on superstition and stereotype in The Piano Lesson. There are many such surprises still to be discovered in August's plays. In that sense, he will still be here with us, sharing his extraordinary gifts. That he will not be present to witness our joy in the discovery is an inexpressible loss to everyone who knew him, to the theater, and to America.

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